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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Rough and Smooth Cards

There are numerous ways in which playing cards can be treated, to produce what is called "rough and smooth" work. From Maskelyne's own words, "Either something is done to the cards to make them slip, or they are prepared with something to keep them from slipping," we can conclude that he was not even too sure what was done to the cards to make certain cards slip and/or prevent from slipping against each other. In any case, the exact procedures of what may have been done to the cards may be irrelevant, especially due to the fact that the old recipes may not even work on modern playing cards. What is important to understand, from a historic perspective, is merely the fact that rough and smooth work had been attempted in many ways, in the past, which just re-emphasizes the point that gambling was always a crooked business.

Trimming is not the only method of preparing cards for cheating purposes; there are others of much greater delicacy and refinement. Witness the following, which is culled from the circular issued by one of the 'Sporting Houses':

   'To smart poker players. - I have invented a process by which a man is sure of winning if he can introduce his own cards. The cards are not trimmed or marked in any way, shape or manner. They can be handled and shuffled by all at the board, and without looking at a card you can, by making two or three shuffles or ripping them in, oblige the dealer to give three of a kind to any one playing, or the same advantage can be taken on your own deal. This is a big thing for any game. In euchre you can hold the joker every time or the cards most wanted in any game. The process is hard to detect, as the cards look perfectly natural, and it is something card players are not looking for. Other dealers have been selling sanded cards, or cheap cards, with spermacetia rubbed on, and calling them professional playing or magnetic cards. I don't want you to class my cards with that kind of trash. I use a liquid preparation put on with rollers on all cards made; this dries on the cards and does not show, and will last as long as the cards do. The object is to make certain cards not prepared slip off easier than others in shuffling. You can part or break the deck to an ace or king, and easily "put up three," no matter where they lay in the deck. This advantage works fine single-handed, or when the left-hand man shuffles and offers the cards to be cut. These cards are ten times better than readers or strippers, and they get the money faster. Price, $2,00 per pack by mail; $20,00 per dozen packs. If you order a dozen I will furnish cards like you use.'

The gentle modesty and unassuming candor of the above effusion, its honest rectitude and perfect self-abnegation, render it a very pearl of literature. It is a pity that such a jewel should be left to hide itself away, and waste its glories upon the unappreciative few, whilst thousands might be gladdened by the sight of it and proceed on their way invigorated and refreshed. Let us bring it into the light and treasure it as it deserves.

As the talented author above quoted suggests, there are several methods of achieving the object set forth, and causing the cards to slip at any desired place, apart from the much vaunted 'liquid preparation put on with rollers' the secret of which one would think that he alone possessed. We will just glance at them all, by way of improving our minds and learning all that is to be learnt.

The earliest method of preparing a pack of cards in this way certainly had the merit of extreme simplicity, in that it consisted of nothing more than putting the pack, for some time previous to its use, in a damp place. This system had the further advantage that it was not even necessary to open the wrapper in which the cards came from the maker. When the cards had absorbed a certain amount of moisture, it was found that the low cards would slip much more easily than the court cards. The reason for this was, that the glaze used in 'bringing up the colors' of the inks used in printing contained a large proportion of hygroscopic or gummy matter, which softened more or less upon becoming moist. The court cards, having a much greater part of their faces covered with the glaze than the others, were more inclined to cling to the next card, in consequence. Therefore the task of distinguishing them was by no means severe.

Not satisfied with this somewhat uncertain method, however, the sharps set to work to improve upon it. The next departure was in the direction of making the smooth cards smoother, and the rough ones more tenacious. The upshot of this was that those cards which were required to slip were lightly rubbed over with soap, and those which had to cling were treated with a faint application of rosin. This principle has been the basis of all the 'new and improved' systems that have been put before the sharping public ever since. Either something is done to the cards to make them slip, or they are prepared with something to keep them from slipping.

When the unglazed 'steam-boat' cards were much in use the 'spermacetia' system, referred to in the paragraph quoted a little while ago, was a very pretty thing indeed, and worked well. The cards which it was necessary to distinguish from the others were prepared by rubbing their backs well with hard spermaceti wax. They were then vigorously scoured with some soft material, until they had acquired a brilliant polish. Cards treated in this manner, when returned again to the pack, would be readily separable from the others. By pressing rather heavily upon the top of the pack, and directing the pressure slightly to one side, it would be found that the pack divided at one of the prepared cards. That is to say, the cards above the prepared one would cling together and slide off, leaving the doctored one at the top of the remainder.

With glazed cards, if they are required to slip, the backs are rubbed with a piece of waxed tissue paper, thus giving them an extra polish; but the better plan is to slightly roughen the backs of all the others. They may be 'sanded,' as in the case of those used for the sand-tell faro-box. This simply means that the backs are rubbed with sand-paper. In reality, it is fine emery paper that is used; any sand-paper would be too coarse, and produce scratches.

There still remains to be considered the method of causing the cards to cling, by the application of that marvelous master-stroke of inventive genius, the 'liquid preparation,' as advertised. It may be hoped that the reader will not feel disappointed on learning what it is. The wonderful compound is nothing more or less than very thin white hard varnish. That is all. It may be applied 'with rollers,' or otherwise, just as the person applying it may prefer. The fact of certain cards being treated with this varnish renders them somewhat 'tacky,' and inclined to stick together; not sufficiently, however, to render the effect noticeable to anyone who is not looking for it. But, by manipulating the pack as before directed in the case of the waxed cards, the slipping will occur at those cards whose backs have not been varnished. The instructions sent out with the cards mentioned in the advertisement will be found reprinted at p. 304; therefore, since it would be presumptuous to think of adding anything to advice emanating from the great authority himself, we may leave him to describe the use of his own wares.

Having thus said all that is necessary to give the reader sufficient information for his guidance in any case of sharping with which he may be brought into contact, we may bring this chapter to a close; and, in so doing, conclude all that has to be said upon the subject of cheating at cards. We have been compelled to dwell somewhat at length upon matters which are associated with cards and card-games only, because so large a proportion of the sharping which goes on in the world is cardsharping. Almost everyone plays cards, and so many play for money. Therefore, the sharp naturally selects that field which affords him the widest scope and the most frequent opportunities for the exercise of his calling. Card-sharping has been reduced to a science. It is no longer a haphazard affair, involving merely primitive manipulations, but it has developed into a profession in which there is as much to learn as in most of the everyday occupations of ordinary mortals.

With this chapter, then, we take a fond farewell of cards, for the present; and having said 'adieu,' we will turn our attention to other matters.

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