Book review: The Blackjack Hijack

My reposting of reviews continues. This one is a real gem. If you don’t believe me, look at the cover:


Click through to look at the big version of that if you don’t believe me, but yes, that is JFK and, yes, he does figure into the plot. Is he the BP on the count team? You’ll have to read on to find out.

By a strange coincidence, I’m meeting Ed Thorp today. I don’t think that this book is going to come up in conversation, but if it does, I’m covered.

Charles Einstein. The Blackjack Hijack.
Greenwich, Connecticut: Fawcett Books, 1976. Paperback, $1.50

In the 1960s, with Ed Thorp’s publication of Beat the Dealer, there burgeoned an optimism in the hearts of gamblers everywhere: the casino could be beaten. Sure, for most suckers the odds were in the houses favor, but it made sense that really smart people could somehow think a way around the house advantage. After all, the people running casinos weren’t rocket scientists, and rocket scientists had invented Tang and sent men into space (and, by the end of the decade, the moon). Scientists and engineers were inventing new things all the time: transistors, eight-track tapes, new plastics; it made sense that they might invent a way to break the casino.

Most of these hopeful gamblers didn’t count on two things: first, that casino managers were neither as benighted as they had assumed, nor would they sit idly by while cash flowed out of the casino; second, that the odds of casino games had been honed over hundreds of years through empirical observation. If a game could be consistently beaten, like faro or poker, it was either banished from the casino, or played so that the casino had no direct stake.

Still, as an old song whose author and performer currently eludes me said, “I can dream, can’t I?” People like to dream, and imagine that even if they, with their limited brainpower, bankroll, and physical courage, can’t break Las Vegas, a fictional hero might. So is born the “math whiz beats Vegas” genre.

The Blackjack Hijack, though, is a definite genre mixer, combining “math whiz beats Vegas” with 1970s disaster movie (the eponymous “hijack.” But the book doesn’t stop there: it throws in a bit of everything: a faked suicide, apartment living in Las Vegas, and of course the obligatory love interest. There are even musings on comparative civil engineering and subway construction in San Francisco, New York, and Montreal.

But what truly sets this novel apart from others of its ilk is its improbable linkge of the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy with one man’s plan to strike it rich through blackjack. The cover image shows the expected blackjack hand, rather amusingly retouched. The top half of the jack is a mustachioed gunman, visibly irate at his bad 1970s big hair, while the bottom is “Jack” Kennedy himself. I ususally say that the truth is stupider than fiction, but this might be exception that proves the rule.

The plot isn’t much: Harry Allen, structural engineer, finds the perfect betting system, which involves multiplying his base bet by ten at set intervals. Though he is in communication with the book’s narrator, a newspaper columnist who has published a book on card counting, he “doesn’t have to count cards for the system to work.” You read that right. The great secret to winning at blackjack isn’t card counting, which actually has solid math behind it, but getting the right betting system.

Don’t ask me why, but Allen is motivated by the Kennedy assassination to develop this system, create a dual identity, and then, years later, “commit suicide,” only to reemerge in Las Vegas.

Interesting cultural history stuff here, as we see what Las Vegas casinos were like in the early 1970s (at least in the author’s perception), and what it was like to move to a small apartment back then. Apparently it was no problem at all to pick up soon-to-be divorced hotties before you even got your TV hooked up.

By the time the book gets around to the hijack, there’s something like 40 pages left, and it seems like something of an anti-climax. It’s interesting, though, to see how calm everyone is about the hijacking, and how the hijackers have simple demands–a definite artifact of the world before 9/11.

I probably should say here that, like many of the “casino caper/beat the casino” novels I read, there seem to be major holes in logic. I’d have to say that the likelihood of a simple betting “rhythm system” letting someone parlay a $41,000 bankroll into $500,000 within forty days is pretty small. Then again, who knows? But I’d bet even money (if I were a gambling man) that, if this rhythm system really did work, the author would have made a half-million himself, invested it, and sat back listening to Robert Goulet records (yeah–he also references the Camelot soundtrack a few times) instead of going through the hassle of writing a book, getting it published, then selling it for $1.50 each.

All in all, I’ve got to say that this wasn’t the most far-fetched casino-beating novel I’ve read, just one of the weirdest. The funny thing is that James Swain’s Loaded Dice vaguely retraces Einstein’s steps, tying a Vegas card-counting scheme to a terrorist plot. That book’s burning up, with a whole slew of positive reviews (including mine, though I had a few reservations). My guess is that thirty years from now it will seem about as foolish as The Blackjack Hijack does today.

Bottom line: If you’ve got some time to kill, pick this one up and read it, if only for the nostalgia/amusement factor. On the positive side, amazon is selling used copies for “as low as 17¢.” On the negative, it is time that might be better spent. I’d have to say that this one is only required reading for a) people researching 1970s attitudes towards blackjack or hijacking or b) Kennedy assassination completists.

Originally posted in September 2004

Author: Dave

Director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and author of several books, including Roll the Bones: The History of Gaming. Also Gaming and Hospitality editor for Vegas Seven magazine.

One thought on “Book review: The Blackjack Hijack”

  1. I suspect your review is better than the book. My favorite gambling narrative is American Roulette by Richard Marcus. Here’s my review:

    On a different topic, although Ed Thorp is best known for Beat the Dealer, still in print, he also wrote a classic among investors called Beat the Market, out of print, and I would be fascinated to know how he would update his theories, which made him a wealthy man.

    Thanks for an entertaining blog!

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