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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MANY readers upon the occasion of their taking up this book for the first time will be under the impression, doubtless, that the most important revelations it contains will prove to be those connected with the manipulative devices employed by card-sharpers and others in cheating the simple-minded and unwary. But, whatever preconceptions upon the subject may have existed, the details of mere manipulation are far from being those of the most consequence to the sharp in the exercise of his profession. This, of course, must be understood to be simply a general statement which does not apply to particular cases. The low-class English sharp, for instance, relies almost entirely upon certain forms of sleight of hand to deceive the senses of his dupes. Again, there are some tricks and dodges which are practiced by even the most high-class cheats. The rule is, however, that mere sleight of hand is to a great extent obsolete; at least, among those who seek to swindle really good card-players. The methods of legerdemain are more the common property of the multitude than formerly, and this fact tends to operate very largely to the detriment of the sharp. With the legitimate prestidigitateur it is otherwise. It is true, some persons are in a position to form a better idea as to how his tricks are accomplished than was the case in years gone by; but even then, there remains the advantage that they are better able to appreciate his deftness and his ingenuity. Therefore, he is father benefited than otherwise by the spread of this particular form of knowledge. It is the poor sharp who has suffered through the enlightenment of the public. His lines have fallen in rough places of late years; yet it can hardly be said that he has not proved himself more than equal to the occasion. When checkmated in one direction, he is generally capable of creating a diversion in his own favor in another.

In card games especially there is always a risk in resorting to manipulation nowadays. There is the ever-present possibility of some one among the cheat's antagonists having sufficient knowledge to detect him in his manipulation of the cards. He is haunted by the fear that sharp eyes are watching his every movement, and he knows full well that he can accomplish nothing n this way without some movement which a trained eye would instantly detect. Once detected in cheating, his reputation is gone. He can no longer hope to find dupes among his former acquaintances. He must seek 'fresh fields and pastures new.' However precious reputation may be to an honest man, it is a thousand times more so to the sharp. Once his reputation is gone he has to depend upon chance custom; whereas he might otherwise have a nice little circle of regular clients, at whose expense he could live in ease and comfort.

As a professional sharp remarked to a young friend, to whom he was giving lessons in the art of cheating:

   'The best gamblers [they don't call themselves sharps] play with fair cards only; and, by being wonderfully keen card-players, make their brains win, instead of cheating with the pack. They play in partnership (secret), and are invincible, as they know all the various swindles and so can protect themselves from being cheated. The most successful men are among this class, although nearly all of them can do the finest work with a pack of cards.

   'The next best class are those who play marked cards well, many of them using cards that no one not acquainted with the work could find out in a lifetime. [Instance, the scroll-work on p. 51.] These men, if they can only get their own cards into a game, are sure to win.

   'Then, after these, come the class of "second dealers," "bottom dealers," and men who habitually do work with the pack to win. These men always get caught in the long run.'

Interestingly enough, the remark that "these men [i.e. sleight-of-hand artists] always get caught in the long run" can be argued, especially considering the fact that he puts paper players [i.e. cheats who use marked cards] into the higher category. Many professional cheats use marked cards -- true -- but playing paper [i.e. using marked cards] is arguably riskier than cheating by using expert manipulations. Marked cards are hard evidence of cheating. The suspicion of sleight-of-hand is just a suspicion, however. And sleight-of-hand usually doesn't leave any physical evidence.

If we divide methods of cheating at cards into three categories, collusion and partnerships, using marked cards, and cheating by means of manipulations, we can't really make a blanket statement that one category is superior than the other(s). We can, however, compare individual cheating strategies, from various categories at once, and make a general distinction which cheating strategies are superior and which ones are primitive or amateur. It would also be difficult to agree exactly which criteria to use, but for argument's sake, if we were to succeed in categorizing individual strategies by rank, we would end up with an even mix.

Arguably, the best cheating strategies are those that are capable of generating the most money, for extended periods of time, with the least chance of getting detected.

Such, then, being the case as evidenced by the word of an expert, one may form some idea of the relative value of manipulation as compared with other methods in the hands of the card-sharper.

Unfortunately, Maskelyne doesn't tell us who this expert is. It would be nice to know a bit more about this mysterious Victorian cardsharp, though.

To deal thoroughly with this branch of our subject would require a text-book of sleight of hand, as nearly all the tricks of 'hanky-panky' could be made to serve the purposes of cheating. But since so many excellent treatises of that kind are readily accessible to the public, it would be superfluous to do more than give the reader a general idea of those methods which the sharp has made peculiarly his own. Even among those which are here represented, there are many devices which are rapidly becoming obsolete, and others of which it is very doubtful how far they are used at the present moment. In sharping, like everything else, 'the old order changeth, giving place to new.' However, the reader must judge for himself as to what devices would be likely to deceive him personally, and that will help him to an understanding of what would probably have the same effect upon others. Thus he will be able to arrive at a tolerably approximate estimate of the probabilities in connection with the use or disuse of any individual trick. The author, being too old a bird to be caught with any such chaff, is really not so competent to form an opinion upon the subject. In his case familiarity, if it has not bred contempt, has at least deadened the due appreciation of the relative merits and advantages of the various trickeries. They all appear of the same tint against the background of past experience, each one possessing but little individuality of its own. With the reader, however, it is in all probability different. Assuming that he has merely a casual acquaintance with manual dexterity of this kind he will come fresh to the subject, and therefore to him the details will assume their proper relative proportions.

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