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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Three-Card-Monte Swindle

Maskelyne does not use the term three-card-monte, in his book. Instead he refers to this infamous swindle as the three-card-trick. Three-card-monte was often played on trains, as Maskelyne describes.

There is, perhaps, no field of operation so prolific in specimens of the genus 'sharp' as a race-course and its approaches upon the occasion of a popular race-meeting. For our present purpose, therefore, we cannot do better than to imagine, for the moment, that we are on our way to some such gathering. Arriving at the London terminus, in good time for our train, we take our seats in a second-class smoking compartment. Possibly the only other occupants of the carriage at first are two or three holiday makers, on pleasure bent. Not really sporting men, but average citizens, looking forward to the excitement of the race, and also possibly to the pleasurable anxiety of a little 'flutter,' at long odds or otherwise.

The term "sporting men" refers to card sharps. Maskelyne uses this term throughout his book as a way to sound sarcastic. The term is derived from the term sporting emporiums, which was, at the time, the official term for crooked gambling distributors.

It is not long before the other seats are all occupied. A man of decidedly 'sporting' appearance, with a field-glass slung over his shoulder, and carrying a thick traveling rug, strolls leisurely by the door, merely glancing in as he passes. In a few moments, however, he returns, and takes a middle seat in the compartment. Then follow two or three others, averaging in appearance something between sporting characters and second-rate commercial travelers. These take whatever seats may happen to be vacant, and either become absorbed in their newspapers or enter into conversation with their neighbors, as the case may be. The experienced reader will have no need to be told that we are associating with a gang working the 'three-card trick.' The man in sporting attire is the 'sharp,' and those who accidentally (?) dropped in after him are his confederates.

These confederates are commonly known as shills. All three-card-monte mobs work on the same principle, there is one operator and a few shills (and often a few standing by, on the lookout for cops). The shills are the only ones that ever appear to win any bets. When a sucker puts down a bet the shills will often attempt to raise the stakes by putting down more money, and the "house" only accepts the highest bets. So, if the sucker wants to be part of the action he/she is forced to put-down more money than the shills. Should the sucker even put-down money on the actual winning card, a shill will jump-in and out-bet him/her and the operator will quickly accept the higher bet and wrap up the round. This builds up a big frustration in the sucker's head, because in his/her mind he/she just lost the chance to make some money. But in reality, the mob will never allow any sucker to bet on the winning card; there will always be someone that will out-bet the sucker, should this unlikely even ever occur. In short, no one ever won a dime on three-card-monte, that wasn't part of the mob.

No sooner is the train well on its way, than our friend of the field-glasses takes down his rug from the rack, folds it across his knees, and producing a pack of cards, selects three generally a king and two others which he throws, face upward, upon the rug.

Often the money card is a queen (not a king) which is why the game is also sometimes called. find the lady.

'Now, gentlemen,' he says, 'I think we'll have a little game, just to pass the time. Anyhow, if it amuses me, it won't hurt you.' With these or some such words by way of preface, he takes up the three cards, and throws them, one at a time, face downward, upon the rug. Then, with much rapidity, he transposes the positions of the cards several times, and observes, 'Now, tell me which is the king, and stake your money.'

Having thus attracted attention, he commences again. At this point, one of the confederates looks calmly up from his paper, and murmurs something to his neighbor about 'making one's expenses.' Probably, also, he will produce a couple of sovereigns.

'Now, gentlemen,' continues the sharp, 'there are two cards for you,' taking them up 'and one card for me. The king is mine,' taking it up 'the ace and the seven are yours.' Then, with everyone in the carriage following his movements, he again throws the cards down and manipulates them as before. 'Now, tell me which is my card,' he says. Nobody responds, however; and the sharp picks up the king, which proves to be in the position where one would expect to find it. Indeed, the on-looker who could not follow the king through its various evolutions would be dull of perception.

In this description the three-card-monte mob is using a king (as the money card) and an ace and a seven (as the losing cards). In many variations of this swindle the two losing cards are of the same suit and value (either taken from two separate decks, or taken from a pinochle deck). The fact that the two losing cards are identical adds to the deceptiveness of the swindle, as the operator can employ a few extra tricks to confuse the sucker.

Again and again the performance is repeated, and every time the on-lookers can follow the movements of the king with the utmost ease. At length, in response to an appeal from the operator 'not to be backward, gentlemen,' the confederate who produced the sovereigns a little while ago suddenly dashes one down on the card which all believe to be the king. The card is turned up, and proves to be the right one, consequently he receives the amount of his stake.

At the next turn another confederate stakes a sovereign, and wins. The same thing follows with a third. Then, perhaps, the first stakes two sovereigns, and again wins. Not only so, but taking advantage of the obviously unsuspicious nature of the operator, he picks up the card himself, and in so doing accidentally bends one corner up slightly.

Now everyone has heard of the three-card trick, though not one in a thousand knows how it is worked. Consequently, the uninitiated among our associates, finding that they are able to trace the king unerringly, begin to think that, either this operator is a duffer, or that they are particularly sharp fellows. Besides, there is the king, going about with a turned-up corner, and losing money for the performer at every turn. Small wonder, then, that their cupidity is aroused, and at length one of them stakes a sovereign on the card with the turned-up corner. And he wins? Oh, dear no! By some, un-accountable mischance, the king has become straightened in the course of manipulation, and a corner of one of the other cards has been turned up. Singular, is it not? Of course the loser cannot complain, or he would have to admit that he had been trying to take an unfair advantage of his opponent. Therefore he resolves to trust entirely to his judgment in the future.

