The real deal
James Swain and his series character Tony Valentine, an ex-cop who makes his living exposing casino cheats and gambling-scam artists, made a splashy debut in the 2001 book Grift Sense, which received terrific reviews. The critics went even wilder for the next year’s Valentine, Funny Money. Now, with the series’ third book, Sucker Bet, readers, reviewers, and fellow writers are proclaiming that Swain (who’s also a celebrated card handler) and his character Valentine are—every pun intended—the real deal.
TOM NOLAN FOR MYSTERY SCENE: When you do book signings, it seems, you also demonstrate some of the tricks and scams in your books. How does that work?
JAMES SWAIN: I have a whole demonstration that I do, at stores that have me do talks. I bring cards, and I show card scams, chip scams. For the particular scam in Sucker Bet, Big Rock/Little Rock, I actually have a marked deck. So I demonstrate it, and then I show that the cards are marked. I show the actual manipulation, which is very slight, I mean it’s just a matter of turning over one card instead of another—but how that is practiced, so that both the movements look uniform. When it was first shown to me several years ago, I was clueless. I didn’t know what was going on. And I think the reason is, when you play blackjack, you really concentrate more on your own cards, because that’s where you think you’re going to win the money. So you don’t pay attention to how the dealer is turning over their cards.
Have you ever done this for a living?
Uh, no. I mean I’ve gambled; I’ve gambled since I was a kid. But I’ve never cheated. I just became fascinated with it. I was a professional magician, many years ago; I’ve always been interested in sleight of hand. And—not to brag, but in the world of magic I’m pretty well known for my sleight of hand.
I didn’t mean had you ever cheated; I meant, have you ever exposed this sort of thing?
No. No. I wish I was Tony Valentine. I had a friend who is in the business send me a videotape once of a guy who was cheating, and he said, “Watch it, tell me what you think.” I called him back and I said, “You know I’ve watched this thing many times, and I can’t figure out what he was doing.” And then I told him what I was looking for. And my friend said, “You’re lookin’ at the wrong guy!” The thing that I find so fascinating about this world of crime is that it’s invisible. It’s sort of like rigging a sporting event. In the book, there’s a basketball game that’s rigged, and that’s the way they really do it!
You can beat any game. But the key is to beat it in a way that looks legitimate. These crimes sort of parallel so many cons and scams that we see in normal life now.
One of the fun things I did with Sucker Bet was talking to con men. One of the old con men said to me, “You know, this ain’t no different than Enron.” He said, “Look what they did: you have to have somebody who’s going to be a booster, somebody who’s going to bring you in and say that you’re a good guy, you’re an upstanding citizen.” He said, “Well, they used analysts. And then they make you a promise; the promise is always too good to be true, and they build your trust—that’s why it’s a confidence game: you get their confidence, their trust.” And he said, “And then you leave ’em holdin’ the bag.” In the last three years, I’ve done an analysis of the cons that we’ve seen, like Worldcom and Enron—and they really follow the structure of the classic confidence games.
I was born in Long Island, New York—Huntington, Long Island. I grew up there. I got very interested in magic when I was young, specifically sleight of hand. I saw a man do a sleight-of-hand magic act when I was a kid, and he just floored me. Never forgotten it. And when I turned 12, my folks said, “Okay, you really want to learn how to do this, go do it.” So I took lessons. At the time when I was learning, specifically with cards, there were men in New York who would come to the magic shops, who did phenomenal sleight of hand. They weren’t magicians. And I was told that these guys actually did this in games. So I had very early exposure to cheats. And many of them were nice men. You know? They taught me really terrific sleight of hand.
Then I kind of put it out of my mind. I went to college at NYU, and I was bound and determined I was going to become a writer. I studied with Ralph Ellison, and a man named Anatole Broyard. Broyard was a great writing teacher; he taught me an awful lot. So when I got out of school, I became a magazine writer; I worked for Times Mirror magazines, and then decided to switch because there was so little money in it, and went into ad sales for magazines. And the magic helped me with that.
