The opening sentence of John Scarne's The Odds Against Me ( Simon and Schuster, $6.95) is. "John, che cosa fai con quel mazzo di carte?" It means, "John, what are you doing with that deck of cards?" A good question. John, age 7, was beginning to learn how to cheat. Later on, watching the card sharks in North Bergen, N.J. cleaning up in transparently dishonest games, "I was determined," John says, "to become the greatest card cheat in the world."
His autobiography is a 537-page report on his hard-earned mastery of stacked decks, false shuffles, peeks, bottom dealing, sleight of hand, magicians' tricks and carnival gimmicks, plus a report of his career in exposing tricks and his work in World War II demonstrating crooked gambling methods to soldiers and helping the Army close down crooked dives. The Odds Against Me suffers from a well-nigh fatal defect. People all sound the same: his mother, warning him against gambling; James Braddock, his boyhood friend, later the heavyweight champion; Arnold Rothstein, the gambler, who tried to hire him; Al Capone. President Roosevelt, Polly Adler, Fidel Castro and innumerable others who saw his act. But if you can overlook the phony dialogue the information is absorbing. As Orlando Carmelo Scarnecchia, the author graduated from grade school at 13, worked in an embroidery factory and ran errands for a novelty company in Hoboken that specialized in marked cards (called paper in the trade) and shaved cards (called belly strippers), as well as loaded dice, beveled dice, suction dice and cut-edge dice. Practicing for hours before a mirror, he learned how to stack a deck so that every fifth card dealt was an ace, invaluable in a five-handed poker game.
In this book you enter a strange world where people are studying how to tear phone books in half, eat light bulbs, swallow swords, make dollar bills walk along bars or, like Houdini, escape after being handcuffed, leg-ironed, nailed in a packing case and submerged in the Hudson River. The author says that if you gamble to win, "don't gamble. You cannot beat the casino percentage, the racetrack's take, the house charges." He shamelessly plugs the games he has invented, recounts in tedious detail his dispute with Dr. Edward Thorp over Thorp's system for winning at blackjack, and stops for an occasional commercial for his work as consultant to the casinos of the Hilton hotels. But his love of the art and dexterity required to be a great magician—or a card shark—and his delight in mystifying people keep his story going.