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The Expert at the Card Table
The Classic Treatise on Card Manipulation
By S. W. Erdnase, M. D. Smith
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1995 Martin Gardner
All rights reserved.
Professional Secrets. — The secrets of professional card playing have been well preserved. Works on conjuring invariably devote much space to the consideration of card tricks, and many have been written exclusively for that purpose, yet we have been unable to find in the whole category more than an incidental reference to any card-table artifice; and in no instance are the principal feats even mentioned. Self-styled "ex-professionals" have regaled the public with astounding disclosures of their former wiles and wickedness, and have proven a wonderful knowledge of the subject by exhuming some antiquated moss-covered ruses as well known as nursery rhymes, and even these extraordinary revelations are calmly dismissed with the assertion that this or that artifice is employed; in nowise attempting to explain the process or give the detail of the action mentioned. If terrific denunciation of erstwhile associates, and a diatribe on the awful consequences of gambling are a criterion of ability, these purified prodigals must have been very dangerous companions at the card table.
Of course it is generally known that much deception is practiced at cards, but it is one thing to have that knowledge and quite another to obtain a perfect understanding of the methods employed, and the exact manner in which they are executed. Hence this work stands unique in the list of card books. We modestly claim originality for the particular manner of accomplishing many of the manoeuvres described, and believe them vastly superior to others that have come under our observation. We do not claim to know it all. Many professionals have attained their success by improving old methods, or inventing new ones; and as certain artifices are first disclosed in this work so will others remain private property as long as the originators are so disposed.
We betray no confidences in publishing this book, having only ourselves to thank for what we know. Our tuition was received in the cold school of experience. We started in with the trusting nature of a fledgling, and a calm assurance born of overweening faith in our own potency. We bucked the tiger voluntarily, and censure no one for the inevitable result. A self-satisfied unlicked cub with a fairly fat bank roll was too good a thing to be passed up. We naturally began to imbibe wisdom in copious draughts at the customary sucker rates, but the jars to our pocketbook caused far less anguish than the heartrending jolts to our insufferable conceit. After the awakening our education progressed through close application and constant study of the game, and the sum of our present knowledge is proffered in this volume, for any purpose it may answer, to friend and foe, to the wise and the foolish, to the good and the bad, to all alike, with but one reservation, — that he has the price.
Hold Outs. — Many mechanical contrivances termed "hold outs" have been invented to aid the card player. The simplest form is a steel spring with an awl-like attachment at one end which can be pressed into the under side of almost any table in an instant. The spring snaps up against the table, the end curving slightly downwards to receive the cards. The thumb of either hand can put in or take several cards from the apparatus without the hands leaving the table.
A more complicated table machine passes the cards from below completely over the edge of the table, and the hands, held naturally on the table top, receive and make the discard without a sign to denote the procedure.
"Hold outs" that are adjusted to the person are of most ingenious construction and very expensive. A sleeve machine which passes the cards into and from the palm by spreading the knees may be worth from seventy-five dollars to several hundred dollars. Some are worked by arm pressure, some pass the cards through an opening in the vest about the usual height the hands are held. One of the most novel and perfect machines ever constructed makes the "sneak" by simply expanding the chest an inch or two, or taking a deeper breath than usual.
In almost all cases where "hold outs" are used the principal skill possessed by the player is that of working his apparatus perfectly and secreting the extra cards while in his hands; but to employ a machine successfully requires considerable address, and especially nerve. However, a full description of these devices or their uses is not contemplated by us. They can be purchased from the dealers in "club-room articles," and, anyway, the expert professional disdains their assistance. They are cumbersome, unnecessary, and a constant menace to his reputation.
Prepared Cards. — The subject of prepared cards is almost as foreign to the main purpose of this work as the preceding one of "hold outs," but a cursory review of the commoner kinds and their uses may not be out of place.
Marked cards, generally known as "readers," can be distinguished by the backs as readily as by the faces when the key is known. Printed cards are manufactured, but these are rarely used by professionals. The designs are not the same as those now of standard make, and consequently would be difficult to introduce. The usual plan is to mark the standard decks by hand. For the benefit of the unenlightened or curious reader we shall describe the process. It is not at all difficult, and a deck can be "doctored" in an hour or so.
Nearly all standard cards are red or blue. Marking inks absolutely indistinguishable from the printer's ink can be obtained from any of the dealers. Cards of intricate design are best adapted for the purpose. Each card is marked at both ends, so as to be read in any position. The peculiarity of the figures or design across the end is first closely considered, and twelve fairly distinct points, or dots or dashes, are noted and located. Then the four Aces are laid out, and with a fine pen the first point located is shortened barely enough to notice. The point is white and the background red or blue, the color of the ink used; and the slightest shortening of a single point or the obliteration of a single dot on a card, is undetectable unless it is known.
