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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Today card players and gamblers don't have a shortage of resources to get information about gambling. In fact, there is an overabundance of information, especially when it comes to the subject of gambling. And it it this overabundance that creates clutter and also obscures the fact that the information is not versatile enough.

When it comes to gambling there is one particular kind of information that is not talked about, enough. That is the crooked aspect of gambling; in other words, cheating. One reason why very few talk about cheating is because very few want to hear anything about it. But the fact is that gambling is "an industry built on greed" (in the words of David Johnston, from Temples of Chance). And it is this greed, i.e. the foundation upon which the gambling industry is built upon, that has always been the foundation for frauds.

Even in this day and age, in a world where we are constantly bombarded by violence and scams, talk about cheating in conjunction with gambling seems to be taboo. Those who wish to talk about it are often ignored and/or ridiculed. In the old days, we should assume, it may have been even more difficult to talk about the subject of crooked gambling, at least in public. With this in mind, we can only admire the few authors who dared to talk about this subject, possibly at the risk of being ridiculed or at least frowned upon. But John Nevil Maskelyne ignored the ignorant and went ahead to publish a controversial book about crooked gambling and cheating with cards. His work was not met with laughs, however. His book, Sharps and Flats became an instant classic.

THAT 'it requires all kinds of men to make a world,' is an aphorism which may or may not be gainsaid, according to the aspect in which it is regarded. For whilst, on the one hand, we are painfully cognizant of the fact that this world, as we find it, is composed of 'all sorts and conditions of men,' and among them not a few sorts with which we could very readily dispense, still, on the other hand, the idea of a world with some of the existing components omitted is by no means inconceivable. Do we not, in fact, every day of our lives, meet with schemes, philanthropic and otherwise, formulated expressly for the regeneration of man? Yes, we know them of old; those schemes which, according to their gifted authors, are to elevate mankind to one universal level of goodness and purity. Sad to say, however, in spite of these well-meant efforts, continued from time immemorial, mankind would appear to be in about the same unregenerate condition as ever. The 'kinds of men' seem to multiply rather than to diminish, and the long-deferred millennium looms as far off in the dim and distant future as at any period of the world's history.

Accepting, then, this many-sided world of ours as an established fact, impossible of modification, it is obvious that, to quote another time-honored proverb, and say that 'one half the world does not know how the other half lives,' is to convey but a very feeble and inadequate idea of the real facts of the case. All things considered, it may be safely said that the majority know far too little of the means of subsistence employed by their fellows, and, in consequence, often suffer for that lack of knowledge. The fact is, too many of us possess the gentleness of the dove (more or less) without the qualifying and ever-necessary wisdom of the serpent.

Among the bye-paths of existence, among the various underhand methods of obtaining a living sweet little conceptions evolved, presumably, from the primordial basis of original sin -- probably there is none so little understood by the community at large as the art and practice of 'sharping.' At the same time, it is not too much to say that there is no subject more worthy of serious consideration, when regarded in the relation it holds to the moral well-being of mankind in general.

It is, of course, common knowledge that there are in existence individuals who live by cheating at games of chance and skill, but few persons have any idea of the extent to which the practice obtains, or of the number of the professors of this particular branch of swindling.

Possibly, of the work-a-day inhabitants of this planet, nine persons out of ten of the majority who are 'indifferent honest,' will be inclined to a belief that sharping, at the worst, can form but a very insignificant factor in the social problems of modern times. A glance at the contents of this book, however, will serve to remove that very erroneous impression. The author is not raising a 'bogey' for the purpose of pretending to demolish it. The specter is a very substantial one indeed, and the task of 'laying' it is far beyond the power of any one man to accomplish.

The system, in fact, is a gigantic one, and its professors are legion. It is as thriving an industry (save the mark) as any in the world. It is as perfectly organized in every department as any legitimate business. Its markets are regulated by the same inexorable laws of supply and demand, competition and cooperation, which govern the development of every branch of commerce. It has its manufacturers, its wholesale houses, its canvassers and retail dealers, all in regular form. Its price-lists, descriptive pamphlets, circulars and advertisements are issued as methodically as those of bonâ fide merchants and traders. Its ramifications extend to every quarter of the globe.

