Poker, The Cheating Game? - Part I

Posted by Nick Niesen on October 26th, 2010

Poker?s advance from the casino?s of New Orleans to the paddle wheelers plying the Mississippi River in the early years of the 19th century. created new opportunities for the professional gambler. These steamboats were lavishly appointed floating palaces catering to the well-heeled, replete with wine, women and song for the taking, and, oh yes, gambling. Many of the passengers on these cruises were Southern plantation owners flush with money ? thanks to the arrival of the railroads linking the cotton fields to the mighty river. These were men looking for a good time and willing to spend ? or lose ? their money in pursuit of pleasure.

At that time poker was a far different, and much simpler game then as played today. Only a twenty card deck (tens to aces), was used, and only four players at a table could participate, since the entire deck was dealt out, five cards to each player. Bets were placed and raised after the cards were dealt. The cards were then shown, and the best hand took the pot. This was an ideal game for card sharks since there was no draw and hands could easily be manipulated by various methods so that the card shark always left the game with the most winnings.

Among these various methods of cheating were sleight-of-hand tricks and even specially made mechanical devices often used by crooked gamblers, and most professional gamblers in those days were crooked. For example, Will and Finck developed a card-holding device called a sleeve card-holdout. This contraption ? strapped to the inside forearm of a gamblers sleeve, which was tailored in a wide cut to accommodate the device, had a metallic clip attached to a leather band that could clasp a needed card that a gambler could transfer unnoticed into his palm with a deft movement of the wrist.

Since these were not penny-ante games it was not uncommon for crooked gamblers to recruit one or more of the ship?s officers as accomplices, with a portion of the ?loot? going to the officer or officers for their aid. These officers would often steer so-called ?marks? or suckers, who were usually pleasantly drunk over to the gambler and would further aid the card shark by prearranged signals that revealed what cards had been dealt to the ?mark?.

In fact, cheating at these games had become so notorious that by the 1840?s a number of books were published as more or less ?exposes? of the dangers of playing poker with professionals. About this time an American writer, Jonathan H. Green, wrote a particularly well received book on this subject called ?The Exposures of the Arts and Miseries of Gambling?. In this book, Green referred to gambling as a ?cheating game?. The game became more complex and more difficult for the card shark once the fifty-two card deck came into being, and new variations of poker were introduced.

Nick Niesen

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Nick Niesen
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