Well, I knew how to talk to people. I’d been talking to people my whole life, through the magic. And it was a great icebreaker. You know, you take a client out to lunch, and make something disappear on the table, and...
Get an account out of thin air.
Exactly. But I kept writing, working on books and doing articles and stuff. So I kind of had these parallel lives, in writing and in sleight of hand. In 1987, I saw a scam at a casino in Las Vegas: I actually saw a guy switch a hand, during a blackjack game. I couldn’t believe it! He won like 750 bucks. I mentioned it to my friend who worked at the Golden Nugget, and he said, “Well Jim, last week we had a group of cheaters switch a blackjack shoe on the table.” Everyone was involved: the dealer, the people who were at the table. They stole $175,000, and they got away with it.
I became from that point on sort of obsessed. First of all, I couldn’t believe you could do this, with all the cameras and all the surveillance. I started to learn how this worked. I started to collect scams and the little that was written about them. There had been some videotapes produced by people who were cheaters. Then I met two people who were cheaters, both retired, what hustlers call crossroaders: they had actually gone and cheated casinos. “Crossroading” comes from the old poker cheaters in the Wild West; they would pick saloons that were at the crossroads of a town, so if they had to make a hasty getaway, they’d jump on their horses and all go in different directions. You know—good thinking. I also met people who cheated in private games.
For ten years I collected these things. And all this time I was trying to publish novels; I’d written several novels which went unpublished. One day my wife said, “Why don’t you write about those casino scams that you keep talking about?” She said, “Everybody loves when you talk about them, and you obviously know a lot of them.” I thought about it. At that time, casino gambling was exploding in the United States; this was 1997. The Indians were starting to open up casinos, and New Orleans was going to open a casino.
Detroit. Another in Chicago. We have now 38 states that have legalized casino gambling. And 300 Indian reservations! And we have cruise ships: Caribbean, Puerto Rico. So it’s everywhere. It’s the single biggest pastime in the United States. Seventy-five million people will place a bet in a casino this year. So I said, “Okay, I will. Good idea.” And this character of Tony Valentine got created.
I had read everything in the field and seen all the movies about this subject matter. And the drawback to me was it was always from the point of view of the cheater. And the reality is, this is a crime. It’s a bad crime. You can glamorize it as much as you want, but...you’re stealing.
The Valentine character was a way that a person who might not be interested in gambling—who might not ever want to set foot in a casino—could read about it, learn about it, and not have to see it from the point of view of the bad guy but the point of view of this person who has “grift sense.” That was the other thing that was pointed out to me: that there were people—not many, but there were people—who had grift sense, which is the ability to spot a scam or spot a hustle. And that’s how Valentine was created. I will be doing quite a few of these books. I just finished book four in the series; that will come out next year. It’s been, for me, a wonderful marriage of the two things that I love: the writing and the sleight-of-hand scams. In the last six years, on top of the scams, I’ve learned about all the different surveillance techniques, the equipment that’s used to catch the people, and the psychology of the cheaters; that’s something that Valentine gets into in the books, now. Again, I see so many parallels to other things that are going on in society that I think make good reading. I guess the other thing is that I think the books are fun.
How did you choose the name “Tony Valentine” for your protagonist?
I think it describes him perfectly, because he’s kind of crusty; he’s a misanthrope. But when you get past that, as my agent says, he’s really a sweetheart; he’s a good man. I also purposely made him Italian, because when I grew up, the Italian-Americans really felt slighted by the film The Godfather, which is one of my favorite films of all time and also my favorite book. But they felt that it gave working-class Italians a black eye. So when I started out with this, I said, “I’m going to make him Italian.”
Your writing seems so effortless. Do you find it easy to do or hard?
It’s very hard to do. I spend about a year on each book, and each book goes through many many drafts until it has the pacing ... I kind of challenge myself with each book, to get it better, and better, and better. Also, you’ll probably notice in my books, I don’t do a lot of “he said,” “she said.” Because if you paint that character correctly, you know who’s talking ... Someone asked Mark Twain why The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was better than his other books, and his comment was: “I didn’t let my style get in the way of telling the story.” I have that printed, where I work.
