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Gamblers who like the odds among men’s magazines

The concept of no risk, no reward seems hot-wired into the DNA of many American men. Actually, I suspect that the courtship of risk -- or at least the willingness to undertake great risk in the pursuit of great reward -- is neither uniquely American nor uniquely masculine. But to hear Brett Garfinkel talk, the characteristic does reach its apotheosis in the American male, ages 25 to 44. And Garfinkel expects to get rich off it.

Garfinkel is the 31-year-old, Brooklyn-born son of an oral surgeon and a schoolteacher, and right now, he’s crisscrossing the country raising money -- and courting advertisers and promotional partners -- for a new bimonthly magazine scheduled to debut next March.

The magazine will be called JAQK -- pronounced “Jack” but standing for jack, ace, queen, king -- and it will be a lifestyle magazine for high-income men, focusing almost entirely on risk and reward. Indeed, on the cover, right below the name of the magazine, will be the words “No Risk, No Reward,” and stories in the first two sections of the magazine will appear under the rubric “Risk” and “Reward.”

Gambling is one of the risks the magazine will cover most heavily. Hence its name.

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“In a sense,” Garfinkel says, “Las Vegas represents the heart and soul of what we want to do, in both risk and reward, and we hope to partner with a few hotels there and in Atlantic City in a couple of promotional ventures.”

After all, Garfinkel notes with a gleam in his eye, “gambling is a $64-billion-a-year business in this country.”

“But we won’t be just a gambling magazine,” he says. “We want to write about all kinds of risk -- about professional risk and emotional risk, about taking chances in every arena. Men are always talking about taking chances, about competing, about winning, about gambling in the broadest sense.”

JAQK will not be about physical risk, though -- at least not about taking risks for the sheer adrenaline rush, for the thrill of living on the edge, close to danger. Skydiving, bungee-jumping and parasailing will find no place in JAQK.

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“We’re not interested in people who put their lives in peril for no real reason,” says Mike Pesca, 31, the executive editor in charge of the Risk section of the magazine.

“We are interested in stories on CEOs and artists and actors and lawyers talking about ‘my biggest gamble.’ We are interested in people who take mental risks, psychological risks, financial risks -- in the stock market, at the gaming tables, in sports, in their jobs, in their relationships.”

I like Pesca’s approach. I have never understood people who jump out of airplanes or take recreational drugs or do anything else that’s physically risky unless they absolutely have to do it to save someone’s life.

On the other hand, I’m not so sure I’m JAQK’s ideal reader, since I’m not a gambler in the traditional sense of the term, and Pesca figures that a third to a half of his section will deal with gambling in one way or another -- an A-to-Z guide on a particular competition, betting on golf, stories on the highest of the high rollers, an article on a neighborhood poker game, an explanation of how casinos are “laid out to suck you in.”

And the rewards?

Easy, according to Garfinkel.

“The kind of reader we’re talking about -- the people in our target age group who make more than $100,000 a year -- never talk about taking a big chance in a casino or in some venture capital investment just so they can put their winnings in the bank,” he says.

“They want to use their winnings to take a great trip, buy a great gadget or a great bottle of wine, go to a great restaurant, buy a great car. That’s what the Rewards section will cover.”

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The payoffs

The Rewards section of JAQK will also have its own executive editor, Scottish-born Jack Wright, 37, a man who took a risk himself, leaving a career in the magazine world to run a cabana bar at a New Jersey resort last summer.

“I guess I was doing the whole JAQK thing,” he says, “and then Brett called me on my cell phone on the Jersey shore one night last summer while I was drinking and looking at the Atlantic, and he made this pitch, and I decided to take another risk.”

Now Wright is determined that JAQK’s rewards -- and, presumably, his own -- be “uncompromisingly high end.

“I can see us doing stories on traveling in the south of France on 5,000 euros a day,” he says, “or taking a two-week trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway or visiting all the best martini bars in the world.”

Wright realizes that the Rewards section of the magazine has more in common with existing men’s magazines, from Playboy to Cigar Aficionado, than does the Risk section. But JAQK won’t compete with several other men’s magazines dangling what many consider the ultimate masculine reward -- sexy, scantily clad women.

“Our reader won’t need us for that,” Garfinkel says.

Still, there’s something vaguely retro about the JAQK ethos.

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When I spoke with Garfinkel and Wright, each invoked James Bond’s “cool” and Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack as models for their content and their audience. They insisted, however, that both were “classic, not anachronistic,” even in 2003.

Taking the plunge

Garfinkel came up with the idea for JAQK while selling luxury goods advertising for Men’s Journal, where he met Wright, then the executive editor. Garfinkel already knew Pesca -- they went to college together at Emory University, in Atlanta -- and the three quickly pooled their ideas and their energy.

“I’ve been thinking of this magazine for several years now,” Garfinkel says, “and just before my best friend died of colon cancer last summer, he talked about ‘going for what you want, going for the top level. What’s the worst that can happen?’ is the way he put it to me.”

Well, the worst that can happen in this economic climate is that JAQK could go belly up -- or never get off the ground.

Garfinkel doesn’t seem worried. He says he easily raised $200,000 for the prototype, and he’s now after the $4 million he says he’ll need for the first two issues, which he hopes to publish in March and May.

A born salesman, he makes it sound as if investors are clamoring to climb aboard.

And what about readers? Will they want to shell out $5.95 a copy (or $15.99 for a year’s subscription) if times are tough?

“The people who make a lot of money don’t usually stop making a lot of money -- or spending a lot of money -- in a bad economy,” Wright says. “There are 7 million Americans in our age and income target audience. They’ll keep taking risks, and they’ll keep wanting rewards.”

Maybe so. Garfinkel, Pesca and Wright are certainly -- and brashly -- dismissive of the competition.

Pesca, for example, brushes aside Maxim as “frat-boy, pull-down-your-pants, pie-in-your-face humor that doesn’t work outside the fraternity -- or if it does, it’s a fraternity I wouldn’t want to belong to.”

Quite so.

On the other hand, Maxim now has a circulation of 2.5 million, and the equally -- and justifiably -- derided “lad book” FHM (For Him Magazine), is the fastest growing magazine in the field, up 25.7% to almost 1.1 million in the second half of 2002.

“Everyone who brings a new men’s magazine into the market says they want to do something with a little more class than Maxim, for a little older and more sophisticated audience,” says Samir Husni, chairman of the magazine program at the University of Mississippi and publisher of an annual guide to new magazines.

“But I haven’t seen one duplicate the success of Maxim yet unless it’s like Maxim, and I don’t know if JAQK’s unique selling feature will be good enough from a marketing standpoint.

“Execution is important, though,” Husni says. “That’s why I never judge a magazine before it’s out.”

Still, Husni says he likes to gamble -- he was doing so in Atlantic City when I reached him -- “and as a betting person,” he says, “I’m not going to put my money on JAQK.”

In other words, if Garfinkel and company are gambling on the good taste of the well-heeled American male, they could be in for far more risk than reward.

Of course, they could ask Bill Bennett to underwrite their entire venture.

David Shaw can be reached at david.shaw@latimes.com.


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