Gambling Book Reviews

Here are my reviews of some of the most popular gambling books on the market that I have read.

This was a well-written, unexpectedly great book which detailed the history of the rise of corporate casinos. The first part of the book opens with a brief primer on Las Vegas history and then gives a detailed look at Circus Circus. The rest of the book focuses strictly on the operations at the Luxor. The author had very liberal access to inside happenings at the casinos, which gives the stories a sense of intimacy compared to most biographical works. Interspersed among the casino narratives are personal stories about various Las Vegas characters, like: casino employees, dealers, hookers, show girls, high rollers, and cab drivers.

It should be noted that the story is more of a business biography of two particular companies (Circus Circus and the Luxor) as well as the casino industry in general (specifically the super casinos). This made the book fascinating to me but, since I am a business person, I was totally biased. I loved hearing about the business side of casinos - from the micro issues of optimizing slot machine payout ratios and maximizing hotel occupancy rates to the macro issues of managing the construction costs of casinos, which ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars (now over a billion). The construction and renovation stories will particularly appeal to Donald Trump fans who like to read about real estate issues like budgets, permits, contractors, and deal-making. For those that aren't into the business side of things, the book may read more like a casino operations manual but I think the business lessons (like management, entrepreneurship, customer service, and partnerships) are broad enough that they will still appeal to the general reader. I think the book's focus on the business side of casinos was, at the same time, a mature decision to stay away from mobster stories.

To me, the heart of the book is about the people. I love when I read a book about a well-known topic that I think I already know the story to, only to find out that there were key players and subplots that were completely unknown to me. The McDonald's biography ("McDonald's: Behind the Arches"), which detailed the financial wizardry of Harry Sonneborn is a good example. In Super Casino, these people were: William Bennett, William Pennington, Jay Sarno, Glenn Schaeffer, and Tony Alamo. The book also manages to satisfy readers' want for some coverage of the newer players like Steve Wynn. It's rare that a book allows outsiders to enter this kind of a private world and view the inner politics with such clarity.

Some readers had a problem with the book's structure, feeling that the random stories were not related to the main theme. Personally, I love when an author weaves different stories into one book, even if the stories don't provide any synergy. The personal stories included here allowed the readers to take a break from the more technical aspects of the business-focused story and gave the book emotional balance. The heart of the book is the relationships of the power players, anyway. I don't expect the supporting stories to have some type of greater purpose and the author doesn't waste my time by pretending they do. Other readers thought the personal stories were clichés (the hooker, etc). Well, it's been said that there are only about 200 (or so) unique sitcom plots, even though sitcoms have been popular for decades now. To me, hooker stories are like sitcoms. The stories are all the same but they never get old.

Some readers didn't appreciate that the book ended without detailing the rise of the casinos as a family destination. But there is no need to go into the Disneyland-ification of Vegas. We all grew up with Ronald McDonald. There are no inside stories to tell. Readers should be able to imagine that stuff for themselves.

Other readers criticized the book for its focus on Circus Circus and it's lack of attention to the other big casinos and players (including Wynn). Other than the practical limitation of not being able to get an insider's view of every single casino, the birth of the super casino was ignited by the decision by Circus Circus to move away from being a grind joint and appeal to the mass market. After that, it was just a matter of the other casinos replicating the strategy. In Vegas, things always get bigger, but nothing new is ever really created, as another astute Amazon reviewer pointed out; so there is no need to waste ink on "me too" stories.

In April 1998, Andrés Martinez withdrew $50,000 from the bank - most of the advance he was paid for the book - and boarded a plane to Las Vegas and was told by the publisher to stay in Las Vegas for a month to gamble with the money and write about it. I had low expectations for this book (mainly because I had never heard anyone ever mention it) but the clever premise of the book, the energy and comical sense the author, and the down-to-earth writing style keeps you entertained.

Martinez didn't play too many games and spent most of his time playing baccarat. I partly appreciated the concentration on baccarat since I didn't know much about the game. But I was initially annoyed that he didn't play poker at all - the game that has the most colorful characters. I now think this was a serendipitous decision since there are so many great books that carry blackjack and poker war stories. The blackjack and poker worlds both have particular cultures filled with rich histories and interesting characters. If Martinez did end up writing about these worlds with the same thin observations that he used in the rest of the book, he probably would have embarrassed himself. If he purposefully made a decision to avoid those games, I now think it was a smart one.

One thing I didn't like was that Martinez seemed like a non-gambler - like gambling was something he didn't really even enjoy doing. This was apparent in the first week or so that he spent there and his bankroll was still around $48,000 - not too exciting. He positioned the book as a story about being a high roller but it seemed like he didn't know what that even meant. It was clear that he realized that he was being too conservative in the beginning and decided to step on the gas later on. It was almost like it took him a couple of weeks (half the book) to actually fit into the role of the person he was pretended to be.

To me, some of the experiences seemed forced, which is why the book has a lot of filler. In some books, authors feel forced to write about experiences they've had. Here, it's the opposite. The author feels forced to have experiences in order to have something to write about. He also, at times, tries too hard to be funny. He tries to augment the gambling stories by chronicling his interaction with the characters he runs into along the way. But most of these people were semi-interesting at best.

The book is about Kevin Lewis, an MIT student who gets recruited to play in the famous MIT blackjack card counting team. OK, now let's get to the point.

This book is horrible in every way possible. The immature, melodramatic prose is awful. The characters (the heart any any good story) are completely flat and have no depth. There is nothing written about anything or anyone other than the surface story. And all of this is magnified by the fact that many of the details were fictionalized. The readers' annoyance is augmented by the author's unapologetic attitude about the books shortcomings. It's such a shame because the book could have been great if it was written by . . . well . . . almost anyone else. The good news is that this book is (unbelievably) still immensely enjoyable to read because it has a very engaging story which was then fused with Mezrich's addictive dumbed-down writing style.

This book provides behind-the-scenes stories and anecdotes about Las Vegas from the 70's and 80's. Barney Vinson relays his entertaining experiences with casino players and management. The stories in the book are old but timeless. It's not written very well but it's a quick and easy read. And every loves crazy stories about Las Vegas.


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Gambling - Book Reviews

HPG ADMIN on March 1, 2013