The four Aces are treated in this manner, then turned end for end, and the operation repeated. Then the Kings are doctored, the second point located being shortened in this instance. Then the four Queens at the third point, and so on throughout the deck for the twelve values; the absence of any mark denoting the Deuce. Now the suits are marked. Three additional points are located, possibly close to one corner. The first point marked say for Diamonds, the second for Clubs, third for Hearts and Spades left natural. Thus the operator at a glance, by noting the location of the two "blockouts," can instantly name the cards as they are dealt.
Combination systems lessen the number of points to be located. The design of the particular deck will suggest whether a dot, line, or blockout, would be least noticeable. It is seldom that two operators work alike. Cleverly done, it is almost impossible to detect, and unless suspicion is aroused quite so. Most of the supply houses keep a skilled operator constantly employed, and will mark any deck to order for about one dollar.
Some players make a practice of marking cards during the process of the game. The most desirable cards are creased or indented at certain locations as they happen to come into the player's possession, with the finger or thumb nail, which is kept pointed for the purpose; and in the course of an hour the principal cards can be readily distinguished. Another plan is to darken the edges with different prepared inks that are conveniently adjusted in pads. These manoeuvres, while making nothing sure in a given instance, always net the operator a favorable percentage in the long run.
Prepared cards known as "Strippers" are much used by certain players. The desired cards are placed aside and the rest of the cards trimmed slightly along the sides; then the briefs are trimmed from nothing at middle of sides to the width of the cut deck at ends. This leaves a slight hump at sides of the desired cards when shuffled in the deck, and they can be drawn out at will and placed on top or bottom at option. The trimming is done with machines made for the purpose, and the cutting leaves the edges and the corners as smooth as glass.
There are many other methods of doctoring cards to meet the requirements of particular games, and the skill, or rather want of it, of the operator. By roughening the faces of some of the cards they will hold together, and are more easily retained while shuffling. Faro cards, used in connection with a certain form of "brace" box, are treated in this manner. In the construction of the various kinds of control boxes the acme of ingenuity and mechanical skill has been reached, and most extravagant prices are demanded and paid, for these innocent-appearing little silver-plated articles. Strippers may be used in Faro with little fear of detection, as the cards are never shuffled or cut by the players. A "crooked" box and a clever dealer can give the house a percentage that would impoverish a prince. Millions of dollars are wagered annually at Faro in this country. It is the most fascinating of layout games. However, we have reason to believe it is generally dealt on the square in gambling rooms that are run openly. The bank's percentage is satisfactory to the proprietors.
The "Cold Deck" is a pre-arranged pack that is introduced at an opportune moment. The cards are not marked, but two or more hands are set up ready for dealing. The name is probably derived from the fact that the deck must await its opportunity long enough to contract a chill in the interim. Little skill is required in making the exchange. It is almost invariably done quite openly, and in company where the attendants and players are in collusion. In most gaming rooms the decks are exchanged every hour or less. Sometimes the players will call for a new deck, but usually the exchange is made at the instance of the management. When the "cold deck" is sprung a "blind" shuffle is made by the dealer, a "blind" cut by an ally, and the hands fall in the desired order. Of course an exchange may be made by sleight-of-hand, but the player who can accomplish this feat successfully is generally well versed in the higher orders of card-table artifice, and will dispense with such makeshifts as "cold decks" or any kind of prepared cards.
Confederacy. — When two card experts work together their difficulties are greatly lessened. The opportunities of securing the desirable cards on the outset, that is before the shuffle, are doubled, and this is half the battle. If they understand each other perfectly they can often arrange one or two hands ready for dealing, and find little or no trouble at all in getting several desirable cards together while apparently gathering up the deck in the most careless manner. If sitting together so that one cuts on the other's deal the possibilities become so great that ordinary chances will be taken in perhaps nineteen deals out of twenty. Two or three coups in the course of an evening will not flush the quarry, and are quite sufficient to answer all purposes.
Advantages without dexterity can be taken in almost any card game when two or more players are in collusion, by the use of any secret code of signals that will disclose the hand of each to the others. For instance, in Poker the ally holding the best cards will be the only one to stay, thus playing the best hand of the allies against the rest; quite sufficient advantage to give a large percentage in favor of the combination. Again, the allies may resort to "crossfiring," by each raising until the other players drop out. There are hundreds of small but ultimately certain advantages to be gained in this manner, if collusion is not suspected. No single player can defeat a combination, even when the cards are not manipulated.
