Sharps and Flats: The Secrets of Cheating
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foreword to the online edition


I. introductory

II. common sharpers and their tricks

III. marked cards and the manner of their employment

IV. reflectors

V. holdouts

VI. manipulation

VII. collusion and conspiracy

VIII. the game of faro

IX. prepared cards

X. dice

XI. high ball poker

XII. roulette and allied games

XIII. sporting houses

XIV. sharps and flats










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Collusion tactics can be very effective. Even if suspected, some collusion strategies can be virtually impossible to prove, basically due to the lack of physical evidence. Some collusion tactics can be pretty blatant and obvious, and still impossible to prove without a direct admission of guilt or some hard evidence to prove the conspiracy theory. Some poker clubs have even tried enforcing house rules that are in conflict with commonly accepted rules of poker, just in a (lame) attempt to prevent collusion. Sometimes the only way to prevent it, though, is to simply avoid playing in games where collusion is suspected.

When Maskelyne wrote this book he never heard of Texas Hold'em, the game that is now virtually a household name. Another thing that Maskelyne never heard of is the world of online poker - the concept of card players being able to play a poker game, while being physically located at various places around the planet, would be a concept that would get one a direct ticket to the loony-bin, in the 19th century. But today, poker players from around the world are able to play together through internet connections.

The fact that players do not even see each other, while playing poker, definitely opens up some interesting possibilities for colluders. At least they don't have to memorize a bunch of secret signals to communicate the information to each other. But what seems simple on the surface is actually a bit more complicated in practice. For example, in a live poker game no one would have a clue if a player just folded pocket aces, based on some information about what some other players are holding. But in an online game things are a bit different. It is still true that the players would have no clue if any such thing happened. But poker sites are spending a considerable amount of energy assuring their players that they have various collusion detection scripts in place. This would tend to suggest (if we believe what they say) that they would have some sort of script that would ring some kind of alarm bell, and alert the staff running the online poker room, if such occurrence were ever to take place. So, even if online poker games are not physically monitored by surveillance staff, it would be logical to conclude that the script that is running the show is capable of detecting some of the most blatant illogical plays that some players may do to benefit from various situations. At least in theory this should be the case, if we believe them.

But collusion in online poker is way ahead of Maskelyne's time, so let's see what he had to say about collusion back in the day when messages were still carried by horse and buggy.

THE words which head this chapter are hard words. One cannot deny it. They are intended to be so. Being so, they belong to the class of utterances which, according to the sages, 'break no bones.' This may be true enough even of collusion and conspiracy. But in all conscience, or the lack of it, these have broken hearts and fortunes enough to compensate for any amount of merely physical incapacity.

There cannot be the slightest doubt that a large proportion of the cheating which goes on, in what is called polite society, is accomplished by these means. The high position of the players is, unfortunately, no guarantee of fidelity. One may be cheated anywhere, even in exclusive clubs of the most recherché character, as many know to their cost. Practically, there is no high and dry rock upon which the gambler can perch, and say to the tide of cheating -- 'Thus far shall thou come, and no farther.' He is not safe anywhere, for he can never tell who may not be tempted, at some time or other, to resort to dishonest practices. The sharp is not always a professional; he may, now and then, be an amateur. Where the stakes are heavy, the temptation to take an unfair advantage of an opponent is occasionally too great for some to resist; especially where no risk of detection is run in so doing. Accidental circumstances will sometimes give a player overwhelming advantages in the play, of which none but he are aware; and who shall say that he will not avail himself of the I opportunity which chance has thrown in his way? Against this sort of thing, however, there is no other safeguard than the watchfulness of the players. Where, then, is the 'game,' the amusement, if one has to play, armed at all points, as it were, and living in dread of 'pickpockets?

When Maskelyne says, "Accidental circumstances will sometimes give a player overwhelming advantages in the play..." he is talking about what is now commonly known as "advantage play." It has been argued that advantage play is quite the same thing as cheating. It has been argued that, to fall into the category of cheating, the player must somehow actively engage in an activity that alters the outcome of the game; however, when a player is simply taking advantage of what is available, the player is engaging in advantage play. Of course, whether or not advantage play is still a form of cheating is something that can be argued till the end of time. But from a moral point of view, if an apple happens to fall into your pocket, without you influencing this in any way, and you make the decision to walk away with it, it is still stealing. Those who argue that advantage play is not cheating have not yet managed to explain why the logic should be any different when it comes to gambling.

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