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Book Review: The Blackjack Life by Don Schlesinger and Roger Rapoport

Sometimes in life, the door opens just enough to let you peek through and see what is on the other side. For me, that door opened at a blackjack table in Las Vegas, and I stepped into The Blackjack Life.

From reading this blackjack strategy book, I learned about an exciting way to earn a living (professional gambling) and about an equally interesting human being, Don Schlesinger.

Every profession has its share of bad apples. But for a gambler, cards can be a loaded gun that can get you killed or in trouble; it is not a life for the weak-willed. If the pros are any indication, a lot of people can’t hack it.

Of the original forty-six card counters that MIT author Thorp recruited for his first book, only three were still playing blackjack when this sequel was published in 1989.

Thorpe estimated a fifty percent “dropout” rate from playing blackjack due to many factors: money losses, burnout from lack of challenge, low social status, fear of getting caught by casinos, or just plain losing interest.

The Blackjack Life captures the spirit of blackjack with the stories of several high roller pros and their ilk: George “The King” Walsh, a bookie turned gambler who is now in prison; Leo Vincent Brothers (who was shot to death in his home in 1986 for reasons unknown), the author of Blackjack Attack; Don Schlesinger, who was the former president of Caesars Palace and its casino company before he went on to start his blackjack consulting firm; and other professional gamblers such as Ron Harris, Howard “The Blade” Berkowitz, and Al Francesco.

Very few people will ever see inside a professional gambler’s life, but this book does an excellent job of showing you why that is such a challenging way to make a living. The world of the pro gambler is one where money rules everything; friendships are secondary and often short-lived; they live a transient lifestyle moving from city to city, and they are always looking for the next sucker.

A pro gambler lives by a set of rules that others can interpret as amoral or immoral. But then most people wouldn’t want to live a gambling life either, since it is also one where you work hard for your money and sometimes don’t succeed, constantly have to be on your guard and fight to hang onto what you earn (and sometimes lose it all), and are generally looked at as outcasts by society.

It is a life where you can make a lot of money but also lose it very quickly.

The Blackjack Life does an excellent job of showing the human side of professional gambling through the lives of its three main protagonists: Schlesinger, Berkowitz, and Harris. While Don Schlesinger played blackjack in Las Vegas, he almost had a nervous breakdown from the pressure and lack of sleep.

At one point, he walked away from his job at Caesars Palace when he thought that it wasn’t worth the stress and chance of getting fired, but when several patrons approached him to offer kind words, he got back on track.

Years later, while working as a consultant for the Royal Casino in London, Schlesinger heard that mobsters had eliminated his friend and mentor from Las Vegas. Shortly afterwards, his wife left him with two small children; he remarried but had more problems when his new wife left him (for a time, he dated Ginger Hollingsworth, the model who posed for Playboy and Penthouse). Then in his book, he wrote that at one point, he was on thirteen different medications.

After reading this book, you may want to start playing blackjack yourself. A great place to start learning the game is reading “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Blackjack” by Mark Piersol. If you are an experienced player already, other books are more suitable to learn advanced strategies. One of these is “Playing 21” by Karl Jensen, where he shares his insight into how blackjack is played and lets the reader in on some of the secrets he learned during his many years of play.