Two Methods of Shuffling. — As the reader obtains an understanding of the art of "advantage playing" it will be seen that the old-fashioned or hand shuffle gives the greater possibilities for running up hands, selecting desirable cards and palming. Many players never use the "riffle," that is shuffling on the table by springing the ends of two packets into each other, though this method is now by far the more prevalent among men who play for money. While the "riffle" cannot be employed for arranging the cards, save to a very limited extent, it is equally well adapted for retaining the top or bottom portion, or even the whole deck, in any prearranged order; and the "blind riffle" can be performed just as perfectly as the "blind" shuffle. A clever bottom dealer will usually employ the "riffle," as he rarely takes the trouble of running up a hand. His purpose in that respect is sufficiently answered by keeping the desired cards at the bottom. If he has an ally to "blind" cut, everything goes well, but if playing alone he must either palm the bottom cards for the cut or make a "shift" afterwards. The "shift" is very rarely attempted in any kind of knowing company, and it is awkward to make a palm when the "riffle" is used. The deck must be tilted on its side, and while the movement may pass as an effort at squaring up, it is not quite regular. The hand shuffle avoids the difficulty, as the deck is held naturally in easy position for palming, and not an instant is lost during the operation. The hand shuffle is almost ideal for "stocking" and "culling," and the curious or interested reader may learn how a perfect knowledge is maintained of the whereabouts of any particular cards, and how they are collected or separated, or placed in any desired positions, while the deck is being shuffled apparently without heed or design.
Primary Accomplishments. — The first acquirement of the professional player is proficiency at "blind" shuffling and cutting. Perfection in performing the "blind" shuffle, whether the old-fashioned hand shuffle or the "riffle" supplemented by a thorough knowledge of "blind" cutting, makes it impossible for the smartest card handler living to determine whether the procedure is true or "blind." This ability once acquired gives the expert ease and assurance in any kind of company, and enables him to lull into a state of absolute serenity the minds of many players who may be naturally suspicious. Nothing so completely satisfies the average card player as a belief that the deck has been thoroughly shuffled and genuinely cut.
Possibilities of the "Blind." — It is surprising to find among card players, and many of them grown gray at the game, the almost universal belief that none but the unsophisticated can be deceived by "blind" shuffling. These gentlemen have to "be shown," but that is the last thing likely to happen. The player who believes he cannot be deceived is in great danger. The knowledge that no one is safe is his best protection. However, the post-graduate in the art is quite conscious of the fact that he himself cannot tell the true from the "blind" shuffle or cut, when performed by another equally as clever. In fact, sight has absolutely nothing to do with the action, and the expert might perform the work just as well if he were blindfolded. Nevertheless "blind" shuffling and cutting, as explained by this work, are among the simplest and easiest feats the professional player is required to perform; and when the process is understood the necessary skill can be acquired with very little time or effort. Given the average card player who can shuffle or "riffle" in the ordinary manner, with some degree of smoothness, he can be taught a "blind" in five minutes that will nonplus the sharpest of his friends. But there are many players who cannot make an ordinary shuffle or "riffle" without bending, breaking, exposing or in some way ruining half the cards, and such bunglers must learn to handle a deck gracefully before attempting a flight to the higher branches of card manipulation.
Uniformity of Action. — The inviolable rule of the professional is uniformity of action. Any departure from his customary manner of holding, shuffling, cutting or dealing the cards may be noticed, and is consequently avoided. The player who uses the old-fashioned hand shuffle will never resort to the table "riffle" in the same company; and vice versa. The manner of holding the deck will always be the same, whether the action is to be true or "blind." In dealing, one particular position for the left-hand fingers is ever adhered to, and the action of the right hand in taking off the cards and the time or rapidity of the dealing is made as uniform as possible. In cutting the rule holds good, and the true cut is made with the same movements as the "blind." Whether the procedure is true or "blind" the same apparent action is maintained throughout.
Deportment. — The deportment of the successful card player must be as finished as his skill. A quiet, unostentatious demeanor and gentlemanly reserve are best calculated to answer his purpose. Especially the entire suppression of emotion over gains or losses. Without ability to control his feelings the "advantage player" is without advantage. Boldness and nerve are also absolutely essential. Ability in card handling does not necessarily insure success. Proficiency in target practice is not the sole qualification of the trap shooter. Many experts with the gun who can nonchalantly ring up the bull's eye in a shooting gallery could not hit the side of a barn in a duel. The greater the emergency, or the greater the stakes, the greater the nerve required.
Excerpted from The Expert at the Card Table by S. W. Erdnase, M. D. Smith. Copyright © 1995 Martin Gardner. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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