Is the novel autobiographical?
The short answer: Raven Townsend is good-looking, has jet-black hair, brown eyes, and is a babe magnet. Unfortunately, I am none of the above. However, there are some similarities that were drawn from real life: Like the protagonist, I grew up in Maine, went to a conservative college, and first learned about card counting by reading a magazine article in the library featuring Ken Uston.
Any other similarities?
A few. I was the proud owner of a fake Rolex for a number of years and did count down a deck in practice once in eleven seconds. However, most characters and events in the book are either composites of people and their experiences or entirely fictional. For instance, while my hometown church did indeed burn down, I was not around at that time.
Is Vinalhaven a real place?
Yes, it is an island off the coast of Maine where my father was born. Iíve only been there once and am not aware of any actual connection to the marauding Viking warriors.
Did your real life father use the eccentric animal analogies so common in your book?
Not at all. My dad was much nicer, better looking, and more of a babe magnet than the one in the novel.
Iíve never heard of a casino called THE SWAMP.
THE SWAMP is a fictional composite of three actual casinos, one with a shift manager who didnít believe card counting worked. He offered a winner-take-all freeze-out on several occasions.
Are you as athletic as the protagonist?
I only wish. I did run in high school and played basketball in college but displayed the breakaway speed of Raven only when closely chased by security guards.
Did you have a large sum of money confiscated by Southern cops?
No, although I know others who have.
Were you originally planning on being a Biblical archaeologist?
At times in my childhood, I did imagine myself finding something great like Noahís Ark, but I never seriously pursued it in life. I did study for a while in Israel, which influenced that section of my novel.
How accurate is the description of team play in your novel?
Very. Tall spotters work extremely well in the crowded casinos and verbal signals are surprisingly simple and difficult to detect if done correctly.
Is it rare to get kicked out of the casinos?
Actually it occurs a little more often than Iíd like. Personally, Iíve been shown the door over 200 times in casinos all over the world. Iíve lost exact count somewhere along the wayówhich is somewhat ironic for an author who wrote a book called The Counter.
What counting system do you use?
I started with Uston APC, but have played most of my career with Hi Opt II. Recently, I switched to the Zen count for shoes games, as I tired of side counting 24 aces on my feet.
Making a living from gambling sounds pretty cool.
It certainly provides a unique icebreaker at parties. I usually get two types of responses: One is the ďWow, you must lead a James Bond-like existence.Ē Well, I donít look quite as good as Sean Connery does in his tuxedo, although I must have his animal magnetism around females since my cat loves me. The other and more common response is ďMartha, hide the kids, thereís a professional gambler living in our neighborhood.Ē
How much money have you made playing blackjack?
Iíve made more than a mailman and less than Mike Tyson. Card counters are like professional boxers who are often misunderstood because they earn big paydays simply by landing a few punches or biting an ear. In the same way, many of my so-called friends expressed bitter jealousy over the years, no doubt envisioning me poolside at Caesars Palace while they shovel snow off their car to drive to their miserable jobs. In reality, playing blackjack for a living is very hard work. This incredible lack of respect for my profession may compel me to write my next book on the mating habits of northern moose. Perhaps then Iíll finally receive the worldwide admiration Iíve always deserved.
Your book shows winning blackjack players getting roughed up by casinos. Does that ever occur?
I have been handcuffed, strip searched, thrown out of my room in the middle of the night, dragged against my will (and against the law) through casinos, and once had my life threatened in a back room. All of this harassment resulted simply because I used my brain and skill playing blackjack in a completely legal manner. However, to be fair to the casinos, these examples are the rare exceptions and almost every barring has been done in a courteous and polite way. They just didnít want to lose any more money, and I can live with that. But being treated like a criminal for card counting is a great injustice.
Like Raven, did you literally jog from casino to casino?
Yes. I normally wore a nice sweat suit with zippered pockets to hold cash and chips. Running proved much more efficient for the quick hit-and-run style I employed in the mega-casinos.
What is the strangest thing you have ever seen in a casino?
Once while playing in the Orient, I was barred after only a few hours. The pit boss was very polite and apologetic, then incredibly returned the small amount I had lost playing in his casino! It was so bizzare, I decided against using it in my novel and instead filed it under the truth is stranger than fiction department.
The seventeen-card cut sounds very complicated. Did you actually do that and were you successful?
I never even tried it. A friend of mine, who was probably the worldís best hole card player, used it for a while in Reno with a fair degree of success.
What books would you recommend to learn card counting?
First of all, I wouldnít recommend anyone try it. Iíve been very fortunate and successful in my career, but it is an extremely difficult undertaking. There are many more who fail and lose than those who actually become winning players. However, if you do want to give it a shot, I can tell you who helped me the most. Initially, Uston and Wong provided the most influence. Later, the mathematical insights of Snyder and Griffin greatly helped me in selecting the strongest games. And most recently, Iíve gleaned a lot from the excellent work by Schlesinger and Carlson.
Several times your novel touched on the subject of creation. Do you personally believe in that?
Yes. There are many things about God and the Bible I still donít quite comprehend, but I do believe firmly in an intelligent design behind the universe. I recommend Michael Beheís excellent book, DARWINíS BLACK BOX, for more information on the irreducible complexity of the universe.
Is your conclusion that religion and gambling just donít mix?
Not at all. I just hope readers are moved to reflect on the roads they have traveled in life and consider whether they made the wisest choices and what their legacy might be. Randy Alcornís novel, DEADLINE, really forced me to take a long, hard look inward and see how little Iíve accomplished of lasting value. I personally have many regrets over the numerous mistakes Iíve made in my journey and hope to use my remaining time on this planet trying to make a difference with my life.