Don't cheat. I don't. You shouldn't. It's unethical; it's against the rules; and you won't sleep well at night if you do.
Other players cheat, however. So you need to know about cheating so you can protect yourself at the poker table.
Not all cheating is obvious – but most is very amateurish – especially in home games. Most does not require a lot of skill. I'd say that 1% of all home games I've been in have been cheated – at least to some degree. That isn't a big percentage – but if you're the one targeted it can be huge in any session.
I've read many books on the subject. Most of them are junk or they're about things that are so rare these days that they are irrelevant. Hold out devices? Zippo lighters working as shiners so the dealer can see the cards as they're dealt? Confederates in lobbies of hotels looking through slits in magazines and breathing loudly to signal cards of some sap? Please. Give me a break. That's only in the movies.
But I'll tell you what's not in the movies. In real life I've seen someone I was friendly with looking at the deck as he shuffled it. Seemed pretty innocuous. But I know he was looking at cards in the deck so he could remember roughly where they were – knowing after the cards were cut which cards he wouldn't have to worry about as one of the initial down cards. That's easy.
Here's how that works. Shuffle the cards with a riffle the way you always do. Then use the hand over hand method, acting non-chalant as you pull a bottom stack and toss it on top with a few motions, let a few cards slide off at a time. But instead of making this motion at a 45 degree angle, with the face of the card well out of view, do it at nearly a ninety degree angle and then slow the motion down as you gather the cards together, so you can look down at them – seeing their faces.
If you spotted the guy doing this, as I did, you wouldn't be able to prove anything. He might just be concentrating on his shuffle. He might just be doing this motion absent mindedly. There's no smoking gun. So it's an easy cheat – and the advantage gained is potentially huge. Just think about how advantageous it would be to know, with certainty, that none of your opponents have any of three or four cards in their hand after the deal? You saw an Ace cut near to the bottom of the deck. So you know one Ace is dead. Same thing with a 4 and a 7. That's huge. A guy has been representing a pair of Aces on the deal and you're pretty sure he's bluffing. Man, that's a huge piece of information that you have that no one has. And your secret is safe because you did something that can't be "caught".
Here's another. A player gathers the discards and readies the deck to be shuffled. As he does so he quickly lifts the sides and corners of some cards as he slides them all together toward the middle, making a pack that he can shuffle. As he's gathering together the cards he is careful, but not obvious, in getting a couple of Kings to the bottom of the stack. This is easy. It doesn't take any sleight of hand, just an air of casualness.
With the Kings at the bottom of the deck he doesn't have to deal bottoms to himself to have an advantage – though if he can do this his edge is enormous. All he has to do is get the Kings to the top – easily accomplished with the hand over hand shuffle as described above. This takes very little practice to get down and requires no slight of hand sleight of hand. Just hold on to the bottom couple of cards until the rest of the deck has slid off in repeated hand over hand motions and then make the final motion of sliding the last two cards on to the top of the deck.
The cut would take these cards out of immediate play – though it would still be an advantage for the dealer to know that the cards were roughly in the middle of the deck – meaning no one would be starting with them. But there are many games where the cards don't end up being cut. The player to the left of the dealer has fallen into the habit of just knocking the deck without a cut. Or the dealer "forgets" to offer them.
With the Kings at the top the dealer knows one down card of each of two opponents. This too is huge. It is especially huge if the game is high low – where high cards can destroy a hand that looks strong.
The two cheating methods above are the most common. But they're not nearly the only home game cheating methods that I've seen.
Here's another. I had a guy I knew well – a friend really – approach me about going partners with him. He said it in a kidding sort of way – so he was quick to turn it into a joke when I turned him down. But here's what he had in mind. He wanted me to help him squeeze other players out of a hand by raising him if he raised (giving me a signal when he wanted me to do this). It was easy, dirty, and simple. It would surely have worked to extract extra money or to get players to fold. I've only seen players raising aggressively a few times in home games. It was in a high low game. I left shortly after I saw it. And I'm sure it goes on somewhat more subtly elsewhere all the time.
There are gross examples of cheating that I've see that are specific to the location. I played at someone's house once with a big picture window. The game started in the afternoon and went late into the night. When the sun went down the picture window became a huge mirror. The three players sitting in front of it frequently exposed their downcards to the host and his buddy who were sitting facing the window. Maybe the host never used this information – and maybe he never noticed it. Maybe he didn't set the whole thing up. I'm sure he would have acted surprised if I said anything to him directly. I didn't. I made a big joke of it early in the evening so the players in front of the window would protect their hands. They did – for about 10 minutes. For the rest of the night I was treated to many free peaks.
There are regularly marked cards in home games and even in casinos. Many may be inadvertent. Not all of them are. I've seen too many Aces with a thumb nail mark in them for me to think it was just the result of overzealous handling. Players mark cards so they can see them in their opponents' hands. Don't kid yourself. It's easy; you can always apologize if caught and say it was by accident. But it's sometimes intentional.
Players sometimes openly collude at the table – especially in tournaments. They say "Let's check it down" when a player is all in against them. They deliberately slow play friends when there's a third person in the hand. This is inexcusable yet it is excused all the time. It greatly adds to the advantage of the colluding players.
I haven't even gotten to on line cheating. I'll save that for another time.
Ed note: Vince Van Patten of the World Poker Tour plays at Hollywood Poker