Sharping Remains Extremely Disreputable
Shortly after his election to the U.S. Senate, Warren G. Harding boarded a train in Washington, D.C., bound for New York. As Harding relaxed in a first-class club car, a well-dressed stranger approached. “It’s good to see you again,” the stranger said warmly. The senator feigned familiarity and struck up a conversation. Eventually, joined by two other passengers, they began a game of auction bridge.
The bidding was fast and furious, and luck ran against the senator. In a few hours Harding had lost more money than he intended to bet and far more than he was carrying. Embarrassed, he emptied his wallet and asked if he could send a check for the balance. “Why, certainly,” the stranger replied. “Let me give you my New York address, and you can drop the check in the mails at your convenience.”
When he returned to Washington, Harding related the story to Sen. Charles Curtis of Kansas, an authority on card playing. Curtis concluded that Harding had been cheated. “Why not have the Secret Service check that New York address?” Curtis suggested. The Secret Service confirmed Curtis’s suspicions. The address was a low-rent mail drop used by gamblers.
Harding’s opponents had used marked cards, sometimes called readers or paper, the oldest and favorite weapon of card cheats. After the arrival of playing cards in Europe at the end of the fourteenth century, methods for marking them quickly became widespread. “As for those who use marked cards,” notes The Book of Chance, written in the mid-sixteenth century, “some mark them at the bottom, some at the top, and some at the sides. The first kind are marked quite close to the bottom and may be either rough or smooth or hard; the second are marked with color and with slight imprints with a knife; while on the edges cards can be marked with a figure, a rough spot, with interwoven knots or humps, or with grooves hollowed out with a file.”
To the playing-card manufacturer, marked cards are anathema. For centuries manufacturers have struggled to create cards that from the back appear identical, effectively concealing their value. Built from two pieces of aged card stock affixed with a thick black paste, appropriately called gook, playing cards remain opaque under any lighting conditions and resist telltale bends, folds, and creases. Specialized die-cutting equipment produces cards of uniform dimension and forms an invisible knife-edge on each card to facilitate shuffling and prevent fraying. Glaze protects cards from revealing smudges and stains. Supplemented by conventions of card playing, such as shuffling and cutting, these features are supposed to ensure fair play.
But these safeguards have often crumbled under relentless onslaught by crooked gamblers—card sharps. “Card sharping has been reduced to a science,” the magician John Nevil Maskelyne observed in an 1894 gambling exposé. “It is no longer a haphazard affair, involving merely primitive manipulations, but it has developed into a profession in which there is as much to learn as in most occupations.”
Though established, sharping remains extremely disreputable. “Especially to those subjectively interested, it carries a greater stigma than the seduction of a friend’s wife,” the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences observed in 1950. And the penalties for cheating are not always limited to social disapprobation: Exposed cheats have faced physical injury and death at the hands of victims and authorities. As early as the seventeenth century, convicted card sharps were hanged. In 1777 a British court sentenced a tradesman from Norwich to six months’ imprisonment and a fine of 20 pounds for cheating at cards. Upon failure to pay the fine, the court ordered, the tradesman should “stand on the pillory for one hour, with his ears nailed to the same.” American courts have upheld the right of cheating victims to use deadly force against card sharps.
As a result card sharps are secretive about their craft and protective of their methods. “My researches have been both difficult and dangerous,” observed the magician Jean Robert-Houdin in an exposé of card cheating published in the 1860s. “Difficult because sharpers do not readily allow one to discover a trick on which their living depends; dangerous because inquiries among such people may lead to serious danger.” After being threatened by a dagger-wielding cheat, Robert-Houdin hired a young gambler to ferret out information. Robert-Houdin’s work, together with that of other magicians, gambling experts, law enforcement agencies, and legislative bodies, provides a fascinating record of the ignoble art.
