Take Down by James Swain – Billy Cunningham is the most memorable character I have read in 2018. As a professional cheater he has been successfully scamming Las Vegas casinos for years. Careful planning and an inventive mind are behind his scams. His glib tongue has saved him in many bad situations. A generation earlier he would have borne the nickname of Slick.
As the book begins Billy has just been arrested at the Galaxy Hotel and Casino where several people have been killed during a raid by the Nevada Gaming Commission. The Commission is ready to send Billy to jail for decades.
After a night in jail Billy, with some subtle assistance from the best defence lawyer in Las Vegas, offers to explain why he was in the Casino at the time of the raid. The offer is accepted. Billy’s explanation takes up the next 380 pages with the occasional diversion into his life history.
Billy, brilliant in math, is equally proficient in scams by a single person, a couple or a team.
In recent months Billy has assembled a team of cheaters to carry out complex schemes. There are a pair of beautiful ex-porn actresses to provide diversions. A pair of young grifters who are learning their craft. A veteran cheater is skilled in the manipulation of cards and dice. A former jeweler handles adaptation and/or creation of such gambling equipment as dice.
A few days before the raid at the Galaxy Billy carried out a scheme with Ly, the girlfriend of a jailed fellow cheater. She is a dealer at a blackjack table in a small casino. Using a gaffed chip, red on one side and green on the other side, they take the casino for $1,200 that evening.
Later that night an old grifter, Crunchie, who has been his friend for years tracks him down to propose a scam against the Galaxy with a huge payoff. He has a plan:
“I’ve been making a killing off a blackjack dealer at the Rio named Jazzy,” Crunchie said. Jazzy has this bad habit of rocking her hands and flashing her hole card every fifth hand. The other day I found out Jazzy left the Rio and took a job dealing at the high-roller salon at Galaxy. I racked my brain thinking of who I knew could play a whale. Then it hit me. I’ll call Billy.”
Billy is the perfect cheater to play the high roller in the plan.
It turns out Billy's trust in Crunchie was misplaced and he is forced to attempt to identify a group of modern American gypsies before they run a scam on the Galaxy. Even though his life is at stake Billy is reluctant to actually identify the gypsy scam. Cheaters do not catch cheaters. It is contrary to the cheaters code by which Billy abides.
Over the next few days Billy is continually adjusting to multiple schemes involving the Galaxy. His ability to react instantly reflects an agile mind.
It was amazing to read of the cleverness of cheaters. While casinos spend millions on security the cheaters continually evolve techniques to scam the casinos. At one end of the spectrum large sums are spent by both sides on electronic devices. At the other end is the sleight of hand of the traditional cheater.
Billy is amoral except for his crew and fellow cheaters. He has no qualms or remorse at scamming casinos. Casinos create the illusion of chance but the odds are always against the gambler.
With the importance of the gambling industry in Nevada the state gaming board aggressively pursues and prosecutes cheaters. Billy is continually fending off and deflecting both casino security and gaming board agents.
With all the schemes and deception in his life it is no surprise that Billy has no stable romantic relationship. Women are attracted to him but relationships are superficial.
I found Take Down reminded me of the cleverness and planning of gambling deception in the movie, The Sting. As we are decades later the level of violence is higher but intelligence is more important for being a successful cheater than brawn. I think Take Down would be a great movie. I am going to look for Bad Action, the second in the series when I get ashore.