MEMOIRS - 15 - Cheating at Cards

It is very seldom that you come across a conjurer who plays cards for money, but still, I very often hear people say, "I wouldn’t like to play cards with you." People nearly always expect a Conjurer to be able to deal himself four of a kind, or a good run of Hearts or Spades, and, of course, most Conjurers can do this, and that is one of the reasons they do not play for money. At a secret meeting of Conjurers, I once had the pleasure of witnessing a most astounding demonstration of how to cheat at cards. This demonstration was given by an old American Gambler, who had been a Cardsharper most of his life.

He had made a small fortune out of cheating at cards and gambling, and he had then retired from the game for good. In introducing his subject, the Gambler pointed out that there were different degrees of cheating. He put it this way. When people sit down to play cards for money, it becomes a business deal of sorts, and each plays his best and takes full advantage of their past experiences; and, if they are better players then their opponents, I mean if they are very much better players than their opponents, or if their opponents are beginners, are the better players cheating, by taking advantage of their superior Knowledge?

"No, definitely not" he said, "Because there is no handicapping in card playing." Then he put the question. "If you and your wife have played together for years and you know each others play very well indeed, and you are each conscious of the others little mannerisms, and these mannerisms give the other a clue to what kind of a hand is held; and, if you take advantage of this knowledge; is that cheating?" Or, again, if there is a large jack-pot waiting to be lifted, and you have a particularly good hand, and you inadvertently see your opponents cards, and you realise, you can beat him; should you announce that you have seen his hand? If you do, you cancel the deal, and you will lose the jackpot, although you held better cards than he did. How many people would do this; and would it be cheating, if you sat still and said nothing, and let him run up the betting? It is easy to say, you should throw in your hand, but ask yourself, would you do it? Now be honest about it, would you? Again, if by chance there was a small mark on the back of a high card, and you spotted this mark, you are taking a mean advantage over your opponents; but is this cheating? If in cutting the pack, you notice the bottom card, and it happens to be an ace, and the game is poker, you know that that particular ace is not against you, is that dishonest pay? These and many other points of view, the old gambler put before us that evening, and then he said, "Gentlemen, I am and old gambler, and a card sharper, and have my pile of taking full advantage of my superior knowledge of card playing, and of every bit of luck or slip that has given me an advantage over others, and I am not ashamed of telling you, as I feel that any man playing against me for money would have done the same thing. He continued, and told us that he had assisted luck in this direction, by sometimes deliberately glancing at the bottom card when cutting, or even making a small mark with his thumbnail on any card he wanted to keep under observation. He explained that, in dealing cards, the sharper does not very often deal himself a good hand; but, if he is playing against an unknown quantity, he deals his opponent a very good hand, and then watches his reactions as he picks up his cards. Being a very keen observer, the gambler notices the slightest movement, such as a tightening of the lips, a tapping movement of one of the fingers, a crossing or uncrossing of the legs, a sniff, a raising of the eyebrows. All these are noted and later on the gambler will gain deal the same man a good hand and watch carefully for any repetition of the movements he had noticed before; and later on, the same person is dealt a bad hand, and again his reactions are noted, and when the gambler has summed up his man, he gets down to serious play, and by this time he can pretty well tell a genuine from a bluff call.

The old gentleman then gave us a practical demonstration of his ability to deal a good or bad hand. He showed us how marked cards were gathered up from the discard, or after they had been played; how they were collected together, and how they were eventually distributed, so that he knew where they were, and which player or players held them. When luck is with the gambler he plays a perfectly straight game, but when things are going the other way, he corrects fortune.

When his talk was finished, we all knew more or less, how to spot a card sharper when he was at work, and this knowledge came in very useful to me on one occasion.

