Rick Lax spreads a deck of 52 cards across a table in the patio area of a west valley bagel restaurant and tells his visitor to pick a card.
Two of clubs. "Don't take your eyes off the card," Lax says as he slips it back into the deck, mushes it up a few times and reveals -- whoa -- the two of clubs.
It's a classic, and deftly done, magic trick. But at its core, the trick -- and, if you think about it, all magic -- is about deception. And deception is something Lax knows about, not just because of his lifelong interest in magic but because he has spent the better part of the past three years immersed in deception for his latest book, "Fool Me Once: Hustlers, Hookers, Headliners and How Not to Get Screwed in Vegas" (St. Martin's Griffin, $15.99).
Lax, 28, admits during a recent interview that the title -- which conveys the notion of a practical how-to guide for patrons of Las Vegas' seedier arts -- is, itself, deceptive.
While "Fool Me Once" offers a surprising amount
of factual information -- Lax is a demon for footnotes and actually finds ways to make them fun to read -- the book turns out to be a witty, impressionistic trip through Las Vegas and the varieties of deception that thrive here.
"When we were coming up with a subtitle, we really said, 'What is going to sell the most books?' Well, people like the words 'hooker' and 'hustler,' " Lax says. "So, yes, it is an unapologetically deceptive title. If you flip to the back of the book or read a couple of chapters, it will be instantly clear that it is a memoir and not a how-to book."
Magic -- deceiving willing audiences for amusement -- is as good a place as any to begin a discussion about deception, and Lax's interest in that deliberately deceptive art began when he was a kid.
"Some of my first memories are going over to my grandparents' house, my father's parents," he says. "They had the best collection of David Copperfield VHS tapes in the world. I'd go over and watch them again and again and again."
By 5, Lax was buying tricks at his local magic store -- he grew up in suburban Detroit -- and later would turn pro by performing at kids' parties, table-hopping at restaurants and, during college, doing magic "for drunk people at frat parties, where the bar is really low."
And, Lax notes, "when you do magic, you get used to deceiving people. It's in a very specific context, but when you do it enough you can see how easily people can be fooled."
There is, he admits, "an appeal to deceiving people and getting away with it.
"In the book, I write about dressing up as an 80-year-old man with this very realistic prosthetic mask. And this is a type of deception that wouldn't hurt anyone but, as you're doing it, you still feel this naughty thrill. You get that a little bit with magic."
After earning a degree in political science, Lax wrote his first book, "an expose of Mensa, the so-called high IQ society. It was fantastic, and absolutely no one bought it. It was a year of rejection."
Then, after initially resisting his father's suggestions to enter law school -- mostly because his father is a lawyer and an independent-minded Lax wanted to follow a different career path -- he did go to law school and found it a good fit. He graduated, passed the bar exam and got his first published book, the humorous memoir "Lawyer Boy," out of it.
But Lax never got around to practicing law because he already had landed a deal for his second book, the one that would become "Fool Me Once," and moved to Las Vegas to work on it.
One motivation for Lax was the experience of a woman whom he was dating toward the end of law school. Long story short, the woman had unknowingly taken a sketchy job as an alleged paralegal with an intensely creepy and potentially dangerous scam artist. It was, Lax says, "a very freaky situation.
"So, I have this background in this very safe type of deception, magic, but then this happened and it was also a big case of deception, but it was a much real-er example. That's part of the reason I wanted to move out here, just to learn about this other kind of deception, because there's so much here in Las Vegas. There are so many different types of deceivers."
The Strip's magic shows, of course. Poker, in which deception is key to the game. Gambling in general, where the iffy promise of winning is fun for most but, for others, can lead to a serious gambling addiction, Lax says.
"There's deception in the sex industry," Lax continues, where dancers try to make guys believe that they're truly bonding over that lap dance.
"There's deception in the bar and club industry," Lax says, where "the subtext is, if you come to our bar or our club, and if you pay a $50 cover or if you buy a $500 bottle, you're gonna get laid tonight, you're gonna sleep with a really young, attractive woman -- maybe one of our servers, even -- and that is so far from being true."
And, Lax adds, "there are a lot of hustlers out here."
Three weeks ago, while heading back to the Midwest for a book reading, Lax met a girl at the airport who was returning home after having come to Las Vegas to live with a man who held himself out to be a modeling agency owner. And consider it an omen that one of the first things Lax saw after moving here was a three-card monte game on the Strip, given an even more deceptive twist by a confederate who looked, to cash-laying suckers, just like another tourist.
Granted, other places do deception, too. But, Lax says, "we've really perfected it."
Lax is no Puritan railing against the evils of Las Vegas, and his book is way too entertaining to resemble a scholarly treatise. In fact, as a staff writer for Las Vegas Weekly, Lax even spends a lot of his time on the Strip and in clubs, enjoying the deliberate artificiality of Las Vegas, and his skewed but appreciative fondness for the city is apparent in "Fool Me Once."
