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Eternal Order
Devil’s Island
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Profile of tommy
Every month or so I think it would interesting to put up some article or another on cheating and discuss the merits of them. What do you think of this one for example:

The lost art of cheating

Cheating is wrong. Of course, there are some exceptions. Cheating is okay if you're a movie character and the opponent is a Nazi officer, or if you're Rick in Casablanca helping a woman win money to pay for a visa. And I suppose it's also okay if you're one of the lovable rogues in The Sting or Ocean's Eleven. Ditto if you're a medieval knight gambling against Death in an Ingmar Bergman film. That's all fine. But aside from those situations, cheating is definitely wrong.

Okay, now that I said that, let's face it, cheating is also fascinating. It's ingenious, and it makes great drama. People shouldn't do it, but they do. Or more precisely, they did. Crooked gambling isn't the growth industry it once was. Sure, cheating still happens occasionally in casinos and in other gambling situations, but the real wizards of the con have moved on to Wall Street, telemarketing, and the Internet. Most of today's casino crooks are bumbling idiots. They're nothing like the polished professional grifters of the past. There was once a time when men and women studied gambling cons like brain surgeons study neurons. One hundred years ago, there were actual mail-order catalogs for cheaters (sort of like Sears & Roebuck for scams). Deception was a full-time business, and the top people in the industry worked hard to be innovative and creative. Those old guys understood and respected the value of a dishonest day's work.

So let's dishonor them by sneaking a peek into their bizarre world of illusion.

For Amusement Purposes Only

My first contact with gamblers who were good at being bad came at the tender age of 12. I took a weekend job in a magic shop, and found myself in a Harry Potter kind of world (without the English accents). Everything was odd and mysterious. People were having conversation that I didn't understand. The shelves in the shop were filled with dice, coins, cups, and cards, and they were all very strange. The dice wouldn't roll sevens, the coins had double-heads or double-tails, the decks were made so that one or more cards could be tracked through multiple shuffles.

My boss would sit around all day practicing a technique called "dealing seconds." He would deal cards in a way that appeared to be normal, but the top card of the deck never changed.

Soon I was learning the intricacies of palming cards and coins, performing false shuffles, marking cards, using coin cups to seemingly transform quarters into half-dollars, and similar trickery. The funny thing is that it never occurred to me this stuff could be used for anything other than magic, because of course, that would have been cheating. Also, in fairness to the shop owner and most of the customers, magic really was their primary purpose (though I cannot say what they did at their poker games).

All of the devices in the shop came with printed instructions that included the phrase, "For amusement purposes only." I remember scratching my head and wondering, "What's the use of dice that don't roll seven, other than for amusement?"

This quirky world that I glimpsed as a youngster was dying even then. The heyday for gambling scams began in the latter half of the nineteenth century and it ended in the middle decades of the twentieth century. It was the age of devices like the holdout, a mechanism that would snatch a card up a sleeve and deliver it later when it would be needed. A pipe reflector or triangle reflector (also known as a shiner) would sit invisibly on a table and would neatly reflect to the dealer the faces of cards being dealt. Sure cop was a sticky substance smeared onto the palm of a hand to help a thief steal chips when pushing a pot to an opponent. All of these items and hundreds more like them could be found in mail-order catalogs from businesses such as Will & Finck or Kansas City Card Company.

Here are some catalog entries from Will & Finck:

Poker Tables, our own invention $150.00
Dice Tables, electric, complete, our own invention $150.00
Sighters, per set of four, with small case for same $2.50
Black Sighting Ink, per bottle $0.25
Faro Dealing Cards, set in any form, either wedges, rounds and straights, end strippers, or any other kind ready for use, per deck $2.50

Notice how the entries are written in such as way as to be somewhat meaningless to the casual observer. What the heck is black sighting ink? Who needs an electric dice table?

Hey Buddy, Can You Spare a Dollar?

Grifters would order the necessary supplies and set up a small casino, often at the back of a legitimate store. In fact, that's how the "everything-for-a-dollar" store was invented in the nineteenth century. Miners would come in to get a cheap pickaxe, shovel, or wheelbarrow, and they'd be lured to a crooked game in the back room. Ben Marks, a legendary con artist in Wyoming, operated the very first dollar store. That concept eventually morphed into a scam called the big store. It was a "betting parlor" specifically designed to cheat high-rollers (as in the movie The Sting). Everyone in the store would be in on the scam, even the other players.

One of the shysters would take the role of steerer. This involved meeting a high-roller (referred to as a mark or sucker) in a separate situation and gaining his confidence, hence the term "con." Sometimes these supposed chance meetings could be quite involved. For example, the scam might include thwarting a theft, stopping a fight, or some other incident to make the steerer seem trustworthy. Naturally, the mark and the steerer would bond, and eventually the two would come to the store. This process might take hours or it might be days. The crooks were patient because they were going for a big sting, the kind of money that required a suitcase for transport.

