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Chips and Cheaters
The French colonists were avid players of card games that involved bluffing. They knew the German game pochen, and the Persian "as nas", pappy of the rest, which used pairs, triplets, straights, flushes, and bluff. A variation of both the old French game gilet and "as nas" was called poque in New Orleans. Out of an inelegant pronunciation of the French word as "po-que" came poker and the game became the most American of them all.
The riverboat gamblers elaborated poker into draw with a fifty-two-card deck. Success at draw poker, depending less on hazard and more on memory, scrutiny, quick deduction, estimation of the opponent, mastery of facial expressions and a knowledge of relative chances, became the measure of a man's mettle. It caught on as the great American game because it reflected the distinctive traits of the men who played it.
As poker spread through the country and to the frontier, it became customary to give players twenty-four hours to raise money to cover bets. If the stakes were alluring, a hand might be sealed while a player went out to get more cash to back it up.
John Philip Quinn reports a dazzling instance of this in St. Louis. The janitor of a bank, coming to work one morning, found three tired men huddled on the steps of the building, one of them clutching a sealed envelope. When the cashier arrived the man with the package said he wanted to negotiate a loan. "What security have you to offer?" asked the cashier. "Government bonds?" "Government nothing!" answered the wouldbe borrower and explained, "These gentlemen and I have been playing poker all night and I've got a dead sure thing, but they're trying to `raise me' out. I want $5,000 to see them." He unsealed his package and showed the cashier-but not his companions-four kings and an ace. (This was before the days of a royal flush and beat any other hand then recognized, except four aces-impossible in this case.) Unmoved, the cashier said in freezing tones, "This bank, sir, does not lend on cards."
At this moment the bank president came in sight and was at once recognized and appealed to. Rushing behind the bank's counter, he seized several bags of double eagles and went off with the three men. He was soon back, threw down the amount of the loan and $500 interest. Glaring at the cashier, he asked, "Ever play poker? Well, sir, if you did you would know better what good collateral is. You might as well understand that four kings, with an ace for a confidence card, is good in this institution for our entire assets."
But poker was a sucker's game too. A sharper could deal his victim a strong hand and himself a stronger. Often he would build his sucker up to a big killing by purposely losing more than he won, seeing that the pace of the game increased and the betting became heavier and heavier. When the sucker was in the game all the way, and pressing his luck, he was deemed ripe for slaughter and fed, usually, a small full house or a low four of a kind to arouse him to bet his entire pile. He was then neatly wiped out by a gambler who had given himself a higher hand.
The immense popularity of draw made the riverboat gamblers give it especially close consideration. If one form of fraud would not work, there was always another. They were more intent than ever on detecting fellow sharpers, suspicious of the well-dressed traveler who paid undue attention to the faces of the cards as he gathered them in when the deal came to him; anxious if he held the pack upright on the table and then leveled cards that stuck out. An honest dealer straightened the pack by pushing the cards down with the palm of his hand. Another dubious habit was scrutinizing the pack and mixing the cards in a sluggish, almost slack way before dealing. The dealer was thought either to be finding and fixing the cards for the deal or taking all day to lose his money. Then, as now, poker players did not like to waste time when a o-ame was on.
Gamblers were particularly cagey about the "top stock" fraud when a player left the cut half of the deck on the table and dealt the cards for the next round off the other half of the deck. In this way the dealer placed the cut portion of the pack back on top of the portion from which the cards are supposed to be drawn. A dealer who had set up the cards would then know which cards were dealt off during the game, and to whom.
Especially watched was the player who always held his cards snug to his chest, the player who masked his cards behind his hand, the man who shoved his castoff cards in with the other discards so that the number of cards discarded during the deal could not be counted accurately. This might cover getting rid of extra cards, or "holding out" by dropping them in his lap for future use and then "ringing them in" to build up a strong hand.
Undue attention to the backs of cards might indicate that a player had a marked deck. Sometimes sharps would mark cards during a game by piercing or scratching them with a needlelike point attached to a finger ring. Another way to do this was to scrape the surface of the cards slightly with fingernails, made jagared for the purpose. Alert gamblers who detected scratches or pricks might add scratches or pricks of their own to sow confusion, call for another deck of cards, or pull out of the game.