How do you find out about these scams you put in the books?
I have two really fantastic sources who are retired crossroaders—one of them who also cheated in private games—who allowed me into their lives when they read Grift Sense. One of them was nice enough to actually sell me his entire library of notes, everything he’d collected over a period of about 30 years. He said, “I think you’ll have some fun with this.” Some of these people have painted these masterpieces that they can never talk about! And being I’m hiding them through fiction, I’ve learned some really wonderful things. I have enough material now to do probably another eight or nine books. As I said, I’ve just finished book four—and it’s one of these deals where, the more you learn, the less you know. Because there’s just so much out there. I was asked this question the other night: what writer really influenced the kind of books you’re writing? I realized it was Sherlock Holmes—the Conan Doyle books—because those books are about thinking. I like things where you’re made to think; you can engage the reader that way.
Were you encouraged to write as a kid?
Yes, I was. I wrote short stories when I was in high school; and I had a wonderful writing teacher, a Southern lady named Kitty Lindsay. Miss Kitty had written for Playhouse 90; she and her husband had been a very successful team. She gave us probably the best advice that you could give a beginning writer. She was from Virginia, and she would say: “Who aah these people, and why should we cayuh about them?”
At NYU, did Broyard and Ellison know one another?
Very well. Do you know the secret of Anatole Broyard?
Yes. (Broyard was a light-skinned African-American whom most people assumed was Caucasian.)
None of us did; no one but Ellison did, at the school. You may have read the piece about Broyard that was in the New Yorker?
I wrote a letter that was published about that piece.
I saved that, too!
Broyard taught me how to write a sentence, and Broyard taught me how to read a book....
Do you see your Valentine series as being open-ended?
Right now I see it as open-ended. This book that I just finished is a prequel to the other books. One reason for that is that Tony Valentine is a wounded male. He lost the love of his life. Who is she? Why is this so important to him? So, sometimes you have to go backwards to be able to later go forward. I met a cheater who had worked Atlantic City in 1979 and 1980, and he said to me, “Jim, it was a candy store! We had stuff happen, and stuff that we did—it was incredible!”
And bingo: I had the book in my head. Because I also knew that there had been a serial killer then who had been going into the casinos in Atlantic City and picking up prostitutes, pretending to be a tourist.
This is true?
Yes. So, here was the opportunity to write this crime book that showed Valentine becoming a casino cop. When I got into it, I realized what I really needed to do was explore the relationship between him and his wife. So the readers who have read the earlier books—or even if they haven’t—could see how important this woman was. What’s ended up happening is that I’ve almost created a whole new series. Valentine is 38 years old, his relationship with his wife is extraordinary—it’s like my relationship with my wife, and I could spend an hour talking to you about how she’s influenced me in getting these books right.
His son is only 13 and they have a very unique relationship before his son becomes what we see today. And he’s still a cop. He’s learning, through grifters and through crossroaders. But we’ve figured out, in doing the book—because I did many drafts of it—that the only way Valentine could become this super casino cop is because he was a great cop, a great detective. So we get to see his detective abilities. I actually spent time and talked to a number of detectives who would fit this bill.
The series has now become open-ended, because I will do books in the present and then I will periodically go backwards. There are some wonderful scams that happened in the late ’70s and early ’80s which could not happen today because of technology, but they make great reading. I’ve got five more already planned.
The Tony Valentine Novels
Grift Sense (2001)
Funny Money (2002)
Sucker Bet (2003)
Loaded Dice (2004)
Mr. Lucky (2005)
Deadman’s Poker (2006)
Deadman’s Bluff (2006)
Tom Nolan is the author of Ross Macdonald: A Biography and the editor of Strangers in Town: Three Newly Discovered Mysteries by Ross Macdonald (Crippen & Landru).
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Summer Issue #80.