The bent corner tricks is probably as old as the swindle itself. As Maskelyne describes, one of the confederates bends the corner of the money card (sometimes apparently by accident and other times apparently to cheat the operator). This is a convincer that had lured many-a suckers into the trap, thinking they were betting on a sure thing. When the bent corner trick is employed the suckers often get an adrenaline rush and quickly toss a bunch of cash into a doomed situation. The reasoning is (on the spur of the moment), "Let me quickly put-down a bet before the idiot notices that the corner is bent." When the suckers discover that the card with the bent corner is one of the losing cards they often remain speechless, realizing that there is nothing they could possibly say, as explaining the circumstances would be a direct admission of guilt, as Maskelyne explains.

Then, for the first time, apparently, the operator notices the defective corner and straightens it. Again the cards are thrown down, and the last player, thinking to retrieve his loss, stakes another sovereign. He has kept his eyes intently upon the king, as it passed from side to side and back to the centre. He feels confident of success this time; but there is a mistake somewhere, for again he loses.

And so the game goes on, with unvarying result Whenever one of the first two or three players -- the confederates -- stakes his money, he always wins. Everyone else always loses. Eventually, the game is discontinued; either owing to the fact that no more stakes are to be had, or that we are approaching our destination.

In some situations the confederates also lose -- intentionally, obviously. This is often done early in the game, when the sucker is being roped in. The intention is to put-down a bet on a losing card, when the sucker obviously knows what the winning card is. In the sucker's mind he/she would have won this bet if he/she had just been quick enough to put-down some money.

Upon leaving the train, if we are curious, we may easily discover which of our late companions are the confederates. They leave the carriage to all appearance perfect strangers to one another; but follow one of them at a distance, and it will be found that they are fairly well-acquainted when not professionally employed.

This is true. Often the three-card-monte mobs don't bother going at great lengths trying to disguise the fact that they are part of the same group. Often the mob is comprised of people from one ethnic group that doesn't even blend-in with the rest of the people they are trying to swindle. The reasoning must be: why bother with disguises, they will make the same money at the end. Also, oftentimes, once the money is collected they often don't bother hiding the fact that they know each other. This arrogance can be attributed to the fact that once they have the money in their hands they no longer care what the sucker thinks, as he/she is not likely to be a repeat customer anyway. Interestingly enough, some suckers are repeat customers, even after it has been established that the operator was working with a mob.

In the world of professional cheating it is wise to skim the sucker(s) slowly, instead of coming down like bulldozer, so that the cheats don't blow their cover. Poker player Amarillo Slim put it best: "You can shear the sheep a hundred times, but you can skin it only once." This is true for any professional cheating, or should we say sophisticated cheating. But three-card-monte mobs don't abide by this rule, as they are strictly a hit-and-run operation.

This trick is an extremely simple one; and is accomplished as follows.

When the cards are taken up, preparatory to manipulation, they are held as indicated in fig. 1. First, the two indifferent cards are taken, one in each hand, and next, the king in the right hand. Card No. 2 in the illustration, therefore, is the king. In throwing down the cards at the outset No. 1 card is placed in position 1; No. 2 card in position 2; and No. 3 in position 3. Thus, the king occupies a position between the two other cards, So far, all is plain sailing, and it is by no means difficult to trace the movements of the card we are following up, however deftly it may be manipulated. There is a saying that 'the quickness of the hand deceives the eye.' That is nonsense. No hand, however expert, can produce a movement so quick that the eye cannot detect it. What really deceives the eye in sleight of hand is that some of the movements are not exactly what they appear to be, their real nature is skillfully disguised. Of this the three card trick is a good example. When the sharp observes his pigeon getting ready to be plucked, he changes his tactics slightly from the straightforward course he has hitherto pursued. The cards appear to be thrown down in the same manner as before, but it is not so. In this case, No. 1 card is thrown down in No. 1 position, as at the outset; but, instead of throwing down No. 2 the king in No. 2 position, it is card No. 3 which is allowed to fall, and the king goes finally into position 3. Thus the uninitiated, instead of following up the king, as they fondly believe, are really on the trail of card No. 3.

It will be readily understood that the turned-up corner can present no difficulty to a sharp who has devoted a little practice to its rectification. The act of throwing down the cards is quite sufficient to cover all the movement which is necessary.

Three Card Monte Swindle

FIG. 1 -- Three-card Trick

In the world of professional cheating, there is a common-sense rule that all professional cheaters abide by. The rule is that the cheat (or better say, card mechanic) should never show any obvious manipulative skills. This is not to be taken as a blanket statement, for all situations, because in some situations it is quite natural if the mechanic appears to be an seasoned card handler. For example, a crooked casino dealer is expected to be proficient at handling playing cards, and so on. The idea is not as much that the card mechanic should not show skill, but rather that the card mechanic should bend in, naturally, into the role and surroundings.

Interestingly enough, this rule does not apply to the three-card-monte mobs. In this case the operator is not only showing obvious skill, but also displaying a proficiency in trickery and sleight-of-hand. It defies logic that anyone would ever be foolish enough to put any money down into an obvious scam, but it just goes to show that the old saying is true: "A sucker is born every minute."

Instead of ear-marking the card by turning up a corner, the confederate will sometimes tear off a very minute scrap from his newspaper, and, wetting it, will attach it to a corner of the card as he turns it up. When this is done, the operator of course contrives to slip the moistened fragment from one card to another.

Leaving our three-card acquaintances to their own devices though, perhaps, our duty would be to give them into the hands of the police we will proceed to the race-course.

Space will not permit us here to consider the numerous evil devices for acquiring the root of all evil indulged in by race-course sharps. In fact, these scarcely form part of our subject. Some of them, such as 'telling the tale,' and so on, are more or less ingenious; but at best they are merely vulgar swindles which involve no skill beyond the exercise of that tact and plausibility which are common to sharps and swindlers of every kind.

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