The shrewd gambler playing against slick strangers was careful to cut the cards well and see that the two portions of the deck were properly arranged in one tidy pack to keep the dealer from cheating with known top or bottom cards. The gambler who was uneasy always had the right to shuffle rather than cut the deck and might even use this chance to fix strong cards to be dealt to him.
As ace gambler George Devol described it: "I could hold one deck in the palm of my hand and shuffle up another."
The "double discard" was often used on victims so wary that no other technique could succeed with them. Two confederates sat next to each other and during the game one of them slyly confiscated high cards like kings and aces concealing them under the bend in his knee till he had three of a kind. When it came his turn he dealt the first cards fairly and his confederate opened the pot with a heavy bet, whatever his hand, to make the pot worth while or run out the timid and weak. When some players stayed in, the dealer high-signed his partner to be ready to receive three cards. He then abstracted the hidden cards, palmed them, and set them on the top of the pack when he lifted it for the draw. His partner discarded three cards and was dealt the kings or aces, which gave him a hard-to-beat three of a kind, plus the value of his original holding.
Cheating took nerve as well as skill and not all gamblers were up to it. Any gambler caught was handled violently. Before the Civil War the captain of a river steamer (unless he was in league with the gambler, which he occasionally was) would order the sharper to return all his winnings to his suckers. The passengers then lined the rails to jeer while the steamer's small tender was lowered and the finely dressed cheat was ordered into it with all his luggage. The strongest member of the ship's crew, usually the fireman or first mate, rowed the unhappy man to some deep marsh along the shore where he was unloaded, fine clothes and baggage, into the turbid, almost waist-high mud, to keep company with rock lobsters, mud eels, and water snakes till a passing boat rescued him.
By a signal-flag service the captains of boats plying between New Orleans and Mobile could send intelligence of any emergency to the next port. Police would be waiting on the landing if watchers on shore reported seeing the police flag run up. When the gamblers refused to return their gains, the captain hoisted the flag and police were ready to arrest them on the dock. The mulcted travelers seldom got their money back; the gamblers could almost always find someone-confederates, crew, or even the police who came to arrest them-to pass it to. A lawyer inevitably turned up within ten minutes and had the accused freed immediately. The sports and their lawyers left the courthouse before the stunned suckers could think of further legal action that might regain their money.
This kind of adroit advance planning kept gamblers out of trouble. They were generous with the officers and crews of the steamers they traveled on and their liberality paid off when trouble threatened. The cheat was often concealed in the texas (the uppermost structure on a steamboat, containing the pilothouse and officers' quarters) until it was safe for the crew to sneak him onto high dry land. At times he made his getaway at a woodpile landing where boats stopped frequently to fuel up.
Some travelers used the gamblers shamefully. Helena and Napoleon, Arkansas, were noted for roughnecks who maltreated, mauled, and even pitched into gamblers with a dirk if they suspected that they were being swindled at a supposedly fair game of chance. Gamblers called them "Arkansas killers" and steered as clear of them as possible. Devol got involved with such a band and won all their money and watches. "Things went along smoothly for a while, until they commenced to drink pretty freely. Finally one of them said: `Jake, Sam, Ike, get Bill, and let us kill that d-d gambler who got our money.' `All right,' said the party, and they broke for their rooms to get their guns. I stepped out of the side door, and got under the pilot-house, as it was my favorite hiding place. I could hear every word down stairs, and could whisper to the pilot. Well, they hunted the boat from stem to stern-even took lights and went down into the hold-and finally gave up the chase, as one man said I had jumped overboard. I slipped the pilot $100 in gold, as I had both pockets filled with gold and watches, and told him at the first point that stood out a good ways to run her as close as he could and I would jump. He whispered, `Get ready,' and I slipped out and walked back, and stood on the top of the wheelhouse until she came, as I thought, near enough to make the jump, and away I went; but it was farther than I expected, so I went down about thirty feet into the river, and struck into the soft mud clear up to my waist. Some parties who were standing in the stern of the boat saw me, and gave the alarmä when the `killers' all rushed back and commenced firing at me, and the bullets went splattering around me. The pilot threw her into the bend as quick as he could, and then let on she took a sheer on him, and nearly went to the other side."
