Sure Things of Card Cheats

Article from 1909 with amazing descriptions of various cheating devices used by expert card sharps a century ago. Real inside cheating stuff here.



8/22/20229 min read

12/26/1909 LA Times

Sure Things Of Card Cheats (Bunco-ers)

How Cardsharps Find Ease In Making Living

“Honest John” King Of Guild In Cheating Devices No Show For Easy Mark Who Falls Prey To Lure

by the Sitter-In

Well there are always a few barter shops, cigar store and gents club poker games running in every large city, Los Angeles seems now to be singularly free from the operations of professional blacklegs and their “come ons”. One of the best proofs is that there is no local agency for the supplies of mechanical devices used in cheating in gambling, manufactured by a concern in Pennsylvania.

There is a gent in the Keystone state who has done more to suppress gambling than probably any other living man. In spite of his laudable but unfortunately unintentional, accomplishments towards reform, he is now in the penitentiary, or was when last heard from. He is “Honest John”

Be it known that “Honest John” is the proprietor of an outfit which manufacturers cheating devices. His last name is purposefully withheld, because it is feared that some gentle reader of these lines might so far forget himself as to make a few purchases from the concern which is still operated under his name.

The publicity given the wares sold by the Pennsylvania martyr has made the suckers and easy marks somewhat timid about cutting in an open poker games, faro, fan-tan, casino, etc. however, the hardest blow struck by the cheating devices is against poker. In the manufacturing of chip cops, finger ring shiners, pipe stem shiners, mercury paint, table holdouts, decks marked for size and suit, and the celebrated Kelly slide hold out any ejector, poker is especially aimed at.

"Honest John" and supplies do not effect the big games run by gambling kings, or find any vogue where many professionals gather. They don't need them there, and could use them. Why, is another story.

“Good Action Here”

Whenever gilded youths gather to get something for nothing, wherever two or three are assembled to scatter the paste boards in the backroom of a saloon, or barbershop, there the devices for cheating get good action.

Any place where it genial strangers ostentatiously “soused to the gills” can “butt in” and buy a few drinks for prospective marks and then suggest a 5 cent ante poker game- that is where “Honest John” has customers. these supposed inebriated drink buyer, who either gets someone to suggest a poker game or who takes the initiative himself, nearly always operates with a confederate or “come on”. This jolly soul works like a Trojan to cheat near sports, rah rah boys, and anemic clerks out for a few dollars or so at night. He, of course, stands in with the house whenever the game is conducted, it divides his small winnings with the man who winks at the game period in a barbershop, a Kitty is frequently taken out for the management. In a saloon a “kitty” is deducted for drinks. In the latter sort of establishment the drink serving obviously places the wise ones at the advantage in using their swindling devices. The easy marks usually get at best only a frightful “bun on” for their evening efforts. There is none of the fabled letting a man win to coax him back again. The piking blacklegs insist on the following motto, “there is no time like the present for doing a good thing”.

Some of the things sold to the so-called wise ones, who really are foolish men who could have their brains addled by being struck with the peanut, will now be described the reader can draw his own conclusions.

“Chip Cop”

The simplest device is the “chip cop”. This is peculiar adhesive wax, colorless, and easy to apply. The man who uses it smears it in the palm of his hand when he comes in on a Jackpot or contributes in his chips, he carelessly sweeps in his chips and swings his hand back, palm down. Often a man who has contributed a check valued at $0.25 palms a dollar chip. This is easy, especially if the chips in the center of the table are must or mixed up. The wax holds the stolen chip firmly and does not prevent the thief from performing ordinary actions for a few seconds prior to adding the filched token to his own pile or stack. Sometimes he hides it for a few minutes until he can use it without attracting attention or arousing suspicion. Using the “chip cop” a man can save himself a few dollars and a night, or at least increase the probabilities of his cashing in ahead of the game, regardless of who the pots go to each time. The trick is primitive and simple perhaps that is why it is so frequently used.

“Finger Ring Shinner”

The “Finger Ring Shiner” is effective when used by a man with a quick eye. It consists of a brilliant, alleged diamond ring, or even a fancy gold band ring. There in a plate or space obstensively for the initials or decorative purposes, which is on the ring band on the other side of the finger. By holding the hand correctly, only the cheater can see the shiny space. It consists of a polished aluminum or mercury background with a powerful but small magnifying glass set over it. The man with the “Finger Ring Shiner” finds it advantageous in dealing.

When the cards are distributed one at a time, as in poker, he can deal with precision and pass each card over his ring band. in this way he sees everything he deals. Usually he is desirous simply of keeping track of the cards dealt two and a special mark. That is fairly easy. However the best time for employing the mirror effect is when the opponent draws to fill a hand. Then one, at least knows what the adversary added to his hand, if he gets another pair or should by a miracle annex three of a kind when drawing to a pair. It takes weeks of practice and hard work to achieve proficiency with the “Finger Ring Shiner,” yet there are hundreds of men who have put in their time in this way on the chance of pilfering a few dollars nightly. “Pipe Stem Shinner”The “Pipe Stem Shiner” is the same mirror effect on the metal part of a Pipe Band the pipe is carelessly laid down in front of the owner of it and he deals over the clearly defined mirror.

