foreword to the online edition
II. common sharpers and their tricks
III. marked cards and the manner
of their employment
VII. collusion and conspiracy
VIII. the game of faro
IX. prepared cards
XI. high ball poker
XII. roulette and allied games
XIII. sporting houses
XIV. sharps and flats
SHARPS AND FLATS
COLLUSION and CONSPIRACY
The Havana Incident
At the date of the narrative, Havana, according to the historian,
was the place most addicted to gambling of any in the world. As
he also observed, that was not saying a little. And it was in that
haven of delight that the occurrences related took place.
A Spanish sharp, named Bianco, purchased in his own country a tremendous
stock of playing-cards; and, in view of the undertaking in which
he was about to embark, he opened every one of the packs, marked
all the cards, and sealed them up again in their wrappers. This
he did so skillfully that there was no evidence of the fact that
the packages had ever been tampered with. The stupendous feat involved
in a proceeding of this kind being successfully accomplished, the
cards were shipped off to Havana and there disposed of to the card-dealers
at a ruinous sacrifice. So good indeed were these cards, and so
cheap, that in a very little while the dealers could not be induced
to purchase those of any other make. Thus after a time there were
hardly any cards circulating in the place other than those which
had been falsified by Bianco.
The sharp, it may be imagined, was not long in following upon the
track of his cards; and being a man of good address, he contrived
to obtain introductions into the best society. He played everywhere,
of course, and where he played he won. Hardly ever being called
upon to use any cards but his own, it is not surprising that he
should rapidly acquire wealth among people whose chief recreation
appeared to be gambling. To avert suspicion, however, he was careful
to complain constantly of the losses he had sustained.
Among the various clubs in Havana was one which was of the most
exclusive kind. The committee was so vigilant, and such great precautions
were taken to prevent the admission of doubtful characters, that
hitherto it had been kept free from the contamination of cheating.
Into this club, however, Bianco contrived to effect an entrance,
and carried on his operations therein with much success. He was
destined, notwithstanding the zeal of the committee, to remain alone
in the field but a very short time. Another sharp, a Frenchman this
time, contrived also to obtain admission to the club; and he, too,
set to work to prospect the country, thinking that he had possessed
himself of a gold-mine as yet unexploited.
Accordingly, this second adventurer, Laforcade by name, seized
a favorable opportunity of appropriating a quantity of the club
cards. These he took home with him for the purpose of marking them,
intending to return them when marked to the stock from which they
had been taken. One may imagine the man's surprise upon opening
the packs to find that every card had already been marked.
Evidently, then, somebody had been before him, and Laforcade determined
to find out who it could be. He made inquiries as to where the cards
were obtained, and, purchasing some at the same place, found that
these also were marked. In fact, every pack that he could procure
had been tampered with in like manner. Here then was a gigantic
swindle, and he determined to profit by it. He would let the other
man do all the work, but he would share in the profits. If the other
man, whoever he might be, would not listen to reason, he would threaten
to hand him over to the police.
Having arrived at this decision, he set to work to watch the play
of the various members of the club, and, naturally, the invariable
good fortune of Bianco could not fail to attract his attention.
Keeping strict watch upon that gentleman's proceedings, Laforcade
soon arrived at the conclusion that Bianco, and no other, was the
man of whom he was in search. He therefore took an early opportunity
of engaging his brother-swindler in a quiet game of écarté,
whilst no other members of the club were present.
The game was played, and Bianco won, as a matter of course. Then, as usual, the winner asked his opponent if he was satisfied, or whether
he would prefer to have his revenge in another game. Much to his surprise, however, instead of saying simply whether he preferred to play
again or not, the loser coolly rested his elbows on the table, and regarding his adversary composedly, gave him to understand that the entire
secret of the cheerful little deception which was being practiced was in his possession. This, of course, came rather as a bomb-shell into
Bianco's camp, and reduced him at once to a condition in which any terms of compromise would be acceptable, in preference to exposure and
It's really hard to imagine why a professional
cheat, such as Bianco, would readily admit his involvement in planting
marked cards. Those cards didn't have his name on them and there
was no evidence that would connect him to those cards.
Matters having arrived at this point, Laforcade proposed terms
upon which he was willing to come to an understanding with the Spaniard.
These were, briefly, that Bianco should continue his system of plunder,
on condition that he handed over to his fellow-cheat one-half of
the proceeds. These terms were agreed to, and upon that basis of
settlement the agreement was entered into.
For some time after this all went well with the two swindlers.
Laforcade established himself in luxury, and gave his days to pleasure.
Bianco ran all the risk; the other had nothing to do but sit at
home and receive his share of the profits. It is true he could keep
no check upon his associate, to see that he divided the spoil equitably;
but, holding the sword of Damocles over him, he could always threaten
him with exposure if the profits were not sufficiently great.
At length, however, Bianco began to tire of the arrangement, which
perhaps was only natural. Besides, the supply of marked cards was
beginning to run short, and could not be depended upon much longer.
This being so, the prime mover of the plot having won as much as
he possibly could, promptly vacated the scene of his exploits.
The unfortunate Laforcade thus found himself, as the Americans
say, 'left.' The prospect was not altogether a pleasant one for
him. He had acquired expensive tastes which he might no longer be
enabled to indulge; he had accustomed himself to luxuries he could
no longer hope to enjoy. He had not the skill of the departed Bianco;
yet, nevertheless, he was compelled to (metaphorically) roll up
his sleeves and work for his living. Things were not so bad as they
might have been. There was still a good number of falsified cards
in use; so he determined to make the best possible use of his opportunities
while they remained.
He therefore set to work with ardour, and success largely attended
his efforts. At last, however, the crash came. He was detected in
cheating, and the whole secret of the marked cards was brought to
Even in this unfortunate predicament Laforcade's good-fortune,
strange to say, did not desert him. He was taken before the Tribunal,
tried, and acquitted. Absolutely nothing could be proved against
him. It is true the cards were marked, but then, so were nearly
all the others in Havana. Laforcade did not mark them, as was proved
in the evidence. He did not import them. To all intents and purposes
he had nothing to do with them whatever. It could not even be proved
that he knew of the cards being marked at all. Thus the case against
him broke down utterly, and he got off scot free. It is, nevertheless,
presumable that he did not long remain in that part of the world.
As to what became of Bianco, nothing is known. Possibly his record
concluded with the familiar words 'lived happily ever after'; but
most probably not. The end of such men is seldom a happy one.
The whole story is a bit hard to believe. But whatever the validity of the story may be it is also a bit odd that Maskelyne
decided to include this story in the chapter on "collusion and conspiracy," instead of putting it in the marked
The recital of the above-mentioned circumstances will serve to accentuate the contention that it is impossible wholly to guard against cheating.
Here was a case in which the utmost caution was observed, in order to exclude cheats and impostors from a club; and yet it is seen that, within
a very short time, two men of the sharp persuasion contrived to effect an entrance. If this is possible in the case of a club, where there
is not only a committee to investigate the bona fides of every applicant for membership, but also a large body of members presumably alive
to their own interests who have to be satisfied of the fitness of the candidates for election, what chance has a mere private individual of
protecting himself against the sharp and his insidious ways? Those two men, Bianco and Laforcade, must have had friends among the inhabitants
of Havana, friends who would have been horrified to know the real character of those whose intimacy they found so agreeable. Among the dupes
of those two adventurers there must have been some who would have resented bitterly any aspersion of the honesty of their associates. We have
seen the return they gained for their friendship, and what has happened once may happen again.