Review of 21 -- A Journey

21 -- A Journey
Stephen W. Custer

Reviewed by Nick Christenson,

November 27, 2005

There hasn't been much written in the last few years about blackjack. Nonetheless, there are still advantage players out there going toe-to-toe with the casinos counting cards. Stephen Custer has published his own story about his attempt to beat the casinos in 21 -- A Journey.

21 -- A Journey isn't a strategy book. It's Custer's story about his decision to move into the advantage blackjack world and the effect it had on his life. About half of this book is blackjack story, in much the same vein as Stuart Perry's Las Vegas Blackjack Diary or Barry Meadow's Blackjack Autumn. The other half is a personal narrative where the author lays out his attempts to define for himself an appropriate third act for his own life. There's less blackjack here than in Perry's book, but about as much as we get from Meadow.

I didn't really expect Custer to spend so much time speaking so candidly about his personal life. I get the feeling that his goal in writing the book was at least as much personal catharsis as it was to inform and entertain his audience. Under most circumstances I'm not a huge fan of gambling books that could be adapted into Lifetime movies of the week, but 21 -- A Journey was better than most in this regard. Custer gave us a glimpse of a life to which I believe that many advantage gamblers can relate. Moreover, I think he actually provides some insight into life, and in my opinion that makes up for a lot. If someone had told me how much of the book was devoted to personal details, I probably would have been less enthusiastic about reading it. As it turns out, though, while I would have preferred more details about playing blackjack, I enjoyed the personal details more than I would have expected.

There are some things in this book that will interest a serious blackjack player, although experienced card counters will have already encountered most of the situations that Custer discusses. I initially laughed when I read Custer's projection as to how many hours of play he thought he'd be able to get in each day, but he soon came to see why his initial projections were inaccurate. I found it interesting that the author chose to use the Hi-Opt II count mostly against shoe games. I wish he would have discussed the pros and cons of this as well. His discourse on the life of a blackjack card counter isn't very advanced or very detailed, but it is accurate.

Most books depicting the life of a professional gambler romanticize this vocation. In many ways, however, 21 -- A Journey provides a stronger argument for why folks should not become professional blackjack players. It's not that gambling causes problems in Custer's life, it's more the case that problems in his life lead him to expend considerable energy chasing limited returns at the blackjack table. Consequently, the book may not be what the aspiring blackjack player is looking for, but that doesn't mean it has nothing interesting to say.

I wouldn't say that 21 -- A Journey is a great book on the game of blackjack, but it's not bad. It's an interesting story and perspective on the game and life. The specifics of Custer's blackjack play aren't as detailed as I'd like, and there's more back story in this book than I might have expected, but it provides an unexpected twist on a familiar story. There's no real climax to the book, so even though the reader may learn some life lessons from these pages we have to wonder whether the author did. This isn't a strategic book, but beginning blackjack players and those looking for another blackjack story will probably find it worthwhile. I give it a mild recommendation.


21 -- A Journey is that rare animal, a relatively new book on the subject of blackjack. It's a story about one man's pursuit of a new career playing the game and the elements in his life that lead him in that direction. The book is not strategic, and there's more life story here than a lot of readers might prefer, but this part of the book is more interesting than I might have expected. The blackjack is pretty elementary, but what's there is at least entertaining. Some will like the book and some won't, but I think it's worthwhile. I don't think it's a must read, though.

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