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Playing his cards right

A local writer's mystery thriller based on card sharks and grifters is a done deal, including two sequels about a Palm Harbor-based casino consultant.

By JOSH ZIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 1, 2001


KEYSTONE -- It was an epic meeting between two gambling titans: Alvin "Titanic" Thompson and Arnold Rothstein, the man believed to have fixed the 1919 World Series.

As legend goes, Thompson hustled his rival out of $450,000 that day playing poker.

photo
[Times photo: Mike Pease]
Keystone author James Swain found his bag of 200 card tricks an invaluable resource as he researched his recently published mystery thriller.
In an elegant high-ceilinged living room off Lake Keystone, author James Swain unveils a trick Thompson is said to have used. His nimble fingers deal one hand that includes four aces. Then he deals another hand with four kings. Both are face down.

What happens next is invisible to the naked eye. When Swain flips the cards up, the aces and kings have somehow reversed.

"And that little trick," he says matter-of-factly, "has gained me entree with more hustlers than probably anything I do."

Swain, who is married to local community activist, Laura Swain, has a passion for writing almost as old as his addiction to magic. Not surprisingly, his bag of 200 card tricks was invaluable as he researched his recently published mystery thriller, Grift Sense.

A fast-paced story full of plot twists and colorful wise guys (and wise gals), Grift Sense also introduces Swain's main character, casino consultant Tony Valentine.

In Grift Sense, a legendary cheat thought to have been murdered reappears as the leader of a plot to infiltrate the Acropolis casino in Las Vegas. Employees help him exploit the operation's one security weakness -- the lack of surveillance of One-Armed Billy, an old slot machine with a jackpot worth $26-million.

The middle-aged Valentine, a world-weary, ex-cop living in Palm Harbor, helps the Acropolis catch the so-called "grifters."

Valentine will be featured in a series of books about this rough-and-tumble world. Swain already has written the second book, Funny Money, scheduled for release in hardback in June 2002. A third, Sucker Bet, will follow.

Valentine, he says, is not an autobiographical character, nor are any others in the 304-page Grift Sense. However, in recent years he has gotten close to the real life good and bad guys depicted in the story. The common thread? A fascination with the hustle.

Swain's contacts at Pocket Books, a division of the publishing giant Simon & Schuster, predict big success for the Valentine character. Barnes & Noble and Amazon began selling Grift Sense weeks ahead of Tuesday's official release. Reviews, from the likes of Publisher's Weekly, have looked favorably upon the plot, writing and character development.

In anticipation of big sales, Pocket Books is planning an initial printing of 15,000 hardcover books, which will retail for $23.95.

Swain's punchy style is earning him comparisons with Florida novelist Elmore Leonard. His publishers believe he has tapped into a rich subject that, while compelling to millions of people, has rarely been put to fiction.

"He really knows his stuff and he writes about it brilliantly," says George Lucas, a senior editor at Pocket Books who edited Grift Sense. "And I can't think of anyone who's in that world writing books."

Despite the new demands, Swain has scheduled the book signings around his daily job of running the Keystone-based advertising business he co-owns with his wife. Book signings in South Florida, New Orleans and Las Vegas will take place on weekends.

"I think the book will find its audience," he says.

* * *

Grift Sense took Cambridge, Mass., bookstore owner Kate Mattes by surprise. Mattes, who sells only mystery books and publishes Kate's Mystery Books Newsletter, got a shipment of 25 books and quickly started running out.

"I never heard of him before," Mattes says. "It's a very good book, let alone a good first book. Sometimes . . . you worry the best thing about the book is going to be the title.

"And I was always having the rug pulled out from under me," she says. "When I get fooled . . . and the author plays fair with me, I'm really happy."

Swain has been playing with people's minds for three decades.

The youngest of two sons, he says he caught the magic bug during a show at Radio City Music Hall. An obsessive hobby would become a profession as he started attending magic shows and taking lessons. He earned money at it during high school and college.

"There has not been a day in 33 years I haven't had a deck of cards in my hands," he says. "Even when I was sick."

Cards are part of his home decor. During a recent interview, a deck sat proudly atop his wife's Bible in the living room.

Writing remained a passion for Swain after he graduated from New York University with degrees in creative writing and American literature. But he had more success writing three card-handling books. Except for a 1989 novel, he looked at a growing pile of unpublished fiction.

Then came Grift Sense. Swain decided on a basic story line in the mid-1990s, and began writing in 1998. But the idea for Grift Sense took root in 1987, when he was introduced to the cut-throat world of casino cheats.

It began one night at the Golden Nugget Casino in Las Vegas.

While playing blackjack, he saw a man approach the table with a drink in his right hand and a fan of bills in his left. He picked up his cards to check his hand and dropped a pair back down on the table. Blackjack.

After the man left, the suspecting dealer called his pit boss, who began looking for the hustler.

Swain says he mentioned the incident to friend and mentor, Mike Skinner, who was the house magician at the Golden Nugget. Skinner explained that the man had hidden the blackjack cards in a Teflon-coated pocket between the bills. As he looked at his hand, he hid the dealt cards and dropped the winning hand.

For Swain, hustling was a fascinating criminal twist on card handling. Though he doesn't condone cheating, Swain admits to more than a grudging admiration for people with the brains to defeat an industry that has the law of averages decidedly in its favor.

Swain began searching out hustlers, which wasn't easy. They eschew the spotlight. But once he convinced them he would not blow their cover, Swain found a subculture of professionals eager to lift the veil on their swindles.

Like the blackjack player, especially those skilled at counting cards, hustlers work alone or in well-trained crews. "They could be you. They could be me," Swain says. "They look at the world differently." Steve Forte, a casino consultant who was once a professional gambler, received an advance copy of the book. Calling Swain "an amazing sleight of hand guy," Forte said his depiction of casino cheating was "right on the money. The biggest scams, and always the biggest scams, will be the ones involving inside collusion."

* * *

Swain said Grift Sense was destined for the "anonymous" pile until his wife saw his first draft. Her comments changed everything.

"She came into the room," he said. "She was holding a page, I remember it vividly, page 72. "You know this minor character, this Tony Valentine guy? You ought to make it your main character. As a matter of fact, I think you could write a whole series of books on him.' And the whole book changed."

Chris Calhoun, Swain's literary agent in New York City, says he is fielding inquiries about silver screen possibilities for Grift Sense. But, for now, the focus is on the book and sequels.

"I believe it's going to be a best-selling book," he says. "If it gets made into a movie, that's fine. That would be gravy."

He says Swain's contract is in the "six figures." That doesn't include royalties on sales.

Lucas, the editor, says Swain's friendly personality and card skills should help promote the book.

He recalled introducing Swain to a hard-to-please crowd of Pocket Books bigwigs while negotiating a contract for books two and three. Then Swain took his cards out. The rest, Lucas says, was history. "He had them eating completely out of his hands."

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