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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Now that we have reached the final stage of our inquiry, the reader having been put in possession of all the facts which are material and of importance in connection with it, nothing more remains than to take a brief review of our position, as it were, and see precisely how we stand to regard the question of gambling as a whole, in fact, and see what conclusions we may arrive at with regard to it, when it is viewed with the eye of common sense, and in the light of the knowledge we have obtained. Every subject, of course, has many aspects, and gambling may be regarded from many different standpoints. In this last chapter, then, and with the reader's permission, I will take the liberty of regarding it from my own; and, no objection being raised to the proposal, I should prefer to regard these concluding remarks as being made confidentially, so to speak, between the reader and myself. If, in delivering myself of what remains to be said, I should appear to speak either egotistically or dogmatically, I crave pardon beforehand, and beg the reader to believe that, if I am inclined to emphasize any particular point bearing upon the matter in hand, it is because I feel strongly with reference to it, and not because I wish to pose in the eyes of the world as a champion of right and an opponent of wrong.

Fear has been expressed, in some quarters, that the publication of the secrets contained in this book will be the means of increasing the number of sharps; that I am simply providing a manual for the instruction of budding swindlers. This may appear very cogent reasoning to some; but, for all that, it is very poor logic, in reality. In fact, a more groundless fear could not be entertained. It would be as reasonable to say that the manufacture of safes and strong-rooms, and the increase of safeguards against thieves, will tend to augment the number of burglars. Or, to come nearer to the point at issue, one may as well assert that the exposure of spiritualistic frauds has increased the number of 'mediums.' The subject of spiritualism affords a most striking proof of the absurdity of such a contention. Contrast the state of affairs twenty-five years ago, before the crusade against spiritualistic humbug, with that of the present day. Then, dozens of impostors were doing a thriving business. The medium was as much in demand as the most popular society entertainer, and could command larger fees. Spiritualism was a fashionable amusement; the drawing-rooms of the aristocracy were constantly being darkened for sťances. Now, only two or three miserable rogues, without ability to earn a living in any other way, are dragging out a wretched existence in the East End of London, giving sťances in back parlors, and charging a fee of a shilling a head. Even in America things are not much brighter for the medium. Compare Dr. Slade's success in London with his sad end in America, a few weeks ago. In fact, the business is utterly ruined; those who have sufficient ability have become conjurers and 'exposers of spiritualism'; others have become gambling sharps and 'hypnotic subjects.' These facts constitute a complete answer to the assertion that this book will tend to increase the practice of sharping. I maintain that no young man's education should be considered complete without some knowledge of the capabilities of trickery; for, without it, he may be imposed upon by any charlatan.

Apart from the question of sharping, and with reference to the fallacies indulged in by gamblers at large, there are, among a multiplicity of others, three which demand our special attention, and with which I particularly wish to deal. These three mistaken, though very commonly entertained notions, constitute the very basis of what is called fair gambling. They are these:

1. That gambling is essentially honest.

2. That a bet may be fair to both parties.

3. That betting on fair odds, the chances of each bettor will, in the long run, so equalize themselves that neither can win nor lose, in an infinite number of bets.

Now, what I undertake to show may be summed up in three statements, which can be put per contra to the others, viz.:

1. That gambling is essentially dishonest.

2. That a bet may be unfair to both parties, but cannot possibly be fair to more than one, and that only at the expense of gross injustice to the other.

3. That a protracted run of betting gives the gambler no more chance of winning, or of recouping his losses, than he has in making a single bet.

Here, then, I bring the whole gambling fraternity sharps and flats alike about my ears. But, having courage of my opinions, I stand to my guns, and am prepared to hold my own against all comers. I will even go so far as to back my opinion in 'the good old English way' (why English?) to the extent of sixpence beyond which I never go. Stay, though, I am speaking hastily. I did once back a horse for the Derby to the extent of a guinea. When I say that the horse was 'Maskelyne, by Magic Mystery' (I believe that was the formula given by the sporting papers), perhaps I may be forgiven the extravagance for once. I have less compunction in mentioning the circumstance because the horse was 'scratched.' 'Maskelyne' was a rank outsider, and I did not even have 'a run for my money.'

