Sunday, April 27, 2014

How I got into publishing

The trip to Atlantic City

On July 19, 1989 I found myself in Atlantic City for the afternoon. I had arrived by train mid-morning and had a flight home to Pittsburgh in the early evening so I had some time to kill.

Earlier in the 1970s and 1980s I had dabbled a bit with gambling, playing in a home poker game and, when living in California, some low stakes craps and blackjack in Las Vegas and Reno very occasionally. I was still playing poker at the time of this trip, but had not done anything else since the early 80s.

Still blackjack and craps fascinated me. During my visits to Vegas I had picked up a copy of Thorp's Beat the Dealer and the Gambler's Book Club's The Rules of Craps in my attempt to beat the games...I just didn't play enough to become at all proficient. So I understood the basics of the games but not the nuances.

I decided to risk $100 at $5 blackjack and $100 at $5 craps. If I remember correctly the nearest casino to the train station was Bally's so that's where I played. As I recalled I played blackjack for a pretty long time on my $100 buy-in using what I remembered of basic strategy and doubled my buy-in. Then I went to play craps and by the time I had to leave for the airport I had won about $70 beyond my $100 buy-in. In retrospect I was incredibly lucky. Had I not been, much of what follows might not have happened.

Later that evening as I was flying home on a USAir BAC 111 (just before the airline retired the last of them) and I started musing that I would really like to learn blackjack better but that I didn't want to risk money while learning. So when I got home I started looking for software to help me learn to count cards.

Blackjack Trainer

My search for training software didn't get very far. At the time all I could find a few games that did not have any real training functions. So I decided to roll my own. Also, since I had been wanting to learn to program the Macintosh I decided that would be the platform that I would use.

At the same time I subscribed to Arnold Snyder's Blackjack Forum and picked up (and studied) some books on blackjack that were, shall we say, a bit more current than Beat the Dealer. I also became active in a usenet newsgroup alt.gambling (that eventually became rec.gambling) where there was an active discussion among folks on the Internet on many gambling topics. By late 1990 I had finished the first version of my program which I decided to call Blackjack Trainer.

Blackjack Trainer let the user practice against various counting systems and it would alert when a mistake was made. It would drill the player on various hands. It also simulate the performance of various counts. I was impressed with it if I do say so myself. At some point I decided that it was a product worthy of sale to others but wanted a second opinion. So I sent a copy to Arnold Snyder for review. Not having a Mac he passed it on (with my permission) to Anthony Curtis of the Las Vegas Advisor who spent a fair amount of time with it and made some suggestions for improvement before it was ready for sale. Stanford Wong, of Pi Yee Press, pointed me to a good source of packaging. Arnold Snyder, the Gambler's Book Club and other outlets agreed to carry the program and all of a sudden I was a software publisher, albeit one without a name. I decided on a name (ConJelCo), a name which I will explain someday in another post.

Selling books online before Amazon

Over time the folks on the rec.gambling usenet group started to become more interested in poker and that game began to dominate discussions. At the time books on poker were not available by walking into your local book store. And the great online book stores had not opened their websites yet. Indeed the web was a very minor presence at the time we are talking about. One day I got the idea of contacting one of the major publishers of poker books and seeing if I could put together a group order for his books at a discounted price. The publisher agreed and I reached out the the group to see who was interested. The order was a success for all and people started asking for me to do it again. At some point I decided that this was a legitimate business and added it to what ConJelCo did on a day-to-day business. By 1993 I had and initial version of online to facilitate these sales. Unfortunately I lacked the vision of Jeff Bezos at the time. :(

Winning Low-Limit Hold'em

In January 1993 members of our home game in Pittsburgh decided to visit Las Vegas for a long weekend. When I posted a message on rec.gambling that we would be in town, it didn't take long for another group who was going to be in town around the same time to contact me about getting together for breakfast. One of the members of that group was Lee Jones a veteran of the Northern California cardrooms. While we were having breakfast Lee told me about a book that he was writing with Roy Hashimoto about how to beat the low-limit hold'em games that were so prevalent. He asked me if I'd be interested in publishing the book when it was finished. Having never published a book, and also having no idea what I was getting into I immediately said "yes" and we shook on it. The resulting book, Winning Low-Limit Hold'em, became the standard reference for beating the low-limit game and has sold incredibly well over the years. To both Lee's and my amazement it continues to sell even in the face of a shift of interest to the no-limit version of the game.

Had any of the above steps not happened, I can pretty well guarantee that I would not be writing this today. Serendipity is, well, serendipitous.


  1. Interesting story! I kind of wish I'd lost my first time at craps. It probably would have saved me a lot of money later.


    1. Thanks Tim, I've made the correction. I blame it on the spell checker/corrector.

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