"I hope it does come out how much I like it here," Lax says. "I was only supposed to be here a couple of weeks or a couple of months, but it's three years later and I'm still here by choice. I click really well with the city."
He'd even agree that the more benign deceptions Las Vegas offers can, indeed, be entertaining.
"For a lot of people, it can be entertaining and nothing more," he says. "You can see a great magic show and you can gamble -- and some people do win -- every now and then.
"It's fun to be taken for a ride," Lax says, "as long as the ride is not too long or too far."
Here are some other recently published books written by Southern Nevada authors or which involve Southern Nevada-related themes.
"The Color of Night" by Baltimore novelist Madison Smartt Bell (Vintage Books, $15, to be released Tuesday) explores violence in America through the eyes of a Las Vegas blackjack dealer.
"Forgotten Man: How Circus Circus' Bill Bennett Brought Middle America to Las Vegas" (Stephens Press, $29.95) is Las Vegas author Jack Sheehan's biography of the mogul who created a resort niche on the Strip that's now taken for granted.
"Homeless in Las Vegas: Stories from the Street" by Kurt Borchard (University of Nevada Press, $24.95) explores homelessness in Las Vegas through interviews with men and women who live on the valley's streets.
"How to Play Craps By a Las Vegas Craps Dealer" (iUniverse, $9.95) offers advice by Jack Salay, who has 28 years of experience in the gaming industry and currently works at the MGM Grand.
"I Can Hear the Applause: Adult Language ... Some Nudity" by Lisa Medford and Jeanne Gulbranson (CreateSpace, $18.95) is Medford's memoir of life as a showgirl during "the extravagant Mob-owned days of Vegas."
"In My Shoes" by Adrian Stephens (Stephens Family Media Group, $17.29) is a young adult-friendly novel about what happens when a boy and a girl find out what it's like to be in each other's shoes.
"In the Midst of Cowboys, Crooners and Gangsters" (LifeStories, $18.95) is a memoir by Elaine Cali McNamara, who moved to Las Vegas as a teenager in the '70s and, in the book, recalls life in Las Vegas when it still was pretty much a small town.
"Letters From Frank: An American Terrorist's Life" by Ingrid Holm-Garibay (Dorrance Publishing Co., $27) chronicles the Las Vegas resident's correspondence with a man whose crimes included sending a bomb to the White House.
"Lies Within Lies: The Betrayal of Nevada Judge Harry Claiborne" by Michael Vernetti (Stephens Press, $28.95) explores the controversial case against Claiborne, the former Las Vegas defense attorney who became the first federal judge to be convicted of a crime (tax evasion) while on the bench.
"Lucky Stiff" (Forge Books, $24.99) is the second entry in Las Vegas novelist Deborah Coonts' offbeat mystery series about Lucky O'Toole, beleaguered customer relations head at the Babylon hotel on the Las Vegas Strip.
"Mortals & Deities" (Imagined Interprises, $18.99) is the second volume in Maxwell Alexander Drake's "Genesis of Oblivion Saga" fantasy series.
"Obama: Our National Nightmare" by Summerlin author Nelson Anderson (HAS Books, $14.99) offers a critical look at President Barack Obama from his childhood to his tenure in the White House.
"The Perpetual Engine of Hope: Short Stories Inspired by Iconic Las Vegas Photographs," edited by Geoff Schumacher (CityLife Books, $14.95) offers seven short stories by local authors that take classic Las Vegas photos into unexpected territory.
"Shane Victorino: The Flyin' Hawaiian" (Triumph Books, $24.95) is former Review-Journal staffer Alan Maimon's biography of the three-time Gold Glove center fielder, 2009 All-Star and, with the Philadelphia Phillies, 2008 World Series champion.
"The Showgirl Next Door: Holly Madison's Las Vegas" ($29.95, Stephens Press, available April 15) is the "Peepshow" and "Holly's World" star's guide to her adopted city.
"The Sordid Secrets of Las Vegas" by Quentin Parker, Paula Munier and Susan Reynolds (Adams Media, $14) is subtitled "247 seedy, sleazy and scandalous mysteries of Sin City," and even locals might find a few that are new.
"Surviving the Mob: A Street Soldier's Life Inside the Gambino Crime Family" by Dennis Griffin and Andrew DiDonato (Huntington Press, $14.95) is DiDonato's story of his criminal career, which ends with him being sought by both the police and his friends.
"Throw It Down: Leaving Behind Behaviors and Dependencies That Hold You Back" by Jud Wilhite (Zondervan, $14.99) is the Central Christian Church senior pastor's guide to finding one's way clear of addictions, dependencies and negative behaviors.
"Vice: One Cop's Story of Patrolling America's Most Dangerous City" (St. Martin's Press, $26.99) is Las Vegas resident and former Compton, Calif., police Sgt. John R. Baker's memoir of policing that city.
Contact reporter John Przybys at email@example.com or 702-383-0280.