In 1849 a magistrate in France asked Robert-Houdin to examine 150 decks of club cards—cards with plain white backs—seized from a suspected swindler. Club cards had become popular with gamblers, who believed they couldn’t be marked. Using a magnifying glass, Robert-Houdin examined the cards every night for two weeks but could detect nothing. Frustrated, the magician threw a deck onto a table, scattering the cards. “Suddenly, I fancied I noticed a pale spot on the glistening back of these cards,” Robert-Houdin wrote. “I stepped forward, and it disappeared, but, strangely enough, it reappeared as I fell back.” The cheat had dulled the glaze—probably with a drop of water—forming a mark visible only at limited angles. Its position revealed both rank and suit.
Sharp-eyed cheats studied club cards for natural and acquired imperfections that betrayed their value. To combat this menace, manufacturers began in 1850 to add elaborate back designs to the cards. Consisting of plaids, crosshatching, or intricate line drawings, these patterns aimed to camouflage irregularities.
But back designs ultimately just provided new possibilities for card cheats. Less reputable printers offered commercially marked decks, with variations in the back designs to reveal card values. Brand recognition soon eliminated the commercially marked deck; cardplayers insisted on well-known, legitimate ones, such as Bee, Diamond, Fan, Bicycle, and Aviator.
Certain card sharps—known as line workers, edge workers, and shaders—developed techniques for marking recognized decks, discovering vast opportunity in tiny spaces. Line workers made additions to the cards’ backs, adding an extra scroll line, flower petal, or hatch mark to denote card values. Edge workers strategically thickened lines around a card’s border to reveal rank and suit. And shaders delicately tinted select portions of a card with diluted ink.
Manufacturers, in turn, devised glazes resistant to marking or shading. “There has been a long struggle between the playing-card manufacturer and the professional gambler,” Maskelyne wrote in 1894. “Whilst the latter has been engaged in the endeavour to concoct a stain with which he could shade his cards without spoiling the enamel or altering the colour, the former has done his best to circumvent the sharp’s endeavours by compounding the glaze of ingredients which will spoil the ‘little game.’” For a time the makers of Hart’s red Angel-backs boasted that the cards were unstainable. In response crooked gaming houses offered stains guaranteed to mark any card.
Once marked, cards were resealed in their original packaging, with government tax stamps intact, ready to be introduced into play. Cheats devised several methods for ringing in marked decks. They used concealed pockets, called finettes, to exchange legitimate decks for marked ones, or employed switchmen, fellow players, waiters, or bartenders who would switch decks in return for a percentage. Sharps also infiltrated the distribution system, selling marked decks to small retail establishments like cigar stores, hotel shops, and newsstands at a substantial discount or purchasing a number of decks, marking them, and returning them to the shop.
In the mid-nineteenth century an enterprising Spanish sharp named Bianco purchased a large supply of high-quality Spanish playing cards, painstakingly handmarked each card, and resealed each 48-card deck in its original packaging. He shipped the wholesale lot to Havana, at the time a haven for high-stakes card games, where they were sold to card distributors at fire-sale prices. Then he traveled to Cuba to reap the profits of his scheme.
When he arrived, Bianco discovered that, as he expected, his cards had made their way into Havana’s big-money gambling clubs. He wheedled introductions into several clubs and won enormous sums. To allay suspicion, he continually complained that he was losing heavily.
Meanwhile another swindler arrived in Havana. A French sharp named Laforcade gained entry to one of the city’s most exclusive gambling clubs and stole a quantity of its cards, to mark and secretly reintroduce them. He opened the decks only to discover that they had already been marked. By making inquiries and purchasing additional decks from Havana suppliers, Laforcade realized he had stumbled onto an immense scam.
Laforcade studied the play of club members to try to determine the mastermind. He noticed Bianco’s apparent lucky streak and its stark contrast with the sharp’s continual complaints. During a private game of escarte, Laforcade confronted Bianco, explaining that he had uncovered his fraud, and proposed that Bianco cut him in for half the profits or face exposure and prosecution. Bianco had no choice but to agree.