The mark would have an apparent run of good luck during his first visit to the store, or sometimes one of the swindlers would pose as a disgruntled employee and actually help the sucker cheat. Either way, the sucker would win in the beginning. Meanwhile, he'd be steadily sinking into an elaborate fiction with multiple layers of soap opera intrigue. The ultimate goal was to convince the sucker to bet a large amount on one contest that he believed would be absolutely fixed in his favor. Invariably, the conclusion of the contest would be interrupted by a supposed murder or untimely death. There might be a gun battle followed by a police raid. Of course, this was all part of the show. The sucker would flee in an attempt to avoid involvement. Fear and embarrassment kept most victims quiet, and those who reported a crime often found themselves talking to a person on the payroll of the store. And so another scam would begin.

One variation of the big store was the hot seat game. The sucker would be dealt a dream hand such as four aces. He'd bet his bankroll and more (usually writing a check) just to stay in the pot. At the showdown the four aces would be beaten by a straight flush. Disaster! But the winner would claim only the pot and would magnanimously tear up the check, thus causing the sucker so much relief that he wouldn't think too much about how a "cold deck" might have been slipped into the game. Unfortunately for the sucker, slight-of-hand would be performed. The undamaged check would later materialize at the bank and be cashed.

By the way, if you're a fan of the animated series The Simpsons, this is how Krusty the Clown lost his daughter's violin to Fat Tony.

Nick the Greek and Goldfinger

The James Bond movie Goldfinger (1964) immortalizes another classic con, and in this case the scene is based on a specific event. Here's how it happens in the movie: A youthful and trim Bond (played by Sean Connery) is vacationing in Miami Beach when he catches the villain Goldfinger cheating at gin rummy. The con happens at a hotel pool. Goldfinger sits in a chair facing the sun, ostensibly to get a tan, and thus his mark must sit the opposite way. Meanwhile, a comely young lass is using binoculars to spy on the mark's cards. She feeds that information to Goldfinger via radio (he's wearing an earpiece).

Bond stops the scam, and he beds the lass in the process. Goldfinger kills the girl in an act of revenge by painting her from head to toe with gold, thus suffocating her.

The story is true sans the secret agent and the murder. Nick "the Greek" Dandolos was the mark, and it actually happened at the Flamingo pool in the early 1950's. Ian Fleming heard the story and wrote it into his book.

A similar rummy scam was pulled at the Beverly Hills Friars Club in 1967. This time it was Zeppo Marx, Phil Silvers, and Tony Martin (among others) who were cheated out of about $400,000. The man who ran the con, Johnny Roselli, was eventually jailed for the crime. He later met a horrific fate in a Mob payback hit (unrelated to the rummy swindle) that was carried out in the best Goldfinger tradition. Rather than going into messy details, let's just say it was comparable to the movie's car-crushing and compacting scene, but Roselli's end involved a 55-gallon drum.

Aren't you glad that gambling is regulated these days? Background checks, surveillance, and strict security measures (like rotating dealers) make swindles nearly impossible in a casino. But of course, private games can still be a problem. In my next column I'll have some tips to help you avoid scams in "friendly" games, and I'll tell you some stories about the legendary John Scarne, a magician who was an expert at exposing gambling cheats.

-- May. 23, 2003
If there is a single truth about Magic, it is that nothing on earth so efficiently evades it.

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The Man of Mystery
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Profile of Bizarrist
I love to read old stories like this. Thanks

The Most Beautiful Experience We Can Have is the Mysterious.
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Profile of Vasilis
A wonderful story, indeed!! Just one thing: Nick (The Greek) Dandolos had never been a card cheat. He was a good (a very good, as a matter of fact) high roller card player, but he never used any unfair methods to separate anybody from his money. Probably, Mr. Fleming heard what he liked to heard, in order to make another popular story. Thank's for the nice writing above, sir.

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Eternal Order
Devil’s Island
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Profile of tommy
Generally speaking I think the author makes some good points but ….

On the moral issue: Hustlers believe they are entitled to whatever they can hustle because they believe that everyone cheats in one way or another, or would if they could and if they had the nerve to.

Although we accept that cardsharping is something of a lost art, in the sense that it’s not the same as it used to be, we still think cheating is still a massive problem for casinos and so on. We read that casinos still lose $100s of millions each year to cheats, but how true that is we are not sure.

We can assure you that the big store is still alive and well. We ourselves run a game today that is 99% of the time, a straight game but morphs into the big store, as and when the right sucker is found. However we have found it’s more profitable to sheer a sheep than skin it. It’s not set up as a big store, it just sort of happens. Players will find a wealthy sucker from time to time at casinos mainly and they end up playing at my place. It’s not as though it’s a well planned con, it’s more of an unspoken thing that some of us know. There are, I have doubt, big stores still all over the world today. Not exactly as the author describes but more less the same thing in essence.
If there is a single truth about Magic, it is that nothing on earth so efficiently evades it.

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Inner circle
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Profile of Unknown419
Tommy great story I like it, please keep them coming. I'm currently reading "The American Confidence Man." It's my homework and what I'm suppose to know for my up coming movies/shows. They took the movie the Sting from this writer.

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