But to return. I have said that gambling is essentially dishonest. This is no new statement, I am aware; but it is one upon which too much stress cannot be laid. A bet is almost universally considered to be a fair bargain. But is it? A fair bargain is one in which each person receives something which is of more value to him than that with which he has parted, or, at any rate, something which is of equal value. If either receives less value than he gives, that person has been swindled, and the fact of winning a bet signifies that one has deprived another of money for which no due consideration has been given. The gambler, of course, will argue that he does give an equivalent return for what he wins, in that he allows his opponent an equal chance of depriving him of a similar amount; that is to say, he purchases the right to cheat another by giving his opponent an equal chance of depriving him of a similar amount. In short, a bet is simply a mutual agreement to compound a felony. The fact that both parties to the transaction are equally in the wrong cannot possibly justify either. But it may be argued that no loser of a bet ever considers that he has been unjustly deprived of his money. That again is quite a mistaken notion. No man ever lost a bet who did not consider that he had every right to win it, otherwise he would never have made it. Therefore he is just as much robbed as though he had had his pocket picked, Because another will cheat me if he has the chance, that does not justify me in cheating him if I can. If a man seeks to take my life, I may be justified in killing him, as a last resource, in order to protect myself; but, in a transaction involving merely pounds, shillings and pence, there is no necessity to fight a man with his own weapons. The act of cheating is not the weapon with which to combat the desire to cheat; yet this is what actually takes place even in so-called fair gambling.

It must be obvious to any one who will take the trouble to think over the matter, that chances which are fair and equal are a question of proportion rather than of actual amounts and odds. At first sight, however, it would appear that if a man stands an equal chance of winning or losing a certain amount, nothing fairer could possibly be imagined, from whatever point of view one may regard it. I venture to say, nevertheless, that this is not so. Suppose for the moment that you are a poor man, and that you meet a rich acquaintance who insists upon your spending the day with him, and having what the Americans call 'a large time.' At the end of the day he says to you, 'I will toss you whether you or I pay this day's expenses.' Such a proposition is by no means uncommon, and suppose you win, what is the loss to him? Comparatively nothing. He may never miss the amount he has to pay; but if you lose, your day's outing may have to be purchased by many weeks of inconvenience.

A bet of a hundred pounds is a mere bagatelle to a rich man, but it may be everything to a poor one. In the one case the loss entails no inconvenience, in the other it means absolute ruin. It must- be granted, then, in matters of this kind, that proportion is the chief factor, not the actual figures. If you are with me so far, you are already a step nearer to my way of thinking.

Let us proceed a step further, and see how it is that a bet is necessarily unfair to both parties. The simple fact is that no two men can make a wager, however seemingly fair, or however obviously unfair, without at once reducing the actual value to them of their joint possessions. This can be proved to a demonstration. We will take a case in which the chances of winning are exactly equal, both in amount and in proportion to the wealth of two bettors. Suppose that your possessions are precisely equal in amount to those of a friend, and that your circumstances are similar in every respect. There can be, then, no disparity arising from the fact of a bet being made between you, where the chances of winning or losing a certain amount are the same to each. To present the problem in its simplest form, we will say that you each stake one-half of your possessions upon the turn of a coin. If it turns up head you win, if it falls 'tail up' your friend wins. Nothing could possibly be fairer than this from a gambler's point of view. You have each an equal chance of winning, you both stake an equal amount, you both stand to lose as much as you can win, and, above all, the amount staked bears the same value, proportionately, to the wealth of each person. One cannot imagine a bet being made under fairer conditions, yet how does it work out in actual fact? You may smile when you read the words, but you both stand to lose more than you can possibly win! You doubt it! Well, we shall see if it cannot be made clear to you.

Suppose the turn of the coin is against you, and therefore you lose half your property; what is the result? To-morrow you will say, 'What a fool I was to bet! I was a hundred per cent, better off yesterday than I am to-day.' That is precisely the state of the case; you were exactly a hundred per cent, better off. Now, the most feeble intellect will at once perceive that a hundred per cent, can only be balanced by a hundred per cent. If you stood a chance of being that much better off yesterday than you are to-day, to make the chances equal you should have had an equal probability of being a hundred per cent, better off to-day than you were yesterday. That is obvious upon the face of it, since we agree that these questions are, beyond dispute, matters of proportion, and not of actual amounts.

