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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It's interesting that Maskelyne decided to devote an entire chapter to a game that most of us have never heard of; a game that is a derivative of poker, and at the same time he didn't seem to feel the need to devote a chapter to the standard poker game (which was quite popular in America during his time; and not to mention, infested with cheats). It would be safe to assume that if Maskelyne had to write his book today, he would most likely devote an entire chapter to Texas Hold'em Poker.

THE game of 'high-ball poker' is one which is essentially American, both in origin and character. It is somewhat simpler than the proper game, but possesses no particular advantages over poker, as played with cards, beyond the fact of its comparative simplicity. On the other hand, the appliances required for playing it are more expensive, and not nearly so convenient. Possibly the original idea of its introduction arose from the fact that the fraudulent manipulation of the cards, in the other game, had become notorious, and it was hoped that this kind of thing would be obviated by using balls instead. It is far more likely, however, that this variety of the game presented certain advantages to the sharp which the other did not possess, and hence its popularity in certain quarters. It would be unwise, however, to hazard an opinion one way or the other. All we need trouble ourselves about is that cheating at this game is both simple and tolerably safe. No special skill is required on the part of the sharp, and very little special apparatus, to enable him to win whenever he pleases, and as long as he can get people to play with him.

The game is played with a leathern bottle, something like those used in 'pool,' but smaller in the neck. Into this bottle are put twenty-four balls about an inch in diameter, each of which is numbered upon a facet, the numbers running from one to twenty-four consecutively. The players sit round the table, and the bets are arranged in the same manner as at poker. The player whose turn it is to deal shakes up the balls in the bottle, and deals one to each player, himself included, no player being allowed to see the balls which are dealt to the others. The players look at the balls they have received, each one noting the number which has fallen to him, and coming in or declining to play accordingly, stake their bets. This being done, a second ball is dealt to each player, and the two balls thus received constitute his hand. The betting now proceeds as at poker, the rules being precisely the same, except that the balls rank according to their numerical value, and that the complications arising from 'pairs,' 'threes,' 'fours,' and 'flushes,' cannot arise. Those who have bad hands will fall out of the game for the time being, sacrificing the stakes they have put into the pool, whilst those who consider their hands good enough to bet on will remain in and 'raise' each other. If one player can so increase the stakes as to drive all the others out, he will take the pool without showing his hand; or a player may be 'called,' and then the hands are shown, the best one winning the whole of the stakes.

The reader will perceive that cheating might be practiced in connection with this game in a variety of ways. The dealer, in putting the balls into the bottle, might contrive to secrete a high number, which could be held out for a time, and afterwards rung in to his own hand, in place of a low one. In a conspiracy of two or three players, nothing could be easier than for them to signal to each other the value of their hands, and thus arrive at a fairly approximate knowledge of what hands they might have to contend with. They could then act in accordance with the information thus gained, and either stand out or raise the other players, as the nature of their hands may dictate. If, in addition to this, each of the conspirators was provided with duplicates of two or three of the highest numbers, the one who had the best hand could substitute for the lower number in his hand the highest number in either of the hands held by his accomplices, and thus, in all probability, constitute himself the winner, the accomplice meanwhile substituting his best number for that discarded by his partner in the conspiracy. They would not require many duplicate balls each; just two or three of the highest numbers would be quite sufficient.

There are, however, great objections to any manipulation of this kind; more particularly since cheating can be accomplished, by mechanical means, in a much more simple and effective manner. The method of cheating usually adopted, therefore, takes the form of a 'bottle holdout,' which can be caused to retain any of the highest numbers and to deliver them to either of the players, at the will of the dealer.

FIG. 61

This holdout is, of course, within the bottle itself, and is operated by pressure upon the slightly flexible sides. Fig. 61 is an illustration of a bottle of this kind, part of one side being cut away to allow the holdout to be seen. A represents the position of the various parts at such times as the holdout may be either inoperative or containing the balls. B will serve to indicate the position they assume when the sides are pressed, and the holdout is either receiving or delivering the balls.

The holdout itself consists of a kind of scoop, pivoted to a bracket in such a way that it will either turn up against one side of the bottle, or lie open beneath the neck. This scoop a has a projecting tail-piece or lever, against which a spring d constantly presses, and retains the scoop in contact with the side of the bottle. To the end of this lever is jointed a rod r, the further end of which just reaches across to the opposite side of the bottle. It is obvious, then, that if the bottle is squeezed by the dealer, the pressure being applied to the point of contact with the rod, and to some point behind the bracket to which the scoop is pivoted (between b and d, in short), the end of the lever will be pressed towards the side of the bottle, and the scoop will consequently be turned down into the position shown at B. The whole of the working parts, together with the inside of the bottle, are painted black, in order to prevent any possibility of the device being seen by looking down the neck.

In returning the balls to the interior of the bottle, the dealer carefully notes their value. The low ones are allowed to fall in the proper manner, but when a high one is dropped inside, the bottle is squeezed in the manner above indicated, the scoop comes down, and that ball therefore falls into the holdout. Then in dealing the device is utilized in the same way. The low balls are dealt to the dupes, but in the act of dealing to a confederate, or to himself, as the case may be, the bottle is pressed and high balls only are dealt. As a rule one ball only is held out.

There is not very much in this game beyond the ingenuity of the holdout employed, and the money which may be won by its means. But since the necessity of including it among the explanations given in this book is obvious, and since there is no definite section of the subject to which it can be referred, it has had to receive, however unworthily, the distinction of having a chapter to itself.

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