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A winning strategy for gamblers: Read first

Reading in Las VegasReading in Las Vegas: It sounds like a movie parody, but plenty of Vegas-style reading can be found at Gambler's Book Shop.

"A little place of logic and calm in the midst of a maelstrom of the turbulent atmosphere of gambling," proprietor Howard Schwartz calls it.

The book shop sits anonymously along a boulevard of shopping centers, far from the Las Vegas Strip. It's home to thousands of titles on everything from horse racing ("Blinkers Off"), to poker strategy (Doyle Brunson's venerable "Super/System") to the history of dice ("Dice: Deceptions, Fate and Rotten Luck," by Ricky Jay). Not to mention that 1933 classic, "Cheating at Bridge."

There are books on mob history, software to teach video poker strategy, and videotapes to enlighten viewers about "tells" -- players' expressions and ticks that betray the cards they hold.

Smart gamblers, Schwartz says, "read before they act. The not-so-smart ones at least understand they need a book after they lose, so it helps you understand why you win, why you lose and maybe why you gamble."

Although it sells new merchandise, the store has a used-book shop feel, with narrow aisles, fluorescent lighting, wooden shelves built onto the walls and, above those, framed photos of prominent gamblers. Employees-only back rooms are filled with tall shelves holding tomes on casino management, rare volumes from the 1870s on horse breeding and boxes of pamphlet-size gambling primers.


Schwartz is wiry, in his early 60s, with alert eyes and a manner that's at once soothing and exasperated, like a counselor on a suicide hotline who thinks some callers are whiners. He says some of his regular customers are "impetuous -- sometimes like children, sometimes adults." He calls gambling a merry-go-round -- a pleasant place to spend a short time, a lousy place to live a long life.

He has a measured way of speaking that brings to mind the character of Dr. Sidney Freedman, the psychiatrist who appeared in a dozen episodes of the "M*A*S*H" television series. Schwartz mixes psychological insight with gambling advice as he does his best to align gamblers' expectations with reality.

"We're here as disseminators of information, with a little bit of feeling for people with these great dreams," he says. "I try to tell them: Bet with moderation. Understand that you've got to get off the merry-go-round. You're not supposed to stay in Disneyland for a week. You're supposed to have some fun and go back and smell the roses. And understand what money management is, and how good people win, and what kind of discipline you need to beat whatever game you're playing."

Schwartz started working for the shop 25 years ago, when founders John and Edna Luckman hired him to edit two magazines the store published. The store's original name was Gambler's Book Club, and the Luckmans envisioned it as a place where gamblers could meet, discuss their avocation and buy books about it, without feeling ostracized. Since then, the store's name has changed, the Luckmans have died, and now Schwartz runs the place.

Before he started working at Gambler's Book Shop, Schwartz had been an aide to Ralph Nader, a medical science writer, a journalist and a reading teacher. Now he blends the skills he used in his former careers: He's a consumer protector (he won't stock a book if it's hokum), a book reviewer and catalogue writer, and an adviser. ("I'm no genius with mathematics, but I can recommend you to the correct book or the right person.")

Some of those recommended books have been published by the store. In the early years of the business, John Luckman sought gambling books whose copyrights had expired, then he printed and sold new editions. He published primers with names such as "The Facts of Blackjack," and was the first publisher of David Sklansky's pioneering book, "Hold 'Em Poker," in 1976.

Nowadays the most popular titles are about poker, video poker and sports betting. Each pastime appeals to distinct personality types, and Schwartz waxes poetic when he describes the variety of the store's customers.

"You get all these strange characters -- the geniuses, dreamers, funny people, movie stars, writers, aspiring gamblers. All of them come in like they're visiting some merry-go-round. It's everybody. There's people like these little old ladies who want to learn how to play video poker or improve their mah jongg game or play hearts or canasta or darts or whatever it might be."

The store's influence extends beyond Las Vegas to Hollywood. Schwartz and his employees have consulted movie productions. Robert Altman's people wanted to know how a 1930s craps table would have looked for the film "Kansas City." Producers of two Wyatt Earp movies wanted to know how a game called faro would have been dealt, and the makers of a movie about Wild Bill Hickok wanted to know how 19th-century five-card stud players would have held their cards.

Someday Schwartz would like to indulge his enthusiasm for history and take a gamble of his own -- far away from a casino.

"I'd like to go out with a metal detector and go looking for buried treasure in Bedford County, Virginia," he says. "One of the most famous treasures in the country may be out there and people have been looking for it for 100 years."

Another career in a varied life.




-- Posted: May 13, 2004
Read more stories by Holden  Lewis
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