“Safeties” by Alan25main
If you’ve played live poker, or have any interest in it, be cautious. In Ronald G. Pittenger’s latest fiction piece, Bob and Herky return to give us some insight on house games and red flags.
I had just stacked up my newly-won pot of $29 when I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Herky, looking anxious.
“Hi, Herky. I haven’t seen you for a couple of weeks. Been on vacation?”
“No, I was under the weather for a few days. Then, I started playing at a house game with some guys I met. Things are starting to get strange, though. Can we talk for a few minutes?”
“Sure.” I said to the dealer, “Rashy, sit me out for a while. Somebody can play over, if they want.” I knew there was a waiting list and didn’t want to lose my seat. It was a good game.
“How long, Bob?” Rashy asked.
I looked at Herky, who shrugged. “Make it an hour,” I said as I rose out of the seat.
“Floor!” called Rashy as we left. The Floor man would cover my chips with a clear plastic thing like an upside-down broiling pan. A “temporary” player could put his chips on top and literally “play over” my stuff for an hour until I returned. If I took too long, the Floor man would bag up my chips and stuff and hold it for me at the desk. But, then, I’d have to go to the bottom of the long waiting list.
Playing over was a courtesy that worked both ways: I didn’t lose my seat, and someone else could play. Not only did that mean the house lost no rake and Rashy lost no tokes, it meant another happy customer (or even two customers, if you counted me).
Herky followed me to the free coffee set-up. I fixed my usual black with sugar. He led the way to the smoking area. I fired up a cigarillo and waved at him to talk.
“It’s not a really big game, Bob — only $2-$4, and all last week, I was doing well. I must’ve been ahead, $500, maybe $600. That’s a lot for me. I’m usually happy when I break even.”
I nodded. “What game are you playing?”
“Dealer’s choice. Mostly 7-stud and Draw poker, Jacks or better.”
“That could be a good game. That’s what we all grew up on,” I said. “You said something seemed strange. What happened?”
“A new guy started coming and he’s been beating us like a drum. I’ve never seen anyone get so lucky at getting the winner from the final card.”
“In a stud game?” I asked.
“Yeah, it’s like he has a magnet for Aces. And, while I don’t see what card he draws at the end, because they’re dealt as down cards, I’d swear he didn’t have that Ace from his earlier betting. He’s catching them on the final card.”
I thought for a few minutes. Odd things happen in card games all the time. But, if something happened often enough for Herky to notice it, it must be happening a lot.
“Does the deal pass from player to player or is there a real, designated dealer with a moving button?” I asked.
“Each player deals his own game,” Herky said.
“Are the cards paper, like Bicycle cards, or plastic?” I asked.
“I think they’re normal Bicycles,” he said. “Paper,” he added.
“Are you still ahead since you started?” I asked.
“Yeah, maybe $100.”
“Are the players the same every time? And, the one who gets lucky, is he the same every time, too?”
“There are maybe fifteen or twenty players, but the lucky guy is always the same.”
“How about the dealer? Is the same guy usually dealing when the lucky guy catches?”
“Yeah, he is.”
“Stop playing there, Herky.”
“Why, Bob? Am I being cheated?”
“I wouldn’t state that as a fact, but there’s a real chance that’s the way it is. I especially don’t like the progression. Has anyone been asking about raising the stakes to $5-$10?”
“Yeah, the guy whose house we’re playing at has mentioned he’d like to raise the stakes.”
“Would he also be the guy who is dealing when the lucky guy catches his winners?”
“Are you guys playing for cash or is it in a book where you have to go back to get it?” I asked.
“Cash,” said Herky.
“Great. Then you don’t have to go back to get it. Just stay away from there. If anybody calls to ask where you are, tell them you’ve been busy and you’ll be back when things are easier for you. And then don’t go.”
I crushed out the remains of the cigarillo. Herky was looking at me like I had two heads.
“Why?” he asked.
“Herky, one of the things I find endearing about you is your innocence. There are a lot of reasons casinos do things the way they do them. Plastic cards, professional dealers, single game tables, all the cameras watching everything, all those are primarily to protect you, the gambler. Yes, they also protect the house’s and the government’s interest, if any, in the profits the game generates, but most of it is to protect the players.
Paper cards are easy to mark, even during the game. A fingernail can crease the edge of a card. That’s why they use plastic cards. Chips make it easier to count the pot to be sure the players are putting in the correct amounts–and they’re why you can’t ‘splash’ the pot with a bunch of chips. Even if a licensed dealer knows how to deal seconds, he’d risk his livelihood by doing it, even once; if he’s caught, he’d be barred for life.
There are just too many ways for things to go–or be made to go–wrong in a house game with a big turnover of players. If you were playing on a regular basis with a small group that you knew on a personal level, that’d be different. But, you’re not. You’re playing with random strangers who could all be playing as a team. With paper cards. With cash. With random dealers. Without any of the controls or safeties a casino provides.
All of this could be coincidence. There’s no proof either way, so you can’t run screaming you’re being cheated. But, without those safeties and controls, your risk is just too high for my comfort. I wouldn’t play under those conditions, and I urge you not to, either.”