Comped
Bill Kearney

Although Comped is a work of fiction, it's heavily based on the personal experiences of the author during the early 1980's in Atlantic City. In 1978, the State legislature passed a bill that would allow casino gambling in the state of Pennsylvania, and the foundations for the luxury casino hotels that were to go on to dominate the area were dug out shortly afterwards. By the early 1980's the gaming floors were open for business. This is the fictional tale of a successful young man, who had built up a very respectable pile in just a few years manufacturing childrens clothing (and keeping a sizeable chunk of his turnover off the books), and how he blew the lot, and more, in less than a year in the blackjack pits of AC.

The principal character of Comped is Richie V, who originates from a modest low-eco background in Philadelphia, left school without too much to show for it but upon whom fate smiled. After leaving school he pulled a job working in a successful rag-trade business, and through a combination of his streetwise demeanour and hard graft ends up taking it over - paying for it on a deferred basis out of future profits - when the owner retires. As an added benefit, he also gets to marry the boss's daughter. As time goes on the business continues to make bundles and he expands into the retail sector where customers pay in cash, thereby reducing his reliance on his wholesale customers and uncertain cashflows. Certainly a case of "the boy did good" and the future looking to be a rosy one.

However, although this is a story of Richie's decent into spirals of compulsive gambling, self-destruction and doom it's very hard to feel any sympathy for him - the author has pitched him as a vulgar, twenty four carat egotistical prick of the highest order, and his failure to accept any responsibility for his own demise leaves you shrugging your shoulders. Just another chump with more money than sense. When his wife finally walks out on him, his attitude that of course she'll get back with him (what else is she going to do?), despite his actions leading to their family home, and every penny they had, going off to pay his gambling debts, just adds to showcasing his arrogance - that and his constant remonstrations when in residential therapy that he didn't think he had a compulsive gambling problem despite all the evidence to the contrary. I don't know to what degree Richie V is a mirror of Bill Kearney, although it's clear from the photo on the back cover of the book that they do have at least one thing in common - I've always maintained never to trust a bloke who uses a hair dryer . . .

After Richie V gets the casino bug, he teaches himself to count cards at the blackjack tables, and with this new skill and a substantial pile of undeclared cash to hand he's all set to take the houses of chance in AC to the cleaners. Or so he thinks. Although he becomes proficient at counting the cards and keeping the running count, there's no indication within the story that he's covered all of the other stuff that goes with it, and it's clear that he's constantly over-betting his bankroll and advantage. Buying in for a hundred and fifty grand, and betting in multiples of ten, only provides for fifteen units, and as anyone who has played blackjack knows fifteen units can disappear in the blink of an eye (regardless of their $$$/£££ value). Taking up a line of credit of $100K, and betting in multiples of $5K, carries similar high risks of tapping out, and it's inevitable that doing this will end in tears - and debt. It does, and towards the end of the story Richie V has five unsettled markers for $100K each with five different casinos, which are eventually handed over to a debt collection agent to pursue. Despite the fact that he was told he'd been clocked counting at the tables, doing it badly is more than likely the reason the casinos let him play on rather than bar or flat bet him as a risk to their bottom line. Perhaps if he'd done the AP thing properly, and they had, it would have done him (and indeed Bill Kearney) a big favour?

This is what the story is all about really; how those who run the houses of chance tempt in the arrogant, weak, gullible, numerically challenged, greedy etc who have money to burn with offers of generous comps and lines of interest free credit - in the hope that a percentage of those who succumb will catch the bug and end up paying for their comps many times over. I did wonder about the naivity of his wife when he was "comped" a suite of rooms on one of his weekend junkets, and she and her family friends all took advantage of the free "Dom" and dining in the finest restaurant in the house. Did she not think about just how much action her old man must have been pushing across the felt in order to warrant such treatment? Simply asking at the Reception for the rack-rate for the suite might just have caused the penny to drop? I'm told that thirty years on since the time when the story was set, and of Mr K's experiences, although comps have been heavily reined in for the average low-end recreational punter, anyone putting up six figures on a regular basis can still expect to receive the same sort of treatment in Las Vegas and Atlantic City - possibly an indication that the formula still works (from the house's point of view of course)?

What about the book itself? A paperback of 448 pages (with tight 5mm margins), it runs on a bit and is, IMHO, longer than necessary. The first seven chapters (68 pages) focus on the principal's early life; school, jobs after leaving school, starting to work at the garment factory, taking over the business and expanding it yada yada. It's not until chapter eight that Richie accepts an invitation to join his former boss at a hotel casino for the weekend - all expenses comped - and is introduced to the delights of the gaming floor and the game of blackjack. Personally, I think all of this could have been summed up in a single chapter. The principal's narration of the story is coarse and unsophisticated; he refers to unknown members of the fairer sex as "broads" as a matter of course, and the commonly heard generic insults from the other side of the pond of "cocksucker" and "motherfucker" appear regularly. Again, whether this is by design or simply a reflection of the everyday language used at the time by the author is an unknown.

What I found particularly distasteful is the author's preoccupation with the race and ethnicity of the characters in the story, and the constant and unnecessary references to them, ie ". . . He was one of the Jews, who never left his old neighborhood in South Philly" . . . "His wife was Italian, and he used to say that his kids were "Jew-Whoppies", (page 99). What this is all about is a mystery, and one can only infer that the author has a hangup about people's ethnic backgrounds for some reason?

Overall, although (IMHO) not particularly well written Comped's worth the time if you like reading about casino action at the high-roller end or you want a guide on how to bankrupt yourself within 12 months. Contrary to the author's assertion that the story is about how casinos are the source of the principal's downfall, it seems in fact to be his own greed and stupidity that opens the door to his demise - and the addictive/obsessive behaviour that leads to his ultimate ruin simply followed him through it to the gaming floor and the "Baccarat" (read "high-roller") pit.

Bill Kearney's experiences are from thirty years ago and are now history - something that's behind him. He now has another life and family and makes a crust as a mortgage broker. He's an active campaigner against the expansion of casino gambling, for stringent restrictions on their activities (ie casinos shouldn't be able to allow patrons to gamble on credit) and for the state legislature to dismiss moves to allow the casino industry to expand in his home state of Pennsylvania. His twitter feed can be found at https://twitter.com/kearneybill, and contains some news stories he contributed to in Feb 2014. The Amazon page for Comped can be found at https://www.amazon.com/Comped-Bill-Kearney/dp/0970834403.

If I was handing out brownie points for the books I review, Comped would get three out of five from me. Something that's OK, but it's unlikely I'll wade through it again.



June 2017.