Then we will suppose you win the toss, and thus acquire half your friend's property; what happens then? When the morrow arrives you can only say, 'I am fifty per cent, better off to-day than I was yesterday.' That is just it. If you lose, your losses have amounted to as much as you still possess, whilst, if you win, your gains amount only to one- third of what you possess. The. plain facts of the case, then, are simply that the moment you and your friend have made the bet referred to, you have considerably reduced the value of your joint possessions. Not in actual amount, it is true, but in actual fact, nevertheless; for whichever way the bet may go, the loss sustained by one represents a future deprivation to that one far greater than the future proportional advantage gained by the other. The mere fact of one having gained precisely as much as the other has lost does not affect the ultimate result in the least. The inconvenience arising from any loss is always greater than the convenience resulting from an equal gain.

No man in his senses can be excused for making a bet of this kind, even if one merely considers the in justice inflicted upon himself; whilst in the case of a man who has others dependent upon him, such a proceeding could be nothing short of criminal. If by this time you do not see that gambling, in any form, means a possible loss of more than can be gained, all I can say is that you should turn socialist, being totally unable to protect or even recognize your individual interests. Civilization is wasted upon you. Properly speaking, if you gamble fairly you are a flat; if you gamble unfairly you are a sharp: one or the other you must be. To be a wise man, and an honest man, you cannot gamble at all.

Some of course will meet me half-way, and admitting the truth of all I have put forward, will say, 'Yes, that is all very well, but no gambler ever does stake half his possessions upon a single bet; therefore the proportion which any individual wager bears to his entire property is infinitesimal.' That, again, is perfectly true; but I cannot see nor have I ever met with any one who could show me what difference can possibly exist between a small number of bets for a large amount, and a large number of bets for small amounts. Then comes in the third fallacy I have mentioned. 'The chances,' some will say, 'are bound to equalize themselves in the long run, and then one can neither win nor lose.' Dear, good, simple-minded souls! The proportion of gains to losses, I grant, will become more equalized in an infinite number of bets where the probabilities are always equal; but the amount which may be lost, and the proportion it bears to the belongings of the bettor, may ever increase with the infinity of the bets.

Suppose, for instance, two men toss up a coin ten times, and stake a pound upon the result of each toss. We will say that one of them loses nine times, and wins only once. He has lost four-fifths of the amount he has staked in the aggregate; but what does it amount to? Merely eight pounds. But suppose they go on tossing for ten thousand times, and that the same player loses only a hundredth part of the amount he has staked during the whole time, he wins ninety-nine times for every hundred losses. The proportion lost is infinitely less than in the former case, yet the actual amount is one hundred pounds. Let the throws be continued to a million times, and suppose the player loses only a thousandth part of what he has staked from beginning to end, his losses will amount to exactly one thousand pounds.

To talk of an infinite number of bets equalizing the chances is sheer nonsense; it simply equalizes the ratio of the gains to the losses. The actual amounts won or lost may increase indefinitely. At the same time the player's original wealth does not vary; and the man who has a thousand pounds may as well lose it in one throw as in a million better, in fact, as he will waste less time over it.

I have tried to make this point somewhat clear, because it is one upon which even the most scientific gamblers -- if one may use the term -- are more or less befogged. They all think that, if they only keep on long enough, they are sure to win, or at any rate to recoup their losses: but the life of any man is too short to be certain of any such result, even in fair gambling and most gambling is not fair. The punter, of course, after the manner of his kind, will differ from me in this last statement. He is of opinion that the odds in ordinary betting are fair. Well, if that is so, I should like to know who keeps the bookmakers. I know I don't, and I know the punter does. If he is satisfied, so are the 'bookies'; and certainly other people have no cause to complain. The bookmaker, above all people, makes an infinite number of bets, and therefore, theoretically, he should neither win nor lose; but somehow he contrives to 'live and move and have his being.' Those who assist in maintaining him should best know how he manages it, but they don't seem to realize it.