This book will show that not only is a thriving trade in cheating utensils carried on openly and unblushingly, but also that there must be an enormous number of swindlers at large, who live by means of unfair practices in connection with all forms of gambling; sharps who are still undetected, and, notwithstanding the vigilance of the authorities, are still pursuing their calling under the very eyes of Justice.

Startling as these statements may appear to the un- initiated, of their absolute truth there cannot exist the slightest doubt in the mind of anyone who will take the trouble to glance through these pages. This book, in fact, may be regarded as 'The Sharp's Vade Mecum, or a Theoretical and Practical Treatise on the Art and Practice of Cheating.' No pains have been spared to make it as complete as possible, and, if advantage be taken of the instructions it contains, and any person of dishonest tendencies utilizes the same for the purpose of swindling his fellow-men, it will be entirely the fault of those who have not profited by the information which the author has given.

That the condition of affairs herein revealed should be found to exist in the midst of our boasted civilization is a fact which is, to say the least, deplorable. Further, it is a fact which urgently demands that every possible effort should be made towards its mitigation by those who may find themselves in a position to obtain information respecting these nefarious practices, and to throw light into the recesses of this obscure phase of human nature.

By far the major portion of the details given in these pages have never before been made public. Even among exponents of legitimate legerdemain, there are very few who have any cognizance of them whatever. It is obvious that a professional illusionist having a reputation for 'squareness' is at a decided disadvantage in seeking for information of this kind. The author, for instance, being so well known to the swindling fraternity as an exposer of frauds, could not possibly have acquired without assistance the countless minutiæ which have come into his possession. The very suspicion that he was engaged in such an investigation would be sufficient to dry up all sources of information, and to remove all possibility of arriving at anything of moment. He has there- fore to acknowledge his indebtedness for much that is valuable to a friend who desires to be nameless. In the assumed guise of an English 'sharp,' this gentleman has pursued his investigations to such good purpose that he has gained a fund of information relative to 'sharps and sharping,' which may be fairly said to include all the most important methods employed at the present day. The information so obtained has been freely drawn upon in the production of this book.

The head-quarters of this abominable system of wholesale robbery are to be sought for in the land which has bestowed upon civilization so many blessings of a similar character. From the spirit-medium to the wooden nutmeg, they all hail from that most 'go-ahead,' and yet most easily hoodwinked country, America. True, there are so many dunderheads of all nationalities who can never realize the truth of that simple maxim which teaches that 'honesty is the best policy,' and such a very large proportion of these have turned their steps to America, that it is, perhaps, hardly fair to regard them as an integral part of the American nation. Still there they are, and it behooves America to grasp the situation with a much firmer hand than heretofore, with a view to the suppression of these pernicious creatures, and of attaining a reputation more in accord with her honorable traditions -more worthy of the great names associated with her history.

There is every reason for believing that at the present moment England is the happy hunting-ground of the swindling fraternity, and for this reason. In America many of the older frauds are tolerably well-known to those who are addicted to gambling, but over here most of these things are absolutely unknown. Even the English sharp himself is in a condition of unsophisticated innocence compared with his American rival.

It is certain that our ocean steamboats are infested with gangs of men, provided with these means of relieving their fellow-passengers of superfluous cash. And in all probability, every one of our 'swellest' clubs possesses at least one member who makes a good living by the use of methods and contrivances never dreamt of by his dupes. It is true, the 'Dudley Smooths' of to- day are no longer cold-blooded duellists who can over- awe their victims with the dread of sword and pistol, but they are quite, as keen as they ever were, and their resources are infinitely greater than formerly.

Of course there is not the slightest necessity for anyone, however foolish, to fall a victim to the wiles of the sharper in any game either of skill or chance. There is no reason why the greatest simpleton alive should ever be cheated of his money. There is one golden rule, the observance of which must utterly checkmate the most cunning swindler. It is a rule by which the author has always been guided, and one which, were it universally adopted, would banish the cheat and his paraphernalia from the face of the earth. It is a system which is easily learned and which requires no skill in execution. It is simply to abstain from every form of gambling what- ever. Make up your mind that 'you want no man's money, and that no man shall have yours,'1 and you cannot come to much harm in this direction.