When Bianco wearied of sharing his ill-gotten gains with Laforcade, he fled the country. Laforcade attempted to continue the scheme, but the supply of marked cards began to dwindle, and he lacked Bianco’s skills. Successful for a time, he was caught and prosecuted for card cheating. At his trial the prosecution could not establish that Laforcade had marked the cards or introduced them into play (as he had not) or knew they were marked. As a result, Laforcade was acquitted.
To avoid the difficulty of introducing marked decks, sharps concocted means of marking cards during play. They began by marking important cards with small nicks or scratches made with a thumbnail. Needle points affixed to the skin or welded to finger rings greatly improved this process. Once marked in this manner, cards can be identified by touch while dealing.
More sophisticated sharps, known as smudgy movers, employed a chemical dye to strategically blemish cards during play. Hollowed-out corks, buttons, or professional “shading boxes” sewn beneath the sharp’s clothing allowed him to secretly coat a fingertip with dye as needed during the game. Made from olive oil, sté arine, camphor, and aniline, the dye is easily wiped from cards to eliminate any evidence of fraud.
Rampant in-play marking during the Mississippi-riverboat era led to the development of “steamboats,” an inexpensive line of unglazed playing cards that were intended to be discarded daily, assuring players a fresh supply of unmarked cards. But these cheap decks proved a boon for riverboat card sharps. Some added bits of wax or glaze to them, creating marked cards that, like those discovered by Robert-Houdin some years earlier, were virtually undetectable. Soon commercially marked decks of steamboats became readily available.
Sharps also developed other means to learn the values of cards held by opponents. Some used available reflective surfaces—a glass tabletop, a polished cigarette case, or even a spilled drink—to read cards while dealing. Refinement of this technique led to the use of small reflectors called shiners. Robert-Houdin described one of the first shiners, an ornate snuffbox adorned with a lady’s portrait. Under cover of reaching for a pinch of snuff, the sharp triggered a hidden spring. A convex mirror snapped into place, covering the portrait. Using this mirror while dealing, the sharp could observe his opponents’ cards in miniature.
Over time, shiners became simpler and more insidious. Gamblers concealed shiners in pipe bowls, matchboxes, and finger rings. They tucked tiny convex reflectors into the tips of cigarettes and toothpicks. Table reflectors, small polished mirrors that adhered to the underside of the table, jutting out from the edge, became a standard item in gambling supply catalogues. At the touch of a button, the table reflector retracted out of sight.
Using informational tools like shiners and marked cards, sharps can devastate. “A cheater can take all the chumps in the game simply by knowing the location of very few cards,” noted the gambling expert John Scarne. “If he knows the exact position of only one of the 52 cards, he will eventually win all the money in sight.” Yet a second, more potent strategy was available to the card sharp. Rather than simply knowing the position of the cards, hustlers perfected ways to control the location of cards.
The ascendency of poker facilitated this process. Championed by riverboat gamblers in the early 1800s, poker rapidly emerged as the most popular card game in the United States. Tellingly, the earliest surviving account of a poker game, written in 1829, describes a rigged one. Five years later a commentator described poker as a “cheating game” being played on Mississippi riverboats.
Earlier card games, such as whist, utilized all or most of the deck in every round; poker sometimes uses only a few cards per hand. To the sharp seeking to manipulate or control cards, the distinction is critical. For example, consider the simplest means of prearranging the outcome of a card game: stacking the deck. While corrupt whist dealers had to arrange all the cards, poker cheats gained a decided advantage by stacking only a few.
Various methods of prearrangement found a place at the poker table. Deft card manipulators known as mechanics used false cuts and shuffles, bottom dealing, and second dealing (the dealing of the second card while retaining the first card) to alter the outcome of high-stakes poker games. Corrupt dealers employed beveled decks known as belly strippers to separate high cards at will.