The absolute immorality of gambling the desire to obtain money to which one has no right in any form is beyond dispute; and the sooner this fact is generally recognized, the better it will be for the world at large. There are some, of course, in whom the passion is ingrained, and from whose natures it can never be wholly eradicated. But everyone should clearly understand that the vice is as reprehensible in proportion to its magnitude as that, for instance, of either lying or stealing. In an earlier chapter of this book I have said that directly a man becomes a gambler he also becomes a person whose honesty is open to suspicion. This may appear to be a somewhat harsh and sweeping assertion, but I maintain that it is absolutely justified by the facts which come under my notice almost daily. As an example of the laxity (to use no stronger term) which gradually undermines the moral nature of the gambler, however conscientious he may originally have been, I may quote the following instance.

A few days ago a friend of mine, who belongs to a West End Club, was discussing the subject of gambling with a fellow member. In course of conversation he put the query, 'If you detected a man in cheating at the Club, what should you do?' To this the other replied. 'I should back his play; and then, after the game was over, I should make him give me half his winnings.' This is what gambling had done for a presumably honest 'Club man.'

With reference to the numberless systems of which one hears now and then, which are supposed to provide a certain means of enabling any gambler to win, despite the chances and changes of fortune, it may be as well to say a few words. These 'martingales,' as they are called, are always intended for use, more especially in the great gambling- houses of Monte Carlo and elsewhere.1 Some of them, I should say, are as old as gambling itself; others are of comparatively recent invention; but, one and all, they are systems by means of which any amount of money may be won, and any number of banks may be broken on paper. There is the trouble, they are useless in practice. They really look so promising, however, that it is very difficult to convince some people of their futility. But the fact remains that these systems have been in operation for generations, and never yet has a gaming establishment been ruined by their aid. This ounce of experimental proof is worth many pounds of reasoning. Sometimes, of course, the martingale will answer its purpose splendidly for a while; but, sooner or later, the inevitable crash comes, when the system breaks down, and the gambler is ruined. The great defect of all these devices is that, although they may promise a constant succession of comparatively small gains, there is always the chance of making a very heavy loss. This chance, of course, appears to the gambler to be so remote as to be unworthy of consideration; but, alas! that apparently remote chance is the rock upon which generations of punters have split. It always turns up eventually, and then the bank recovers all it has lost, and in all probability a great deal more.

*1 -- A friend of mine, who has just recently paid a visit to Monte Carlo, describes a method of cheating the bank which came under his notice during his slay in that hallowed spot. He observed, one evening, a man standing by a roulette-table, who persistently put down a five-franc piece upon the winning number, after it had been declared. Of course, the 'croupier' never failed to detect the manúuvre, and removed the stake. The fact which passed unnoticed, however, was that a gold coin, value twenty francs, lay hidden beneath the silver one as it was put down. Being commanded to take up the five-franc piece, the man did so without hesitation; but the gold piece remained on the table among the other stakes. When the winnings were paid by the bank, that particular coin was claimed by a confederate as being his stake, and was paid accordingly. In roulette, the winning number receives 35 times the amount staked; therefore the conspirators netted 700 francs each time they succeeded in this little operation. I should think the bank would not be long in discovering a robbery of this kind, if it were very frequently perpetrated.

The simplest form of martingale, and one which is typical of them all, however much more complicated or 'improved' they may be, is the one which consists of the practice of doubling the stake after every loss. For instance, at rouge-et-noir the gambler may stake a sovereign and lose it. The next time he stakes two sovereigns, and, if he loses, his third stake will be four sovereigns. By pursuing this system it is obvious that, whenever he does win, he will gain a sovereign over and above his losses. Having won he will begin again with a sovereign and double his bets each time, until he wins as before. It would seem, then, that there must be a constant influx of sovereigns to the gambler; and so there may be for a time, but it will not last. In fact, he may be ruined at the very first sitting. This is how it happens. The success of the system depends upon the assumption that the chances must, sooner or later, turn in favor of the player; they cannot be against him for ever, so he must win in the end. That is what he thinks. But what he loses sight of is the fact that long spells of ill luck are particularly common. It is quite an ordinary thing for a player to lose twenty times in succession; and meanwhile the amount of the stakes has been increasing after the manner of the familiar problem in arithmetic, wherein the nails in a horse's shoes play so prominent a part. The fact is, if the player has lost eleven times, his twelfth stake will amount to £2,048. Obviously, then, a very short run of bad fortune will either cause the player to lose all his available money, or bring the stake up to the amount beyond which the bank will not allow any single bet to be made. What becomes of the martingale then? Ask of the winds.