*1 -- Quotation from the late Earl Fitz-Hardinge, a most ardent sportsman.

When Maskelyne uses the word "sportsman" he is not referring to some kind of athlete. A "sportsman" is basically a cheat, or crooked gambler. The word "sportsman" comes from the fact that crooked gambling distributors used to call themselves "sporting emporiums" and were officially in the business of distribution of "sporting goods." But "sporting goods" was just the official term for cheating equipment and crooked gambling gaffs. This official term was used simply to avoid making waves; i.e. officially, these "sporting emporiums" were just in the business of selling novelties.

It would seem, however, that there is a kind of fatal fascination in gambling which some persons appear to be wholly unable to resist. It is therefore quite as well that those who will indulge in such an expensive propensity should do so, at least, with their eyes open. On this account, if for no other reason, the publication of this book is fully justified, and any apology for its appearance would be superfluous.

No attempt has been made to deal with the subject historically. Quite sufficient scope is afforded for a work of this kind in the undertaking to set forth an account of such frauds as are practiced at the present day. Our attention therefore will be chiefly directed towards devices which are of recent invention, together with those that have survived in practice from former times.

Maskelyne's statement, "No attempt has been made to deal with the subject historically..." is unclear. Is he saying that no other authors have made any attempts to deal with the subject of crooked gambling, that precede the publication of his book? Or is he saying that he hasn't made any attempts do deal with this subject, in this book? In any event, there definitely are several publications, that precede Maskelyne's Sharps and Flats, that deal with the subject of crooked gambling.

First of all there are many paintings (some of which are even considered to be masterpieces) that "deal with the subject historically," as Maskelyne had put it. These were works by Caravaggio, Georges de La Tour, Valentin and a few others. Although paintings are not books they have still captured the essence of cheating and crooked gambling and therefore should be given full credit for having "dealt with the subject historically." For further information of these works of art, please visit the Art History of Cheating chapter at CARDSHARK Online.

But painters were not the only ones that "dealt with the subject historically." In 1552, Gilbert Walker published a pamphlet entitled A Manifest Detection of Diceplay, in which he even describes a method of marking cards by means of puncture marking, or pegging, a method that is also described by Maskelyne, in this book, in the chapter on marked cards.

Another noted author was Jonathan H Greene, who also called himself the "reformed gambler." Greene published several books on gambling and cheating, of which the most famous is An Exposure of the Arts and Miseries of Gambling, published in 1847.

The originals of the various circulars &c., reprints, of which are given in the following pages, are in the author's possession. The names and addresses of the firms from which they emanate are, however, for very obvious reasons, omitted from these reprints, though all else is given verbatim. The illustrations are all taken from actual articles, purchased for the avowed purpose of cheating by their means. The reader will thus be enabled to gather some idea as to the amount of misplaced ingenuity which has been brought to bear upon the production of these fin-de-siècle appliances for robbing the unwary.

Most of the illustrations and reprints that Maskelyne used were clipped straight from the Will & Finck catalogs (and a few others). Although, technically speaking, these materials were not in the public domain at the time and Maskelyne should have sought permission before using them, it would appear that the thought never crossed his mind. Due to the nature of business that these companies were involved in, it was very unlikely that any of them would have sued Maskelyne for using their copyrighted materials. After all, the last thing they wanted was to make waves. In fact, ironically, the publication of Maskelyne's book may have even given some boost to their business. It is still a bit puzzling, however, that a publisher was willing to get involved in the business of publishing a book that was basically filled with copyrighted materials. (Note, authors are not required by law to officially register their materials with the Library of Congress, in order to establish copyright status of their own materials).

Also, due to the fact that Maskelyne wrote his book as a way to make things right, it is interesting to see that he chose to take the wrong path to make it right. The right way to do it was to hire an artist to redraw the illustrations and to use shorter quotations from the text that he lifted from the crooked gambling catalogs.

This much, then, having been said by way of introduction, we may at once proceed to consider systematically the methods of the modern 'sharp;' and to describe, for the first time in any language, the various mechanical and other devices he uses, and the manner in which they are employed.

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