Poker also gave rise to a new kind of cheating. Using a technique dubbed holding out, sharps retained cards that might prove helpful in a later hand. Initially they relied on sleights for this purpose, tucking cards in a shirt collar, up a sleeve, or under a knee. After poker players grew suspicious of any unnatural moves at the card table, making these sleights difficult to get away with, inventive cheats built mechanical holdouts to snatch cards from the gambler’s hand, conceal them in a sleeve or under a vest, and shoot them back into play. The specialists who employed these devices were known as machine men. “Holding out one card will beat any square game in the world,” advises a set of instructions accompanying a nineteenth-century holdout machine. Yet the bulky, noisy, expensive devices had substantial drawbacks and proved risky.
Then, in 1888, P. J. Kepplinger, a San Francisco gambler nicknamed the Lucky Dutchman, revolutionized the mechanical holdout. Laboring in secret, Kepplinger, an inventive genius, combined the best features of several mechanical holdouts and added some innovations of his own. The result represented a high-water mark in card-cheating technology.
The core of Kepplinger’s device was a metal slide attached to a rod, which retracted into a pair of steel jaws. Kepplinger concealed this assembly in a double shirt sleeve. When the player activated the device, the steel jaws opened and the slide extended, gripped the cards, and withdrew them between the layers of the double sleeve. The jaws snapped shut, concealing the apparatus from view. The process could be reversed to return the cards into the hand.
Kepplinger’s method of triggering the device was his greatest innovation. A cable ran through a series of tubes and pulleys to terminate at the shoulder. A length of flexible tubing beneath the player’s clothing guided the cable from there to a seam at his knee. Kepplinger fabricated a special clip that, when pressed, created a small opening in the seam, through which he threaded the cable. Once seated at the card table, the player attached the cable to an identical clip near his other knee. Thus, by separating his knees, the player extended the holdout, and by pressing his knees together, he retracted it.
Brilliant in design, the device worked flawlessly. The sharp examined his hand, subtly crimping the corners of the cards he wished to hold out. Spreading his knees, he caused the slide to emerge, grip the cards, and extract them into the double shirt sleeve. Later he reversed the process, returning the holdouts to his palm. Unlike earlier machines, Kepplinger’s creation operated imperceptibly and invisibly. His opponents could peer up his sleeve and discover nothing.
Had he been judicious in the use of his invention, Kepplinger could have bilked suckers forever. But something got the better of him. Perhaps he was greedy. Perhaps he put too much stock in the brilliance of his own invention. Or maybe he was just a gambler. In any event, he pushed his luck.
He used his holdout in San Francisco’s “hard” games, poker games frequented by professional gamblers schooled in the ways of cheating. And he didn’t just use it for the occasional big score; he won almost every game. His opponents knew this couldn’t be attributed to fortune.
They developed a plan. At a prearranged signal they seized Kepplinger, held him down, and conducted a methodical search—and discovered his device. They gave him a simple choice: Build a holdout for each of them or face the consequences of having cheated them. His life at risk, he agreed.
Within a decade Kepplinger’s secret got out. The Kepplinger holdout became the common property of sharps everywhere. By the 1890s gambling supply companies were selling Kepplinger or “San Francisco” holdouts for $100 apiece—a very steep sum, but a small price to pay for genius.
Innovation continues. Improving on Kepplinger’s work, one cheat devised a holdout device that, strapped to the chest, is operated by breathing. Gambling supply houses now offer luminous readers, marked cards that can be read only with tinted contact lenses. Modern-day swindlers work in teams, employing the radio-cue prompter — a concealed transmitter and receiver—to exchange information during play. A pair of sharps armed with a radio-cue prompter and a telescope swindled Nick (“the Greek”) Dandolos (1883-1966) of $500,000 at a poolside gin rummy game in 1949 at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas.
Given the vast array of tools and techniques available to the would-be swindler, what’s an honest cardplayer to do? Is there any way to avoid being hustled? “There is one golden rule, the observance of which must utterly checkmate the most cunning swindler,” Maskelyne observed a century ago. “It is simply to abstain from every form of gambling whatsoever.” Perhaps the modern cardplayer can ward off the wiles of the card sharp with the knowledge of centuries of exposés. Maybe a well-read, intelligent, thoughtful gambler can beat the cheat at his own game. Here’s a tip: Don’t bet on it.
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