And thus it is with all these systems. Their inventors fully believe in them, until they learn from bitter experience that they have overlooked the one weak point, the fallacy underlying the whole operation. Wherever there is a chance of making a number of small gains, there is always a chance of sustaining one great loss, which will swallow up many hundred times the value of any single stake. From this unfortunate circumstance there is no escape, no matter how ingenious the system may be, and notwithstanding any amount of infallibility it may appear to possess. A mathematician would demonstrate the folly of relying upon any martingale, and lay his finger upon the weak points in a few minutes. In short, these things one and all provide a means of winning which is just about as reliable as the advice given by the 'Old Pard' in 'My Sweetheart,' whose dying words were, 'Always copper the Queen on the last turn.' This, of course, was intended to refer to the game of faro. One may suppose that when the Queen remained in the dealing-box until the last turn, his experience had been that it always turned up for the bank, and hence his advice to 'copper.' Another person's experience might have been just the opposite, and in that case the advice would be quite the contrary. Everything of this kind hinges upon superstition, and a belief in good and bad luck. When a 'lucky' gambler wins, his acquaintances express no surprise; they consider his good-fortune to be part and parcel of his nature. When he begins to lose, they suffer not a whit more astonishment, because such luck as his could not possibly last. The theories in each case are utterly at variance with one another, but the absurdity of the position never seems to reveal itself to the gambling intellect. The ultimate fate of the confirmed gambler, however fortunate he may be for a time, has always been, without exception, ruin and destitution. That is the only result ever achieved by the punter in the end.

So much, then, for 'fair gambling.' As to the blacker side of the question, as revealed in this book, what can be said of it, or what need be said of it? The reader may draw his own conclusions, which will doubtless vary according to the fact of his being either a sharp or a flat. The sharps will, unquestionably, be among those who are most anxious to see what disclosures are made herein; let us hope they will be satisfied with the thoroughness of the revelations. It would be a pity to disappoint them. On the other hand, the flats will find much food for thought in these pages. They must not run away with the impression that by mastering the details thus put before them they will render themselves proof against sharping. If they imagine anything of the kind they will become simply 'fly flats,' and that will not improve their chances very much if they fall into the hands of an expert. Apart from the impossibility of giving every device employed by all the sharps in existence, it must be remembered that fresh trickeries are continually being invented, though it may be many years before new means of cheating can be devised which will prove so effective as those enjoyed by the sharp at the present day. He is generally equal to the occasion, however, and has his own individual methods of working; very often methods of which even his brother sharps are ignorant, and which die with him. We can only hope that this book will be the means of opening the eyes of his dupes, and of rendering the chances of success in cheating less than they have been hitherto.

But we cannot hope that the sharp will find no dupes in the future; that is altogether too much to expect. As long as the world is principally composed of rogues and fools, so long will there be 'sharps and flats.' 'Surely the pleasure is as great in being cheated as to cheat,' but the profit does not apportion itself in the same manner. The sharp continually profits by his experience, but the flat never.

At any rate, I have done the best I can to put forward a clear account of the methods of swindling at games of chance and skill which are adopted at the present day. At the same time 1 have tried to indicate the best means of avoiding being cheated. It only remains for the reader to make the best use of the information given. I have no fear that, in writing what I have, I shall be accused by sensible people of assisting those sharps who may not know all that is here published. The resources of these men are always equal to their necessities; they can only cheat, at the worst, and the sharp will always find means of cheating so long as he can find dupes. Besides, this book will tend to make his dupes as wise as himself, and should have the effect of rendering them scarce.

Having published such information as I have been able to acquire, I have no intention of relaxing- my vigilance in keeping a look-out for fresh developments and new devices. Having put my hand to the plough I shall not turn back; and, after me, I have every reason to believe that my son will continue the work. He has taken the liveliest interest in the production of this book; and, indeed, the whole of the illustrations are by him, with the exception of the frontispiece, which is by my esteemed and talented friend, Alfred Bryan.

Here, then, I will leave the work for the present, trusting that I have, in some measure, succeeded in metaphorically flattening the 'sharps' and sharpening the 'flats.'

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