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Sportsbook Kings and Slot Machine Queens

Two new books offer very different tales about the perils and payoffs of gambling.

Lay the Favorite: A Memoir of Gambling and She Bets Her Life: A True Story of Gambling Addiction both deal with gambling, and each provides a unique perspective on its topic.

There the similarities end.

The former book was written by a younger author, the latter by a vet. The first title focuses on sports betting, the second on slots. One’s personal, the other practical.

Book Review: Lay the Favorite

Random House

Lay the Favorite is Beth Raymer’s easy-to-read account of the surreal experiences she had while working for a professional sports bettor in Las Vegas. The book begins with a scenario familiar to locals: A young woman moves to Vegas to be with her boyfriend; they break up; she’s left to figure out what to do next.

From there, however, events become far less predictable. The twenty-something Raymer managed to get hired by a man she identifies throughout the book only as "Dink." He’s the owner of Dink Inc. — a small, little-known sports-betting company in Vegas — where the author received her baptism by fire in the world of high-stakes sports betting.

Overwhelmed at first — the betting board seemed as "massive and complicated as the giant train schedule in New York’s Penn Station" — Raymer quickly found her footing, then stayed in the business for four years. She left Dink Inc. after a few months to take other jobs in the industry, which led her from Las Vegas to New York City to Curaçao to Costa Rica. She encountered a complete cast of characters along the way, but it was Dink’s associates who made the most lasting impression: "With just a few exceptions, these men had known each other since they were in their twenties. In New York, they had played in the same card rooms and were regulars at the track. They remembered each other’s first cars and first wives. They had watched each other go to prison for tax evasion, bookmaking, and race fixing. They’d seen each other flush at the final table at the World Series of Poker and so broke that they couldn’t pay their electric bill."

Raymer, a first-time author, also describes her forays into stripping, Internet pornography, and boxing. Her stories, characters, and perspective are unique (after 13 years in Vegas, this is the first time I’ve seen sports bettors compared with Mary Kay saleswomen), but it’s Raymer’s voice — natural, smart, honest — that keeps you turning the pages. She has a wicked sense of humor and a refreshingly positive view of Las Vegas — which, let’s face it, is probably the ultimate sitting duck of a target. Any old hack can attack "Sin City"; it takes thought and talent to defend it.

Book Review: She Bets Her Life

Perseus Books

In She Bets Her Life, writing teacher and mental-health counselor Mary Sojourner recalls the nine years she spent compulsively spinning the slots — and losing thousands of dollars in the process. Focusing on Scheherazade’s Sisters, the all-female support group the author joined when she realized she needed help to overcome her gambling addiction, Sojourner shares some devastating personal stories: K-Siu pawned heirlooms to feed her betting habit; Tiffany prostituted herself to pay off gambling debts; and slots crippled the author’s writing career.

In the strongest section of the book, Sojourner details a trip from her home to Mystic Mesa Casino — from feeding her cats (she may be gone a while) to feeding dollars into her favorite machine for lost hours on end to enduring the long, penniless drive home.

"Around two in the morning I stop," she recalls of that particular binge. "No miracle has intervened. No amount of reading the sign at the cashier’s cage that says WHEN THE FUN STOPS slows me down. None of the effects of my plummeting blood sugar make me stagger to the all-night coffee shop. I stop because the ATM tells me I have no more available funds — not just that I’ve reached my limit of daily withdrawals, but that there is no more money anywhere in my savings or checking accounts."

To Sojourner’s credit, the book doubles as a resource for female gambling addicts and their family and friends. (The author has a master’s degree in psychology.) It opens with a user’s guide, closes with a resources section, and offers plenty of practical information along the way.

That balancing act between first-person narrative and how-to advice proves to be a challenge, however, with the ultimate result that neither aspect is ever fully realized. Not only that, but long excerpts from websites and other sources tend to bog the book down.

Still, both books are solid bets. Female gambling addicts will benefit from the practical information dispensed in She Bets Her Life, while anyone who enjoys a quirky coming-of-age story will savor Lay the Favorite.

Matthew O’Brien has lived in Las Vegas since 1997. His first book, Beneath the Neon, chronicled his explorations of the city’s underground flood channels. His second book, a collection of creative nonfiction entitled My Week at the Blue Angel, comes out November 1, 2010.