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“Self Defense in Private Poker Games: Part 1 – The Deck” by Alan25main

February 23, 2022

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How do you protect yourself in private poker games? We at Replay Poker are honored to share Alan25main’s last blog series, which is all about staying savvy in these situations.

In the course of an average week, there are likely to be vast numbers of private card games played for cash. Not all are poker, either. Many dollars change hands at Pinochle and Bridge.

In many cases, the stakes will be so low that no one can be bothered to enforce any anti-gambling ordinances or laws. In other cases, there will simply be no laws to enforce, or no organized authority willing to do that enforcement. It simply isn’t practical to dedicate law enforcement time and expense to break up a nickel-dime kids’ game, and it’s hardly any better justified even for a $2-$5 game for adults.

In practical terms, that means there is often no one keeping the games honest except the other players. What I hope to do in this article and those that follow it is to teach players what things to watch out for to keep those games as honest as is practical.

The first and simplest thing to look at is the cards themselves. There should be at least two decks with contrasting color backs. Are the decks new and in sealed boxes? If they’re not, that doesn’t automatically indicate there’s anything wrong, but it could mean that. It can also mean the cards are good quality plastic decks that ought to last thousands of hands instead of merely dozens.

Are the decks paper, like Bicycle decks, or plastic, like KEM? The plastic decks are much more expensive, but they’re also almost impossible to finger-nail the edges of, or easily mark after being manufactured. Paper cards can easily be finger-nailed or marked even during play, even if they were perfect when the box was opened. 

Some of the things to watch for are “bumps,” “bruises,” or “indentations” on the edges of paper cards and “ink smudges”–especially blue ones–on the backs of the cards. Of course, being honest when the box is opened doesn’t mean the cards will still be honest a few minutes later. It only takes one marked card to ruin your day, if it’s the right card and your timing is unfortunate.

Are the back designs of the cards very busy with lots of curlicues? Plain solid color? Cross-hatched? A picture? Is the design well centered or slightly off center? If curlicues, flip through the entire deck while looking at the top corners; if “spots” seem to be dancing around, those could be marked cards and the dancing spots are the marks. If a picture, flip through the deck looking at the picture; if the image moves, it could be marked. 

If cross-hatched, look closely at the position of the lines. Decks can be “sorted” so some higher or lower cards have their lines end at different places relative to the bottom or top of the card.

(Couldn’t happen, you say? Tell that to Phil Ivey, who was denied his winnings at a casino a few years ago after he noticed the natural sorts in the casino’s cards and took advantage of that information. Personally, I don’t think Ivey cheated, as anyone else could’ve–but, didn’t–notice the same fault in the cards. Of course, Ivey needed extraordinary vision and attention to detail to notice and take advantage of it, but it was there to be seen by anyone looking and paying attention.)

If any player or dealer has a bandage on a finger, thumb, or wrist, be sure to observe whether it has any red or blue stains. Those could be ink daubs to mark the backs of a few cards with the same or similar color back. 

On the assumption the deck is honest–as it almost always is–there is still one more critical thing to check before the game even begins. Fan the deck to verify there’s exactly one, and only one, of every suit and rank. Not 51 or 53 cards, but exactly 52 with no duplications.

Incidentally, the real reason there’s a joker or two in every deck is to be used as substitutes if the ordinary cards get damaged or become unplayable. This hails back to the days of hand painted cards before printing–it was simply too expensive to make many extra cards, so if one was damaged, a Joker took its place. It might take a month or more for skilled artisans to produce another deck.

The next part of this series will focus on how opponents might cheat at the live table. Look for “Part 2 – The Players” in a few weeks. 

[Note that this is not an exhaustive treatment of the subject, but merely the tip of the iceberg. Most of what I’ve said here is stuff I’ve personally observed at live tables over the course of a long and borderline evil life. If you really want to dig into the subject, check out some of John Scarne’s writings and tips on the subject in the 1940s and 50s. A lot of them appeared in the weekly Armed Forces newspaper, Stars & Stripes, during the WWII and Korean War years.]