“Mercury Paint”

Mercury paint is effective only where wooden tables are used with proper arrangements for light. The gamekeeper paints with the composition of mercury and varnish, the table at the spot where he intends to sit, so that it can be detected only by the keenest observer it is sometimes necessary to arrange a chip holder, cigar boxes, booze bottles and other things so as to shield the mirror effect from the man to be cheated. In some cases the easy mark or marks are too drunk to notice, but in such an event the most common manner of holding out and miss dealing is resorted to. My personal opinion is that mercury paint has never been effectively used when the bird to be plucked is worthwhile. Any man with sense enough to know a poker hand from a left-handed monkey wrench could not be worked with any such childish trick. If any grown man ever fell for it he should have been kicked to death by rabbits.

The operators could have trimmed him more easily and quickly by working the “old man win game,” familiar to babies who match pennies. In this game the two who wish to cheat the third man arranged to signal and always place different sides of the coin face up for heads or tails. The innocent person is habitually paying his money over, because this coin is always one of the two which match for the side. The laws of probability and chance are for Confederates as long as the money lasts.

“Many Marked Decks”

The above is however a digression. The most important thing commonly used by blacklegs is the mark deck of cards. Dozens of men, even in this moral community, are relieved of marked decks of cards at the police station whenever there is a general hall of bums. These decks are usually crude, and the work of home talent.

“Honest John” is an artist in his line. He marks for size and suit in many ways. Some are as follows:

The cheapest marked decks are those of well-known cards which have undergone a treatment at the hands of an expert card marker. One set that I have in mind has a bicycle rider in four corners on the back of the cards. The rider is near a tree and three birds are noted winging by him. India ink identical with that used in printing the cards, is employed by the marker. First it is necessary to show plainly whether the suit is clubs diamonds hearts or spades. This is done by working on the birds pictured in the four corners. On the first bird has a slightly elongated tail feather it is clubs, when the second bird has the same attribute it is diamonds, the last word indicates hearts. If none is marked it is spades. Each corner picture is treated in the same way. The picture of the tree throws a shadow. Beginning at the top left hand side when the ace and ending of the lower right hand side with the king. The shadow lines are treated by elongation to indicate clearly and plainly to the man who works in the deck the denomination of the cards.

“Tricks of the Trade”

This is a crude outline of a simple marked deck. It has obvious advantages in dealing and drawing. The simplest way to work in such a deck is to place the marked cards in a sealed box and send a Porter or attendant to the corner store to buy fresh deck. The man who sells the cards is in on and hands out the marked deck. When this cannot be done, it is easy to have several sets of marked cards and switch them in. Usually the man who plans to work in a marked deck takes “look in” for a few seconds and then brings from his well-stocked set of mark cards the ones which match with some which are in use or are to be used.

“Block Out Work”

The best marked decks are blocked out. Instead of having something added to them they are treated with acid in some detail in the design on the back of the card is missing at a different place for each denomination.. They are generally apparent to the man who knows about the designs and are practically beyond detection to the uninitiated. I have seen them marked so boldly that it could be noticed 10 feet away, and yet no one “got wise.”

“Needle Prick & Strippers”

When absolutely plain backs are used, slight needle prick's are employed, but they are noticeable only when touched, and are dangerous. Sometimes cards of high denomination are clipped on the plain back decks. More frequently they are made to cut or strip. For instance, the aces are 150th of an inch wider at the side than any other cards in the deck. When the dealer compresses the deck he can easily draw any aced from it at will by stripping his thumb and middle finger along the sides. At the same time the cards may also have another set of kings which are slightly longer at the ends instead of the sides. Whenever the players are of a caliber that demands the use of plain backed decks, the backroom gambler goes slow and tries only simple missed deals or weird draws, when he or his pal hold the cards. The “pointer cut” is then used at times. the mark is allowed to cut. In fact, on every well ordered game, the dealer is forced to let the next man counterclockwise or on the right hand side cut the cards. By an optical illusion the cards are apparently put back by the dealer after the mark has cut them. As a matter of fact, the fixed cards are again on top, Because the index finger has slid the old order of arrangement to the top again.

“Harness For Skinning”

These celebrated Kelly slide holdout is nothing but a harness worn under the gambler's vest. The vast pockets are false and contain little nippers in which cards can be inserted and drawn down by elastics, at the right time, the cheater can let the cards come back into play. Leather straps are fastened like garters above the knees and elastic pulley cords work the contrivance, which is alleged to distribute various phony decks through one vest pocket and take up either a card or a whole deck through the other vest pocket. The knees pressed together or spread apart operate the contrivance. I have never seen it successfully used, but have known men to be caught wearing the harness. “Honest John” sells this “hold-out” and it costs anywhere from $25 to $50. But for the work designed it is worthless. Most gamblers will lie about having seen it effectively working but it is a myth used by alleged reformed sharks who entertained children's Sunday school classes.

The difference between a gambler and one who is not, is that the latter person has good common sense. If a man makes hundreds of dollars a week it is worth nothing to him, and he undergoes hardships and boredoms for money which buys him no happiness.

William Makepeace Thackeray dallied with the cards in his lifetime and he has many references to the strange phenomenon that the devil himself seems to fly away with money wanting gambling. Everyone should read his “Captain Rook and Mr. Pigeon.” It is worthwhile. The world is filled with embryo captain Rooks but pigeon is becoming a rare dish. “Honest John” is responsible for much of the scarcity of the latter do you like table bird