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Cheating at Blackjack

We have all seen movies where the house manipulates a game to its own advantage (remember the roulette wheel in “Casablanca”?) or a cowboy walks into a big casino and somehow manages to leave coolly with a million or two due to something more than luck. These scenes are fun to watch, but what is the real story on cheating in casinos? Who does it, how do they do it, and do they get away with it?

Cheating players usually use one of three basic methods: palming (extremely risky), signalling, or smearing (these latter two are generally considered to be less obvious). Palming is widely known and well understood, e.g. pulling an ace from the sleeve at a crucial point in the game.

However the sleight of hand required to pull this off undetected is of a very high standard, like that of a professional magician. It goes without saying that casinos employ staff whose sole job at a given time will be to watch the players, and of course all the action is also recorded by closed-circuit television with powerful magnification for scrutiny both in real time and after a suspected cheater has been identified.

Card boxes are also changed regularly and checked upon removal from play to ensure that no cards have been palmed. Casinos are more worried by “smearing”, where a player smears a substance on to a particular card so that it can be recognised later.

However, if a player can see it so can the dealer, though stories abound of ingenious cheats using substances visible only under a special light shined from a finger ring or other device! Finally, the most popular method of player cheating: signalling. Although this requires at least two people to work together, thus doubling the potential for detection, the signalling itself can quite easily be made very hard for the casual observer to spot (tapping a ring finger to indicate “diamonds” is definitely out).

Fortunately for the casinos, their spotters develop a sixth sense after a few years in the business, which enables them to tell just who is fidgeting and who is signalling. The chances of successfully cheating a casino are very, very slim.

It does not hurt to know as a player what the tell-tale signs of house cheating are, though you are far more likely to see them in small unregulated establishments than in serious casinos in big gambling venues like Atlantic City or Las Vegas. House cheating occurs most commonly in a card game where the dealer deals by hand, as these conditions are the most opportune for chicanery.

Some of the methods which can be used by a dealer are similar to what is open to a cheating player, for example card palming or smearing. However the house should be able to arrange this more professionally and discreetly than a cheating player, such as by marking the high and low cards with very subtle braille-style indentations.

Of course, a dealer can also combine foreknowledge of the cards with the ability to palm and substitute them to far better effect than a player possibly could! The dealer has a larger and more private area available to him at his side of the table, where he may utilise mirrors or other reflective devices which allow him to get a peek at the “face down” cards.

Sleight of hand plays its part here, too: if the dealer can see what is on the cards at both the top and the bottom of the deck, and possibly even the second card from the top of the deck, he then has two or three cards to choose from whenever a player requests a hit.

The easiest cheat for the house is manipulating the cards when they are collected, because once this is done they can be played normally by the dealer without any extra pretence. A very common cheat in blackjack is for the cards to be picked up at the end of a round in alternating order between low and high values. The cards are then placed into the shuffling machine which is set to perform a phoney shuffle. The cards look like they are being shuffled, but actually remain in exactly the same order as that in which they were collected. A player will then be guaranteed not to have anything close to a blackjack: neither on his first two cards, nor with a twist, and to be bust on the fourth.

The paradox of the casino cheat is that systematic cheating – whether by the house or by players – will always be punished eventually, no matter how well concealed. Any player who starts to win big is watched very closely. Regular players will notice that they seem to have bad luck in casinos where the house cheats, and the casino will almost certainly lose far more in revenue (not to mention its licence and reputation) than it could gain by cheating as customers take their chips elsewhere. Whether you are the house or a player, the odds of cheating successfully are stacked against you. So it seems that in the casino at least, cheaters never prosper!

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