There are plenty of extralegal ways a player can cadge himself an edge in a poker game. Some of these aren’t exactly cheating, like not declaring when you’ve seen a players hand by accident, faking a call with an empty hand to get a tell, or failing to keep your big chips out in front of your stack.
These kinds of shenanigan are not against the rules per se but, as Alec Torelli illustrated for all of us with the last of these, players do not take kindly to tricks of this sort if they seem deliberate. Angle shots like these by definition break the code of etiquette but are not punishable by the law of the game.
Distinct from these are the genuine kneecapping offenses. Stealing from the pot. Manipulating or marking the deck. Deliberately peeking at another players hand. This is the realm of cheating proper.
Running into someone who knows their way around a false cut, or who can palm a chip will hit your bottom line as fast as a run of cold cards will and with a far grimmer consistency.
Despite this, few players spend much of their worry on fash over possible cheating. It just isn’t as common as the silver screen makes it seem with movies like The Cincinnati Kid and Shade focusing on cheating as part of the game.
Players online or under the black bubble cameras of the cardroom are protected from most manual forms of cheating by either the ephemeral nature of the web or the threat of a knuckle dusting in the casino back room.
Home games and your local pub or club league are slightly tougher affairs to police, and while cheats are still uncommon, the frequency will be higher because the opportunities are easier. The best way to keep cheats a rare breed is going a little neighborhood watch on them.
But in order to police your own game, you need to know how to spot the bastard at their table if there is one. Here’s how to do that.
Know Your Enemy
The first thing to note is that there is no one magic tell that will flag up a cheat in your game. Any behavior a cheat might display is going to look like something that perfectly innocent people do. That is how cheaters get away with what they get away with, by making it look natural.
For example, cheats who manipulate the deal (by dealing off the bottom of the deck for example) for the most part will use the mechanic’s grip, a very particular way of holding the deck in which the index finger covers the front edge of the deck. Unfortunately, some people just learned to deal that way. That doesn’t mean they’re skinning the deck or dealing seconds.
It is worth mentioning the mechanic’s grip to anyone who uses it, with any luck that will make any cheaters among them a little more cautious about pulling something at your table knowing that they are under your eyeglass.
The Four Ways To Cheat At Poker
You can more or less boil the ways to beat a poker game illicitly into four kinds of interference: interfering with the deal, interfering with the chips, interfering with the availability of information, and interfering with another player through collusion.
The deal is by far the most expensive of these four categories and probably the one most people think of when they think ‘Cheat!’. This is the realm of cold decks (swapping the game deck with the cheat’s own pre-prepared deck), palming (keeping a card hidden in your palm for use later in the hand or in another hand altogether), and base/second dealing (dealing out a card from somewhere other than the top of the deck).
The really skilled legerdemainist can cull cards from the middle of a deck, keep track of them and then order them during the shuffle before manipulating the cut so as not to disturb his work. To get that good you have to practice your ass off at handling cards in private without much hope of the kind of applause that most people learn card tricks to earn.
The quickest way to acquaint yourself with these tricks and traps is to pick up the 1902 classic of the field: Expert at the Card Table. Try a few of the blind cuts and base dealing moves for yourself and you’ll get a sense of the kinds of highly unnatural movement the cheat has to make seem plausible in the heat of the moment. Do it in front of a mirror to get a sense of what it will look like to you when someone else is doing it at your table.
I trust you not to take this exercise any further.
Checking the Chips
Most of the ways chips can be interfered with are pretty intuitive and many of the standard conventions of poker are already designed to prevent them. Shortchanging the pot, for example, is prevented by having bets placed in front of the player but not with the main pot. Only after all action is closed for the round are the chips checked and added to the pile in the middle.
Like cards, chips can be palmed, so keep an eye on the hands of anyone who touches the pot. The player who helps push a pot to the winner may just be being helpful, they may also be taking a little cheater’s rake in the process. (Incidentally, this is why casino employees cut stacks of chips with a grip that puts a finger not their palm on the top of a column of chips).
If you use a common set of chips or one that can be bought on the market (i.e. non-custom) then you should be careful of people introducing chips from outside. It is irritating admin work keeping a note of how many big value chips are in your set and counting them in and out each session. You may not be able to tell who added chips to their stack but at least you will know that it is happening when the count comes back wrong.
A related scam is when a group of tournament players culls chips from their stacks to pass on to a confederate. This is what Negreanu et al accused Men Nguyen of having his horses do in an early noughties scandal. This is harder to catch since the total number of chips in the tournament doesn’t change. As a result, this is probably one of the more common forms of cheating to occur in casino settings. All you can do is watch for changes in stack size that are unrelated to hands played.
It’s What You Know
Phil Ivey used irregularities in the printing of a certain brand of cards to take millions off a UK casino. The Casino didn’t pay out since he violated the rules of the game, but not in a way that constituted a crime according to the UK’s Supreme Court, to which he appealed.
Other players are less scrupulous, they make their own irregularities. This can be done by a process as simple as scratching or pricking the cards as they come through their hand. Better funded operators can use invisible ink that only shows up under certain filters (worn as sunglasses) or when the light catches at certain angles. This kind of card marking is explicitly illegal.
The cheat can only mark cards that he’s seen both sides of though, so a rotating dealer and regular changes of the deck can take a lot of the sting out of this move. A lot, but not all; even a few known cards can give a player a significant edge in key spots. So keep an eye on how people handle their cards, especially those with something hard near or on their hands: bracelets, watches, rings can all be used to scratch a card in telling ways.
A very uncommon way of getting inside info on another player’s hand is to look at it. While complex systems like the cameras in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels is not terribly cost-effective, Hugo Drax – the villain of Ian Fleming’s novel Moonraker – cheats at bridge by dealing with a polished cigarette case beneath the deck that allows him to see the cards as he distributes them. His eidetic memory does the rest.
On the whole though the best way to keep someone from seeing your hand is to never turn your back on a mirror and cup your cards under your hands when you peel them to look at.
Collusion is Not Just For Presidents
The last main field of cheating is using another player. Many of the methods above are sometimes combined with collusion (think of Worm dealing the winning hands to Mike in Rounders). However, there is a set of cheats that are exclusively teamwork based.
These are generically known as “collusion” and can be as simple as establishing beforehand that a player will fold to any reraise from their opponent and other forms of soft-playing to having a complex system of signals to let the colluders communicate their exact hands and plan of action between each other.
Having the information from their partner, allows colluders to trap opponents between raises and to gain the fold equity of a reraise without having to worry about what the reraise means for an opponent’s range.
To spot colluders look for odd patterns of chip placement or patterns of raising between players who know each other outside the game or play a lot of hands.
What To Do With A Suspected Cheat…
Well, that will be very much up to you and how sure you are in your assessment. Remember that innocent people can often appear guilty as sin, that is why courts don’t accept circumstantial evidence as proof of guilt.
Your personal cheating policy is probably best to make clear that you know about cheating methods and are on the lookout for them. That will leave the innocent confused and may scare the guilty straight.
If you are absolutely sure that you have a bastard in your game then if you’re at a casino you might want to have a word with a member of staff. They have cameras that may allow them to prove your disprove your suspicion.
In a home game there is always available the ever popular Glasgow grin but if you’d rather not do time for vigilante GBH, the best move is that if you spot what you think is a cheat, remove yourself from the game. Reading one article won’t qualify you to operate as the poker fuzz, but knowing a bit about cheats can help you reduce the chances of playing long sessions against one.