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“Self Defense in Private Poker Games: Part 2 – The Players” by Alan25main

March 9, 2022

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In the second part of his series on self-defense, the late Alan25main focuses on the players. Read on to know what to look for when you’re playing in private poker games.

In part one, we looked at ways to make the deck itself crooked. Today, we’ll look at the players.

Other players are essential — without them, there is no game. It would be nice to think we could play a game where every opponent was an upstanding citizen, a good sport, and a player just enough worse than we are so that we frequently beat them. Oh, and they should also have lots of spare money for us to win.

Yeah, it never quite works that way in my world, either, but I’ve heard it’s good to dream.

Even before we think about individual players, we must make some decisions. How many seats should we have at our table? If we’re playing mixed games, say draw, stud, and Hold’em-type games, we might be able to comfortably fit seven, right, or even nine. If we have a non-playing dealer, we can add another chair for the dealer, too.

If we’re playing Hold’em only, we can go as high as 22 without running out of cards, but that would take a huge table so everyone could see. Keeping the bets straight would be a tremendous challenge with that many players, too.

Suppose we settle on eight? What do you do if 12 show up? Form two tables of six each and consolidate when players leave? Some never stay long — they either score big and run away or go broke and sit out.

Be very hesitant to make judgements based on the players’ physical appearances. Clothes are easy to change to portray a different lifestyle than that individual actually lives. Make-up, shaves, and hair care are also subject to change.

Most people will be dressed in what they consider comfort clothes. That could mean sweat pants and a hoodie. It might mean a suit and tie. One is not worth more than the other. Judge your opponents by their table conduct and game play, not their appearance.

Now you’re sitting at a table of eight. One of them is wearing color-tinted eyeglasses. You ought to be wondering why. It could be he works on a computer screen all day, every day. It might also be there is something odd in the lighting to illuminate markings on the cards. How can you deal with that?

Openly admire the glasses and ask to see them. If the wearer is just another player who happens to be wearing custom glasses, they’ll be pleased to hand them over. Look through them at the backs of the cards. If there’s nothing out of the way, say, “Thanks, I like them and might get a pair myself,” and give them back. Their owner is likely to be flattered by the compliment rather than angry for being called a potential cheat. Misdirection is bluffing, too.

Many players wear short sleeved shirts year round. That’s good. There can’t be an ace up the sleeve when the sleeve starts at the mid-bicep. The one wearing the unseasonable winter overcoat, on the other hand …

Perhaps the most common way for players to cheat is by acting in concert with each other as a team. Usually, there will only be two team members, though I’ve seen teams of three and once heard of a team of four. They’re a curse on semi-private games, usually in clubs (and, yes, that means they’re probably members of those clubs). When one player raises, the other(s) will raise behind them to create the impression of great strength. One will often fold once they’re the last ones left in the hand, so you may never get to see what they were betting on.

Other than playing only with your best hands, there is little you can do in self-defense against this. It is one of the reasons most private games have a limit of three or four raises and the amounts to be bet are fixed rather than no-limit. Should you run across a team, the best response is, “I hear my spouse/parent/friend calling me. Gotta go, sorry.” And then leave, intending not to return.

Another less common way to collude is by signaling at the table during the game. For example, a player could scratch an eyebrow to indicate a holding of a straight or higher. In a game like 5-card stud, with only one or two down cards, simply knowing your fellow player’s hole card(s) can tell a whole lot about the potential outcome for both of you. Not only is this very difficult to detect, it’s almost impossible to counter unless you can both detect and “break the code” of the signalers and use it against them.

When discussing the cards in Part 1, I mentioned “nailing” paper cards by marking their edges with a fingernail. This is almost always done during play by an active player. You may not be able to identify the person doing the nailing, but you can take defensive action. Note where the mark is, then do it to every card you get. That mark is only useful to the cheat if it’s unique.

Generally, if the players are dealing in turns, the deck is usually offered to the player behind the dealer for a cut. ALWAYS cut the cards. Cutting the deck isn’t in any way insulting or accusatory, it simply randomizes the cards one final time. This should be the ONLY time anyone besides the dealer should touch the deck. If anyone calls for a cut during the hand, it’s to be done by the dealer alone in plain view of the whole table. If there’s a professional dealer she, and only she, should cut the deck randomly in full view of the players. No one else should ever touch the deck.

Sometimes, a player can conceal a card by holding it aside when tossing in the discards. The objective is to use it later by substituting it for a different card in a future hand. After the winning hand, the now excess card can be discarded by adding it to a future hand being mucked.

The counter for this is for the dealer to quickly scan the cards being mucked for quantity–but, the dealer need not know what those cards are, merely how many of them get tossed. If there are too many or too few, the dealer should swiftly call attention to that. The fairness of the deal depends on every player taking an active part in enforcing all of the rules.

Another common trick is shorting the pot when calling, raising, or making change. In casinos, the dealers don’t allow players to “splash the pot” with chips. Bets have to be easily counted and verifiable by everyone in the game. Using chips simplifies that. Cash bets can be hard to count, especially if a wad of loose bills is tossed on top of other loose bills.

The solution is that everyone’s bets should be kept in front of each active player until everyone has called, then the dealer–not the players–“rounds up the money” and puts it into the pot for each bet. The dealer should also “award the pot” by pushing it to the winning player.

In Part 3, we’ll look at dirty dealers. See you then.