At a well-known club in one of the largest towns in the Union, fairly high stakes were played for, in the card room, and it was noticed by the Secretary that one of the players had been winning exceptionally large amounts over a long period, in fact, he had had a very long run of good luck; and, although there was no suspicion of dishonest play, the Secretary was beginning to think things. So when he met me one day, he asked me point blank, if I could detect when a man was cheating at cards, just by watching him play? I told him I could do so, if the man was using the usual methods employed by most sharpers. He then invited me to visit the Club one night, and just keep an eye on the man he had his suspicions about. So, one night saw me round at the Club, as a guest of the Secretary. I was told that the member was now playing cards at one of the tables, but when I asked the Secretary to point him out to me, he said, "Oh no, I can’t do that, it would be as much as my job was worth, to even point a finger of suspicion at one of the members; but, if you stroll from table to table, you might be able to spot him." I accepted these conditions, and commenced to watch the play at the various tables. It was some little time before I got interested in the play of a certain gentleman at a table where members were playing for the maximum club stakes. I stood watching the play for some time, before I spotted a certain little movement of the fingers of this particular player, as he shuffled the pack. The movement I noticed was one that is well known to Conjurers, but still, it might have been accidental, so I decided to stop and watch the play a little longer. Another movement by my suspect and my suspicions were strengthened, but it was a very long time before another movement confirmed in my mind that the man was ‘correcting luck’; but at last I was quite sure, and my mind was made up. I made my way back to the Office, and spoke to the Secretary, and told him whom I suspected, and he said it was the same man that he had his fears about. Now the point arose what to do about it? You cannot accuse a man of cheating at cards, unless you catch him red handed, while the game is in progress, and with the clever sleight of hand used to-day, that is almost impossible. So I thought I would try a little bluff, just to shake him up a bit, and warn him off; so I took one of my professional cards from my case, and wrote on the back of it, "Will be pleased to see you in the Secretaries Office when you have finished the game, as I would like to discuss card tricks with you."

I then called the Club Steward, and asked him to take it to the gentleman. When the member received the card, he at first, read it, then turned it over, and saw my name printed on it, he looked round to see who had sent it to him, and, on catching sight of me, he held up the card, as much as to say, "Did you send me this?" I nodded my head, and he waved his hand, and told the Steward to tell me he would join me in the office, as soon as possible. When the game was finished, he excused himself to the other players, and said he had to leave, as the Secretary had a most important message for him. Of course, as was to be expected, he never came near the Office; he just got his hat and coat, and cleared out of the Club as quickly as possible, and the Secretary told me long afterwards, that the man never came back or was ever seen again in the Club, and had sent in his resignation.

You see, if a gambler is once ‘suspect’, his little game is over for good at that Club, as anybody will not play with him again.

In a little town in the back of beyond, at the dismal diamond diggings in Africa, I had one night, walked into a Hotel bar to have a glass of beer with a friend of mine; and, on walking up to the counter, we noticed a rough looking fellow, named Kelly, with a pack of cards in his hands. He had a few of his own friends with him, and he was throwing out a challenge to anybody in the bar, to play him a game of Nap, for drinks al round; of course, nobody accepted, then he caught sight of me, and came over, and claimed me as a new chum, and made the challenge a personal one.

Of course, I also declined to play, thereupon he had the door guarded by one of his pals, and said I had to play with him, or he would know the reason why; and, as he got so very threatening, I thought discretion was the better part of valour, and consented.

I addressed the other occupants of the bar, and told them I would play this man one game only, and if I lost, I would pay for drinks all round; and if I won, he would have to do so. This was agreed upon, one game only. Then everybody gathered round to watch the play. Kelly said he would shuffle the cards, and he would deal them also. To this I had to agree, and it was obvious to me that the cards were stacked, and when he shuffled them, I could see, at a glance, that he only did a false shuffle, and left the stacked cards on top, ready for dealing. I knew then that I had to get hold of that pack for a moment to see how the stack was arranged, for if I knew this, I could immediately tell if he intended dealing them one at a time, or two or three at a time; as is permissible in a game of Nap; so when he had finished shuffling the pack, and was just on the point of dealing, I leaned over, and suddenly took the pack away from him, with the remark, that I wanted to make sure that the cards were not marked in any way, and I glanced quickly through them. He lost his temper at this, and snatched the pack back, and as I apparently had not disturbed the pack in any way, he hastened to deal out the cards, but, poor mutt, he little knew that the few seconds the cards were in my hands, were sufficient for my purpose, and when we picked up our respective hands, and started to pay, he realised that something had gone wrong, for by some means or other, I had got the hand of cards which he had intended dealing to himself. Of course, I won, and he muttered something about, having slipped up somewhere, as he usually won at a game of Nap. However, he paid for a round of drinks, and kept looking at me, and at last said, "Did I make a mistake, or did you pull a swift one on me?" I didn’t answer, and got out of the bar as soon as possible.