Tony Valentino - Retired Cop with "Grift Sense"
(Reviewed by Hagen Baye MAY 7, 2005)
Loaded Dice is the fourth book in this fine series by James Swain that features his fictional character Tony Valentine, a retired Atlantic City cop who helps casinos catch gambling cheats. Tony is a tough, yet likeable, street- (and casino-) smart kind of guy with a terrific intuitive sense about cheaters and scam artists, honed during his years policing Atlantic City’s casinos. Soon after he and his beloved wife retire to Florida, his wife dies. To keep occupied, Tony starts a consulting firm named Grift Sense to serve the legitimate gambling industry. "Grift sense" is a hustler’s term for someone who has a special knack for picking out cheaters. And casinos pay Tony big bucks to help them catch cheats who have fooled their in-house security staff and surveillance devices.
Loaded Dice finds Tony in Las Vegas checking on his nere-do-well only child, Gerry. Gerry finally commits to change his crooked ways and go legit, due to his love for his wonderful wife and in anticipation of the child they are expecting. Tony agrees to let Gerry join his firm and sends Gerry to Vegas to a card counting school for training that will help him spot card counting cheaters. While in Vegas, Tony has his hands full on several fronts:
First, a bag belonging to Tony, containing thousands in gambling chips, is found at a murder scene. The victim is a stripper, suspected by the FBI in its post-9/11 surveillance of Las Vegas, of laundering money for terrorists. The stripper’s boyfriend, a married Metro LVPD officer, is the first to find the body and the bag and vows revenge against Tony. This pits both this crazed guy and the FBI on Tony’s trail. (Tony is also under suspicion of being unpatriotic by the FBI due to a letter he wrote opposing a FBI proposal to have casinos profile Mid-Eastern gamblers. Tony wrote that that would be a waste of time, given the number of Mid-Easterners who reside in this county.)
Second, Tony saves a woman named Lucy who threatens to jump from a top floor terrace of the Acropolis casino. The Acropolis is owned by the “hard-headed little jerk” Nick Nicocropolis, one of the numerous colorful characters created by Swain, who installed toga-clad statues of his voluptuous ex-wives in varying erotic poses in front of the Acropolis. Lucy was despondent over the $25,000 in blackjack winnings stolen from her. She said this money was going to help her get her life in order. Lucy is a “slot queen” but a mere blackjack beginner, so her winnings are suspect, not explained by beginner’s luck or an incredible run of good luck. Lucy reminds Tony of his late wife and there is the possibility of romance, despite all of the signals pointing to something fishy about her. Is this a rare lapse of judgment on Tony’s part?
Third, Tony learns that the FBI has sprung his nemesis, Frank Fontaine, from jail, where he was serving a 30-year jail sentence for murder. Frank was freed because he is a master at cracking complicated codes, and the FBI need him to help them decipher coded messages sent by suspected terrorists. However, Frank is a master “crossroader” (i.e., one who rips off casinos for a living) who not only cheats to win but to put whole casinos out of business. Instead of assisting the FBI, Frank orchestrates a massive scamming operation against the Acropolis, which includes the use of innocent parties (so-called “takeoff agents”) like Lucy. The operation is so successful that Nick appears to have little choice but to close down. Frank was working for the owners of the casinos on either side of the Acropolis who want to put the Acropolis out of business so a moving walkway can be constructed to provide easy access for players to their places. Can the Acropolis be saved?
Finally, there is Gerry, whose intentions to go straight are hindered by the mountain of debt he is laboring under. He has maxed out ten of his credit cards, is in default in mortgage and car payments, owes something like $50,000 and is bouncing checks left and right—leaving his pregnant wife at home to fend off creditors and collection agents coming out of the woodwork. At the card counting school, he teams up with a pair of brothers and they make some money together by cheating at gambling. Gerry offers to share the inside information he will soon access from his work with his father in return for a third of their collective take. FBI agents are anxious to question him, for, among other things, the gun used to kill the stripper suspected of money laundering was purchased by Gerry’s credit card. And Gerry learns too late that the brothers are up to serious no good, that they are using him to assist them to get away with murder and worse and that his life and all of Las Vegas are at risk. Once again, Tony races to the rescue. Will he be able to save the day?
James Swain is a superb storyteller and he uses that ability to convey his expertise about gambling cheating through Tony Valentine in an entertaining, and even educational, way. Besides a good read, readers get the inside scoop into the ways of gambling cheats, about what scammers do to gain an advantage over the house odds, which unfettered should result in the gambler’s odds worsening the longer a gambler plays. A reader will learn about such cheating concepts as “splashing,” “putting the eye to sleep,” the “zero shuffle,” “nail-nicking,” “flying under the radar” and more. One will also learn about the frequent role of employee collusion in cheating. Now, the series’ books are not training manuals for gambling cheats; a reader will not be able to go to Atlantic City, Las Vegas or Biloxi and walk away a winner because of what is learned from Swain’s books. No, but it will open a reader’s eyes to the cat and mouse games played between cheaters and casinos and make the gambling experience that much more interesting.
- Amazon readers rating: from 31 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Loaded Dice at RandomHouse
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
Tony Valentine series:
- Grift Sense (2001)
- Funny Money (2002)
- Sucker's Bet (2003)
- Loaded Dice (2004)
- Mr. Lucky (2005)
- Deadman's Poker (2006)
- Deadman's Bluff (2006)
- Wild Card (2010)
- Jackpot (2010)
Jack Carpenter series:
Magic Stand-alone thrillers:
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- Official website for James Swain
- Book Help Web review of Grift Sense
- Otto Penzler's review of Grift Sense
- BookReporter.com review of Mr. Lucky
- Curled Up review of Midnight Rambler
- MostlyFiction.com review of The Night Monster
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About the Author:
James Swain is considered an authority on crooked gambling and casino scams. He lives in Odessa, Florida, with his wife, Laura.