Stacking the Deck: A Look at Poker Card Manipulation
Cheating. It's a nasty word that crept back into the poker world this week when a dealer was arrested for "stacking the deck" at Derby Lanes poker room in St. Petersburg, Fla.
WFLA reported on Tuesday that investigators allege 30-year-old Tishun Butler assisted an ex-employee win at his table by manipulating the deck. Like a magician might do during a card trick, investigators charge that Butler used a false shuffle and was hiding his action. With a maximum bet of $2,000, WFLA reports that the bettor cashed out $29,600 and denied involvement in a cheating scheme.
Butler faces a felony charge of scheming to defraud (more than $20,000, less than $50,000). While poker has been cleaned up in recent decades, the game's history has its share of cheats and crooks.
STACKING THE DECK
Most poker fans may remember the deck-stacking scene from the movie "Rounders." Ed Norton's character Worm is always looking for an angle. In the "sheriffs game" he and Mike are the outsiders in a game they can legitimately beat. Always looking for an edge, however, Worm uses some card mechanics to feed his friend certain cards.
Worm catches a "hanger" and his "dealing off the bottom of the deck" ploy is discovered by some angry members of law enforcement. Needless to say, it doesn't end well for Mike and Worm.
After the discovery, Worm fesses up saying, "Aren't you guys supposed to read us our rights?" Instead, they are both beaten to a pulp. Those cheating World Series of Poker founder Benny Binion may have met a similar fate.
Along with collusion, deck manipulation is possible by someone with considerable skills. New York City's Joshua Jay, 31, has performed for audiences all over the world and his book MAGIC: The Complete Course has been translated into six languages. He is a master of close-up magic and has years of experience in card and deck manipulation.
Jay notes that cheating at casinos is rare because they have added every protection possible to prevent it. As a result, most gamblers can't even touch the cards with poker as a notable exception.
"More and more, the cheating we see in casinos begins with dealers and usually involves a team of two, three, even eight people," says Jay.
Those that may be involved in a cheating scam in poker and in other casino card games may make smaller moves than are portrayed in Hollywood. Big takedowns that happen all at once are probably not how someone would cheat the game.
"I would be extremely cautious when playing in private, unsanctioned games with people you don't know."
"Huge pots, someone being dealt four Aces, and so on – this rarely happens because it raises too much suspicion," he says. "If the dealer can code the cards another player has nonverbally, this is a huge and unfair advantage. If the dealer can stack the deck so that an accomplice can receive even slightly favorable cards, they can do this over and over all evening, and over time, make a substantial gain."
This is not easy to do in general, much less in a busy casino with surveillance cameras tracking every move. Like the scene in "Rounders," Jay says private games for big money is where most cheating action is happening. In any serious game, he advises to request a deck change every so often because cheaters sometimes use marked cards or put "work" into the deck by smearing a substance called "daub" across desirable cards.
Some may also put waves or bends, called "crimps," into cards so they can follow them even when someone else is shuffling.
"I would be extremely cautious when playing in private, unsanctioned games with people you don't know," Jay says. "It goes back to the old rule – trust your friends, but always cut the cards."
What amazes Jay about professional card cheats who have mastered the ability to manipulate a deck is the possible gain doesn't seem worth the time invested. He's been practicing three hours a day or more since he was a young boy after his father showed him a trick and wouldn't tell his son how he did it.
It took Jay 10 years to learn to cut the exact number of cards in a deck he desired with the audiences never knowing that is possible. The ability to complete a perfect shuffle with one hand took six years to perfect.
"What's ironic about cheats is the tens of thousands of hours it takes to perfect undetectable sleight of hand is, in many cases, not worth the reward," he says. "It's an awful return on investment for most cheats. Most I've encountered live on the edge of the poverty line, and are desperate for money. Had they applied the ingenuity and practice to painting, singing, piano, the stock market, anything else, it would yield better results.
"But like the most elusive gangsters, the really effective cheats are so good that they operate beneath the radar, and we never even detect when they're playing."
Certainly Worm lacked this elusiveness.
CHEATING & CHALLENGES
When big money is involved, cheating has always been a concern. In the late-1800s on the steamboats along the Mississippi River, poker players were synonymous with cheating and thought of as the scoundrels of their day. Famed author and card player Mark Twain even warned about squaring off in a game on the steamboats.
In today's sanitized game in secure casinos, cheating has become less of a problem, however. The vast majority of dealers and players are honest and favor a clean game.
That was not always the case, and many of the game's forerunners not only dealt with cheating, but also with robberies. In Amarillo Slim Preston's autobiography Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People, he confirmed that most Texas road gamblers carried a pistol while at the tables.
Texas road game players like Preston, Doyle Brunson, and Johnny Moss not only had to work to find action to make money at the tables, they had to avoid getting robbed and cheated as well.
As author Don Jenkins notes in his biography of Moss: "At times it was difficult on the road. Not only was there the difficulty of finding the good games, he had to protect himself from the cheaters and the hustlers, and set up the right situations for the times when the cards came his way."
Famed gambler and card player Nick "the Greek" Dandalos created his Commandments of Poker after getting cheated by a fellow player he had previously viewed as a friend.
"The man who cheats is a fool of course," Dandalos notes in his book Gambling Secrets of Nick The Greek. "He cheats not only the other players but himself, as well. He cheats himself of self-respect and the pleasure of the game."
According to Dandalos, those in a crooked game (he was speaking of those at the time not in a casino) face two options: getting up and leaving the table or "exposing the cheat and enduring the unpleasantness that must surely follow." In a time when most players may have been strapped with a sidearm, what was his personal advice?
The Greek said simply: "Depart – at once."
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