Professional cardsharps are like vampires. They fascinate you with their charisma and their supernatural dexterity. But you don’t want one to cross your path at a card table. Come step forward into a world of secrecy, intrigue and shadow.
Cheating is employed to create an unfair advantage at the expense of others. It implies deliberately breaking the rules.
The reason for this is that it requires an extremely high level of skill. Professionals make a living from it and can clean up any table of novices or serious players with the use of their abilities. But fantastic sleight of hand alone is not sufficient, even though it is a prerequisite. Something else is just as important: guts and confidence. There is a huge difference between practising at home and executing a move under fire. Only pros frame and sell the play unnoticeably and without hesitation.
If professional cheats are scarce, amateurs are numerous. They often come from the world of magic with two or three gambling moves collected from books or videos. They show great self confidence and superiority, deliberately impressing their friends with their skills. Their technique is poor and easily detectable by any serious player, but they get away with it most of the time in casual games where players have no idea that cheating exists. They have guts, even though they will not venture into a serious game. Showing off their superiority or gaining money fosters their courage. Professional cheats get their confidence from their own dexterity.
Professional cheats and magicians have two common points: they work with the same materials (cards, dice, chips, etc.) and they are real sleight-of-hand artists. But they are worlds apart in every possible way.
Magicians only exist in the light, whereas cheats live in the shadow. The magician practises and performs for an audience to gain applause, reputation and eventually money. The cheat practises and performs only to get money.
Professional cheats excel and outshine magicians in card manipulation. Some cheats are particularly gifted, and some train 365 days a year to acquire undetectable techniques with a deck of cards. Cheats are specialists, and cards are their bread and butter, whereas magicians cover a much broader scope (balls, cups, ropes, mind-reading, illusionism, etc.).
Some magicians have specialised in gambling techniques and have reached a remarkable level. But their moves often lack naturalness, or they execute techniques never used by cheats. Plus, performing gambling demonstrations in front an audience cannot be compared to real work.
Just like magicians, cheats often specialise in a particular domain to become masters. One of the most difficult techniques is riffle stacking. Done perfectly, there is no way you can suspect that the deck is being stacked. Masters in stacking are called run-up men. There are also those who specialise in switching cards in and out of play. They are hold-out men. Paper players specialise in marking cards, base dealers in bottom dealing and the list goes on.
Cheats rarely work alone. Big action often brings what we call crews, a cheating organisation.
The roles are clearly determined just like a film script.
The leader is known as the captain. He is the writer of the script. He has full responsibility over the mob, from role assignment to money sharing. His strong gambling background gives him credibility and legitimacy to take on the role.
The mechanic is the technician, the one with exceptional skills at the table. He is supposed to make the move at the right time (chip stealing, dice switching, card mucking, false shuffling, etc.).
The takeoff man is the man who collects the money when the scam takes place. He bets and folds according to the captain’s directives.
The inside man is the employee (casino, clubs, private games, etc.) working for the crew. He provides significant information to the captain.
The support member plays a lesser part in the organisation, and the role is more flexible. This person can be a turn, like an attractive woman to distract the surveillance, a relay, who receives a signal from the cheat and sends it to the takeoff man, or an advance man, who finds a sucker.
Professional cheats are top players. All of them. You have to understand the game to know when to move without arousing suspicion. It is all about consistency and sequence. Make the wrong move at the wrong time and you are sure to get caught. Let’s take this extreme example in seven-card Stud. Imagine the cheat’s hole cards are 7-3 offsuit, a really poor hand, but he’s the dealer. He bets heavily to remain in the game even though he knows he will not face the showdown. During the play, thanks to a marking system, he tracks a 7 from the top of the deck. He second deals to retain the 7 for himself, giving him a pair. Another 7 shows up, and he deals it for himself in the seventh street using the same technique. He holds three-of-a-kind and decides to go all in, showing his hand to the two remaining players. Now rewind the tape. Either he looks like a first-time player because only luck saved him in the end, or he is just a cheat.
To put it in a nutshell, if the play lacks consistency, something is wrong. As the pros often say, ‘Learn to play, and then learn to cheat.’
Experts know all about gambling techniques. Most of them are former cheats or reformed gamblers and work as consultants for casinos or clubs, be they legal or not. Their business is game protection, from prevention to detection.
I might hurt some souls, but you cannot be a real expert if you have not crossed the line or been a long-time gambler. It is not only a matter of catching dextrous moves. Experts have to know when the cheats will move, what their techniques look like under fire, the way they think, the way they play, the games they look for, and so on.
There is a thin line that separates the professional cheat and the expert, even though one plays the bad guy and the other one the good guy. As the renowned cheat Walter Irving Scott once said: ‘There isn’t a card player who wouldn’t cheat, if he knew how.’ Once you possess the power, it can be tempting. But cheating remains a crime severely punished by the law. And some have paid with their lives.
There are countless cheating moves, ranging from simple to elaborate. And the truth is that simple ones can be as devastating as elaborate ones.
Think about collusion or marked cards. Anyone with predetermined signals could communicate his cards to a partner during a poker game, giving the partner a tremendous statistical advantage. And reading marked cards is almost as easy as speaking.
Advanced techniques are mastered by card mechanics such as bottom dealing, second dealing, stacking, hopping, peeking, mucking, culling, copping, false shuffling and so on. These moves, used perfectly, can wreak havoc at any table.
Now let’s take a look at advantage play, unfairly associated with cheating. Advantage play is using information made available to any player. For example, an awkward blackjack dealer flashes the bottom card of the deck unwittingly. Or a player flashes his hole cards every time he takes a look at them. You would be stupid not to take advantage of any information brought to you by careless play, because other players would not think twice about it. And they would be right.
It is everyone’s responsibility to protect his ‘garden.’
Cheap shots are methods used by amateurs and small-time cons. These techniques are on the edge of legitimate play. Pretending to fold your hand before your turn, posting a bet in two phases (basically bet $10, wait a bit and add $10 more), and ‘forgetting’ to ante are common examples among many.
Taking a cheap shot is not cheating in the technical sense, but it is still cheating because the rules are bent.
Professional cheats have no stereotypes. They can come from any culture or social background. That being said, women are rarely seen among card mechanics, and top-notch cheats are often educated. As a matter of fact, they all have something in common: they are clever. Otherwise they could not very last long in the business.