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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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 imprisonment.

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 light.

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 cards chapter.

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.

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