Repeat until Rich
Josh Axelrad

I first read this book a couple of years after it was published in 2010. Back then I found it a struggle to get through, due to the author's style and habit of including lots of superfluous verbage. I've read it again recently, and frankly it wasn't any easier second time round. My problem possibly - stemming from an expectation that a story that has card counting as its central theme would be presented in a pragmatic, unflowery manner?

"Repeat until Rich" is a recollection of an unsettled, disaffected graduate of Columbia University in New York, who joins a card-counting team and spends the years from 2000-2004 making his living from playing Blackjack across the United States. During that period he clocks up an impressive $700,000 in winnings.

The book contains little personal or family background, and there's no mention of what he studied at University. I've since found out that he majored in philosophy. Why anyone would spend an arm and a leg on a university education centred around this, and where you might expect a philosophy based degree to take you after you graduate is beyond me (although I appreciate the world needs a smattering of philosophers at any one time). I suspect he may have been one of the many young people who elect to attend university - to study something, anything - in the absence of any immediate aspirations when they leave college.

After graduating Josh ends up working at a large banking group on Wall Street as a "Business Analyst" (banking and philosophy, go figure?), although his tenure there is, unsurprisingly, short-lived - he elects to leave the mundane in anticipation of receiving an invite to join a team of card counters, despite admitting to being one of life's numerically challenged and still struggling with some of the fundimentals of the Hi-Lo counting system (ie calculating the true count) even after some months of practice. He recounts that, after walking out on his job and ditching his regular income, he had "beer and insouciance, patience, credulity, cash". Just as well then.

Three months into unemployment he receives his call to be "checked-out" by a team of card counters, an opportunity brokered by a friend, and having met the required standard for keeping the running count is signed up - a fortnight later he's on a flight to Las Vegas for the purpose of being broken in as a spotter for the team. The trip lasts a week, after which his efforts at the felt are remunerated with a $1,300 share of the profits. From that point on he's hooked.

The remainder of the book is devoted to a variety of incidents from his time playing blackjack professionally, with mind-boggling commentary and nonsense observations littered amongst the interesting stuff: being barred from just about every casino in Las Vegas, touring widely in search of profitable playing conditions, the inevitable games of cat-and-mouse played with casino "suits", endeavouring to avoid "heat" wherever he went and being detained by the police while they decided whether card-counting is illegal or not. Finally, after his blackjack gig is over, he writes about falling victim to an obsessive relationship with online poker and of losing $50,000 before getting on top of it and calling it a day. He doesn't really analyse why this happened, and what took him from being an advantage player to a compulsive gambler, but simply records episodes that occurred during that time and of his struggle to become "clean".

Any highpoints to commend in the book? Chapter 14, "A taxonomy of heat", is a sound synopsis of this aspect of an advantage player's lot. Chapter 28 gets off the ground too. The not so good bits? Hmmm . . . a large proportion of the rest, elements of which look to have been written with the able assistance of Señor Marijuana. An example would be Chapter 22, which is all of 52 words in length (?) and contains his sentiment ". . . I fucked up that teller at least", "I showed her the Spirit of Rock" - which relates to a brief interaction with a clerk at an out-of-state bank where his request to make a $5,000 cash withdrawal was declined. What's all that about? And then there's a description of a female employee of another bank, with the considered and crucial observation she was ". . . wearing clothes that looked bought in a store rather than found in an alley." No shit Sherlock? This sort of rambling, together with the light touch approach around detail throughout the book (ie card counting; how it works and why it works, game conditions etc), could well leave the reader thinking that "Repeat until Rich" is a fictional tale, written by someone with a preference for the abstract and just enough knowledge of the subject to turn out something on demand. I should add for balance that the book does become an easier read as you make progress towards the rear cover (the final chapters don't grate) and does include an appendix summarising all of the different aspects of card counting to be mastered. A shame that you find it after you've read everything else - there's no reference to it within the index and it does look suspiciously to have been tagged on at the end as an afterthought.

Overall then, this one'll probably tick the box for those people who don't mind reading through copious amounts of irrelevent and superficial narrative included in the name of style. If you prefer to read about real-life adventures described in a straight-forward, no-nonsense, manner it's probably best to give it a miss - or get in the aspirin. But that's my view. Looking at the Amazon review page for "Repeat until Rich" it's clear that lots of people really rate Mr A's first literary effort, so perhaps the best course of action is to grab a copy and be your own judge?

Having put the cards behind him, Josh Axelrad now writes for a living and has appeared on stage as part of the offerings of "The Moth", an arts organisation based in New York that hosts events where writers present their work to live audiences. I've listened to two of his more recent pieces he's read there (podcasts), and I have to say that his presentation at the mic is, thankfully, a far cry from his debut work-in-print.

November 2014.