‘Repeat Until Rich’: down the casino rabbit hole

As a major non-fan of Las Vegas (and gambling) I wasn’t sure that Josh Axelrad’s “Repeat Until Rich” (The Penguin Press) was a book for me.

On the surface, the true-life adventures of a professional card counter seemed like another trip to the “21” well.

Boy, was I wrong.

With wit and more than a dash of psychological horror, Axelrad puts us inside his head during the years he spent as part of a team of professional gamblers who decided to ditch their square jobs — on Wall Street and other straight business spheres — for some easy casino money.

Axelrad reminds us near the start of the book that card counting when you play blackjack is a legal activity, but the casinos frown on organized crews like “Mossad,” the unit our narrator/guide signed up with.

By forming a team and coming up with a sizeable cash stake, the Mossad group was able to absorb losses while rolling up huge wins — in the days (or hours) before a casino would catch on and ask the counters to exit their facility. Axelrad tells us of his own high anxiety at being spotted, but he is assured by everyone in the know that casinos are too straight these days to break the arm or leg of a counter before showing him (or her) the door.

The book starts as an adrenaline-fueled travelogue of Axelrad’s immediate success as a counter, rolling up shares in the high six-figures. “Repeat Until Rich” becomes a crazy trip through America’s casino culture as the team is spotted — and banned — from one gambling den after another. Now that so many states have legalized casino gambling, however, there is almost no end to the opportunities for winning and losing.

Axelrad is shocked to see people his own age — in their 20s — who gamble without a Mossad-like system for winning: “It hadn’t really occurred to me that members of my own demographic would want to hang out in casinos, in a context that didn’t involve counting. Who were these people with whom I was meant to blend in? Fraternity and jock types. Lost souls. Investment banking scum. Money sluts…I couldn’t understand them or their motives.”

Axelrad and Mossad act deranged and self-destructive in order to look like the fish the casinos are used to exploiting: “I (became) fully aware that the rare hard-core degenerate gambling addicts must constitute a crucial part of the industry’s revenue stream…They were a minority, yes, but a minority willing to mortgage their houses, to embezzle from the companies they worked for — ordinary middle-class people with losses running into seven figures.”

The author’s life turns inside out after 9/11 — the airport security crackdown made transporting large amounts of money in planes almost impossible — when he returned to Brooklyn to write about his experiences. Ironically, and horribly, Axelrad learned that he had become a gambling addict after he quickly blew all of his winnings in online gambling.

Axelrad shares with us the added anxiety he was under after he was contracted to write “Repeat Until Rich” but found the story he had sold — of his card counting “success” — slipping away as he became just like any other gambling addict loser.

The writer clearly went through hell in the final stages of fulfilling his publishing contract, but the sudden switch from up to down is what makes “Repeat Until Rich” one of the best tales of addiction — and the gambling world — that I’ve ever read.