The noise of the shooting attracted some field hands who were working in a nearby field. They rushed to the river and pulled Devol out of the mud with the aid of a long pole. The gambler climbed up on the bank, brushed as much mud as possible off his clothes, and waited for another boat to pass.
This sort of manhandling made riverboat swindlers careful to time their big killings with the arrival and departure of the steamers. Then the gamblers vamoosed promptly and waited to board another boat.
Sharpers even preyed on other sharpers, as George Devol remembered with chagrin. After some severe losses to such men he and his partner rented a cabin adjoining the social hall in a tied-up steamer that was the scene of many all-night games, cut a peephole through the wall, and rigged an elaborate wire-andspring contraption. A lad lying in a berth in the cabin could see the opponents' cards and signal via the wire, to a nail under the sharper's foot. One night the system broke down and Devol found himself losing. Presuming that the youth had fallen asleep, he shied a spittoon at the cabin wall and, when his opponent was amazed, said that he'd been told it would bring a man luck. The uncomprehending victim said, "I noticed that your luck changed just after you threw her, and I will try it the next time I play in bad luck."
The sharpers never failed to clean the greenhorns, especially at games like poker and euchre, which gave them a great deal of opportunity to handle all the cards. If the gull was very green, the gambler stacked the cards by placing the hand previously played on the bottom of the deck, then shuffling all the rest of the pack, so the known hands remained intact. When the player at his right was the sharper's partner, he bent a card to indicate where his associate should cut the deck. This was called "crimping." If the gambler had no partner, he would slyly "switch" the cut by placing the pack back in its original order.
The river sharpers also slipped high cards to one another to make sure one of them got a winning hand. Placing two, three, and four of a kind on the bottom of the deck, shuffling the deck without disturbing them, and then dealing these cards to themselves was another smooth trick. Some gamblers were even skillful enough to deal cards to themselves from the middle of the deck. Dealing themselves six, seven, and even eight cards at poker was common practice. They would hold the five best and let the poorer cards slide into their laps to be picked up and sneaked back into the pack at the first chance.
The "cold deck" was a good old stand-by. Two gamblers might decoy a rich traveler into a stiff poker game. While the men gambled in the social hall, a confederate in a cabin prepared a matching deck of cards so it would give the gull a very strong hand. It was up to the associate to get the fixed deck into the lap of one of his playing colleagues undetected. The gambler shuffled the deck in use with care and let the victim cut. Just as he, quite properly, placed the cut section at the bottom of the pack, a confederate would manage to divert the victim's eyes from the table and the dealer would subsitute the cold deck. The unsuspecting traveler, finding himself with a stunning hand, wagered high but lost to the gambler, who had four queens to his four tens. Cold decks would be used time after time in a card session till the greenhorn was fleeced of every dollar he owned.
Again sharpers sometimes operated on other sharpers with cold decks. Henry Watterson left an account of Sam Bugg, a Nashville gambler, who could not remain calm when natives of his state were being swindled: ". . . he came upon a party of Tennesseeans whom a famous card sharp had inveigled and was flagrantly robbing. Sam went away, obtained a pack of cards, and stacked them to give the gambler four kings and the brightest of the Nashville boys four aces. After two or three failures to bring the cold deck into action Sam Bu--O' brushed a spider-an imaginary spider-from the gambler's coat collar, for an instant distracting his attention-and in the momentary confusion the stacked cards were duly dealt and the betting began, the gambler confident and aggressive. Finally, all the,money up, the four aces beat the four kings, and for a greater amount that the Nashvillians had lost or the gambler won. Whereupon, without changing a muscle, the gambler drawled: `Mr. Bugg, the next time you see a spider biting me, let him bite on."