Interview: Josh Axelrad, author of Repeat Until Rich

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

By Lewis Schiff

“Implosion may have been an unavoidable step in the creative process for me.”

Josh Axelrad, author of Repeat Until Rich, seems to have one overarching goal: to live differently. In a fast-paced true-life tale of his five years as a professional blackjack player, Axelrad, a native of California turned Brooklyn hipster, has found himself walking around with tens of thousands of dollars strapped to his leg in such Godforsaken places as the swamps of Louisiana and, of course, the deserts of Las Vegas. His wigs and guises have included drugged out homosexual and mysterious music producer, all in a plot to shake the man off his tail on the casino floor.

It’s normal to have a fear of a regular job and a predictable routine but Axelrad, whose Columbia University degree was supposed to lead him towards a more constructive role in society, has a pathological response to routine and commitment, ultimately leading him to a gambling hell hole known as Internet poker. From there, we have a front row seat as he reckons with his post-collegiate life choices.

Repeat Until Rich evokes the spirit of Gonzo journalism. Grip the sides of your seat and prepare for take-off. If you want to know what might have happened had you chosen the road less traveled, consider Axelrad your tour guide.

Over Memorial Day weekend, I talked with Axelrad about his journey from obsession to addiction to publication.

<em>Photo by Paul McGinnis</em>

Photo by Paul McGinnis

This book takes place all over America. Where are you this Memorial Day weekend?
Williamsburg, Brooklyn, three stories up. Windows are shut, the A/C unit is set to fan only on my right side, to my left a second fan facing away from me is also going, and, because the audio vacuum I’m trying to create using the above-noted implements isn’t quite sufficient—I don’t quite have that highly desired illusion that all humanity save for myself has been annihilated or voluntarily exited—I’m also wearing headphones and playing white noise downloaded from, on a loop. Trying to write. I’ve been checking my email.

You wrote this book in Southern California and Brooklyn mostly. Which is more conducive to writing?
I also wrote a good portion in Russell, Kansas, in a basement, and in my aunt’s nice house in a suburb of Denver. The basement was the worst place to work. Brooklyn was the second worst. Colorado was the best for me.

What was it about the suburbs of Denver that worked for you?
There were two big dogs. Dogs seem to understand what you’re trying to accomplish in front of that laptop. They were the right kind of company during the working day. By night, there was a jovial and beer-intensive dinner with my aunts, followed by an early bedtime. So I didn’t fret or get depressed the way I can with insufficient social interaction, but the interactions were efficient. Nothing too late and no hangovers.

You portray Vegas as a soul-sucking atmosphere. When was the last time you went to Vegas and what was that like?
[Axelrad responded with what is essentially a short essay in response to this question. It's terrific—read it here.]

How does a California kid—from Orange County, no less—turn into a cross between Woody Allen from Bananas and Dirk Benedict from The A-Team?
Semitic roots help for the former, unaccountable bloodlust for the latter.

I met a guy at a party, is how I got into all this. He was talking blackjack and I was looking for a wormhole out of the seeming purgatory of working for a living and being a U.S. citizen as normally defined circa the late 1990s.

You had many close calls during your days as a professional gambler. And yet, the worst-case scenario never happened—you never got your ass kicked or got busted by the cops. What might have become of you if it had? Were you ever on the brink of becoming a real badass? Or were you just slumming?
The direst risk in that the universe is psychological, not physical. Psychologically, I wasn’t slumming. Physically, in blackjack, the risk is negligible. It’s not as negligible as it would be if you weren’t transporting cash on your person—cash transportation is the source of the risk. Beyond that there isn’t any risk. The mob is not going to break knuckles. There is no mob; it’s a myth.

Procrastination is inherently self-destructive for any writer. Do you think getting a book contract and making a binding commitment to finishing a major writing project put you into a search for a self-destructive behavior that would suck up all your time? In other words, did your publisher turn you into a compulsive gambler?
It’s my publisher’s fault. I’m sure there’s a lawsuit in this.

Truly, the poker might well have happened had there not been a book contract. I don’t know. I do know that I felt a contract of that magnitude was undeserved and confounding, and whatever tendencies toward evasion and procrastination I had already in my character were certainly intensified by it. At the same time, as much as my writing was impeded by the contract (or by my reaction to same), I don’t take it for granted that I would have written any book at all in the absence of that kind of pressure. Implosion may have been an unavoidable step in the creative process for me.

Are you still in touch with your old gambling gang? Are any of them still at it? Or is it EOS (card-counting talk for “End-of-Session”) for your counting team, Mossad? How about for professional card-counting in general?
I’m in touch with many of them. None is a full-time blackjack player these days, but a couple play poker for a living. A few hit the blackjack tables periodically, if only to keep the bastards on their toes. Conditions for professional blackjack, and especially for our style of team play, are poorer than they were ten years ago.

Your card-counting mentor and team leader, “Roth,” seems awesome. When they make a movie out of Repeat Until Rich, who will play Roth?
Lakers coach Phil Jackson? Is that an option?

It’s your call. Finally, Josh Axelrad, what’s your Six-Word Memoir?
Las Vegas is somehow still standing.

Lewis Schiff knows what it’s like to follow your dreams into a pit of hellfire. His last book, The Middle-Class Millionaire, which pulled back the curtain on the world of new American wealth, came out just months before the financial world fell off a cliff. He is currently writing a book about how rich people got that way, based on interviews with 400 wealthy families.


READ Axelrad’s response to Lewis Schiff’s interview question about the author’s last trip to Vegas.

BUY Repeat Until Rich.

VISIT Josh Axelrad’s blog.

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