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 Two-Card Gaffed Faro Box

The two-card box is one of the most expensive cheating tools a sharp can use. The prices charged for them are something exorbitant, as may be seen on reference to the catalogues. To be of any use, however, they must be well-made, and then they will earn their cost in a very little time. Badly-made, the sharp would find that, however cheap they appeared to be, they would really be the most expensive and ruinous contrivances he had ever known. They are made in many varieties, and known by as many poetic names, but the effect is the same in all cases. Pressure being applied to some part of the box, the mouth is caused to open sufficiently wide to allow two cards to be drawn out together. The best boxes are those high-priced commodities of which the catalogues say that they will 'lock up to a square box.' This does not mean a rectangular box, but a box that will bear examination. 'Fair' and 'square,' in this instance, mean the same thing. The only fault in the description is that the box, being false, cannot possibly become genuine with any amount of locking. It should be said that when locked it appears to be genuine, and may be examined without fear of the trick being detected. Some boxes are made to lock by sliding them along the table. The bottom moves a little, this movement serving to fix all the movable parts. Some are so arranged that they are always locked. That is their normal condition, so they can be examined at any time. When it is required to widen the mouth and allow two cards to pass out together, a small piece of wire, or 'needle' as it is called, is made to rise out of the shuffling-board or table; this, pressing against one of the rivets, or into a little hole in the bottom of the box, unlocks the mechanism for the moment. Another form of the two-card box is one which has the bottom plate made of very thin metal, the 'springing in' of which, when pressed upon in the centre, unlocks the 'fake.' Some of the forms which unlock by sliding on the table are the most complicated, requiring sometimes three movements to free the working parts and allow the slit to widen. The movements, of course, have to follow in proper succession, as in any other kind of combination-lock. This prevents any accidental unlocking of the box whilst it is in the hands of strangers.1

*1 -- See reprint of dealer's advertisement, p. 300.

Some of the dealing boxes that were fitted with locking mechanisms were so well made that it was (is) almost impossible to discover the gaff, unless one knows exactly what to look for. Oftentimes those locking boxes were made in such way that a secret tool was required to unlock the gaff. And often, as time passed and memories faded, these unlocking tools would get lost forever.

Faro boxes are often sold at auctions and eBay. It has been known to happen that faro boxes appeared at an auction and were not even described as gaffed. Of course a fully-functional gaffed faro box is substantially more desirable, and expensive, then a fair one. Furthermore, a fully -functional gaffed faro box with a locking mechanism is even more desirable for collectors and may carry a prohibitive price tag. However, it has been known to happen that collectors have picked up such boxes at auctions, at a fraction of the cost, simply because no one had any idea that it was a gaffed box.

At the beginning of the game, then, the cards are counted to make sure that there are the proper number, and we will suppose that the dealing-box is a two-card with needle-tell attachment. One of the cards in the pack, therefore, will be cut with the projecting corner. We will suppose it to be the king of diamonds. Another king of diamonds, also cut to 'tell,' is held out in the mechanical shuffling-board. Whilst shuffling the cards, the dealer causes the holdout to add the 'odd' card to the pack. Thus there are two kings of diamonds in use.

The cards being put into the dealing-box the game begins. The dealer keeps his eye upon the needle-tell, and meanwhile unlocks the mechanism of his box; that is, if it is made to lock, which is not necessarily the case, although safer. When the needle indicates the fact that one of the duplicate cards in this case a king of diamonds is immediately below the top card in the box, the dealer has to be guided by circumstances. If the card will win for him, well and good. He deals the cards as they should be dealt and the king falls to him. It is evident that it would never do to have two kings of diamonds turn up in the game, the cue-keeper and cue cards would record five kings. So the dealer still watches the needle, and when he finds that the second king of diamonds is the top card but one, he exerts the necessary pressure upon the box to widen the slit. Then, instead of withdrawing only one card two are passed out together, and placed as one upon one of the piles. This squares accounts with the case-keeper.

This placement of a double card upon a face up pile should like risky business, in a gambling saloon at a time that has come to be known as the Wild West. But we'll just have to take Maskelyne's word for it and assume that some saloons were in fact employing this strategy. The other possibility is, of course, that these types of gaffed boxes were invented, listed in the crooked gambling catalogs, sold to customers, but seldom ever attempted to be used. Should this be the case, this would not be the first cheating gaff that ended up at the back of a drawer, never to see the light of day, until a century later when it was sold at an auction.

It may happen, of course, that when the first of the tell-cards comes to the top it would lose for the dealer. In that case he would work the 'squeeze,' and deal out the odd card with the one above it. Then he has to take his chance with the second of the duplicates, and the game becomes simply what it would be if honestly played. The advantage to the dealer resulting from the employment of the 'odd' is that it provides him with the means of winning, or at the worst prevents him from losing on one turn of the deal. This may not seem very much, but added to the chances of splits turning up it really means a great deal.

When the dealer is a proficient in sleight-of-hand he will carefully note the line of play adopted by certain 'fat' players, or, as the unenlightened would say, players who bet heavily. During the next shuffle he will put up the cards so as to cause these 'fat' men to lose, and somewhere about the middle of the pack he will place the 'odd.' Or it may be he will so arrange matters that the shuffle and the cut will bring one of the duplicate cards about a third of the way down the pack and the other a third of the distance from the other end. Thus he will have two opportunities of withdrawing two cards at once, either of which he can use as may suit him best.

The term "fat" player is not used any more. Nowadays these heavy bettors are commonly known as "whales." And big whales are sometimes even flown in on private jets.

The biggest whale of the 20th century was Japanese businessman Akio Kashiwagi, who wagered $14 million per hour on baccarat. The problem is that some of his bankroll apparently belonged to the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia. Exactly how much he lost is unclear and it is rumored that he owed at least $10 million in credit. This didn't sit well with the Yakuza, so one day his wife found pieces of her husband scattered around the house. But of course, that was all before Maskelyne's time...

Supposing that hitherto the heaviest betting has been on the high cards, the dealer will put up the pack in such a way that only the low ones win for the players. That is to say, the cards will come out alternately high and low, the high ones falling to the bank. As the game proceeds the first of the tell-cards by degrees comes nearer and nearer the top, and the dealer looks out for the needle-tell to indicate its approach. By this time, perhaps, the players may have noticed that the high cards are losing, and therefore may have altered their play, betting now upon the low cards. If this is so, the bank will begin to lose, but not for long. When the tell card has become the second from the top the dealer manipulates the two-card device and draws out two cards at once. The run of the game is now altered. The cards still come out alternately high and low, but the high cards now go to the players. As they have taken to betting on the low ones they lose in consequence. If, however, the players show no signs of changing their mode of betting when the first tell-card nears the top, the dealer does not alter the run of the cards, but goes straight on. When he comes to the second duplicate card he must deal out two at once, or the 'odd' would be discovered.

The cases given above are put in the simplest form, for clearness; but it must not be imagined that anyone investigating a suspected case of cheating would find the cards arranged to come out always high and low alternately. The dealer knows better than to risk anything of that kind. He would be caught directly. The cards are merely put up in a general sort of way, so as to give a preponderance in one direction or the other; the dealer being at liberty to alter the general run of the cards at either of the two duplicates. Of course he might even have two extra cards in the pack, these and their duplicates being tell-cards. That would give him a choice of two out of four opportunities of altering the run; but the more devices he employs the greater the chances of detection. One turn in the deal is plenty. It gives the dealer all the opportunities he needs; and in the long run he is bound to win. It is said that in some 'skin' houses in New York decks of 54, 55, or even 56 cards are frequently played on soft gamblers.

The two-card box described on this page was the most expensive of all gaffed boxes. This also makes it the most desirable collectors' item, of all faro boxes, that now carries an even steeper price tag. But interestingly enough, the more elaborate gaffs are not necessarily what professional cheats prefer. In fact, usually the exact opposite is true. In the case of faro boxes, the sand-tell box seems like the best of them all, from a practical point of view. There is no "mechanism" to speak of and there is very little to be discovered. Even if the double wall is discovered, it doesn't really look like much. By comparison, a needle-tell box looks like and obvious cheating gaff, should the miniature springs and needles be discovered.

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