Thursday, April 24, 2008

Who Are Today's Poker Cheats?

You’re waiting for me to say “everyone and his mother,” right? Well, that’s not so. But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been hustling mothers guilty of cheating at poker. Grandmother’s too. Poker cheaters come from all dimensions of life. They come in all shapes and sizes, too. Often they’re people you’d least likely suspect to be cheats. Often they’re people even I’d least likely suspect as cheats. Believe me, that’s saying a lot. I have come into contact with hundreds of people who have employed dishonest techniques to win at gambling. I had thought I’d seen it all.
But in September 2003, I was thrown for a loop while reading an article on the sports page of my favorite newspaper. The headline read:

Underneath was a color photo of the beautiful Russian gymnast, Vera Shimanskaya. I couldn’t believe it! The diminutive dirty-blond, blue-eyed Russian knockout was a goddamn poker cheat! Not only was she an Olympic gymnast but she was also an Olympic gold-medal gymnast. That’s right, Vera won a gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Games. Later, unfortunately, the gold medals didn’t seem to satisfy her anymore. Vera wanted gold chips instead.
According to the article, Vera and her “Eastern European” boyfriend had taken to the Western European road as a he-and-she poker-cheating team. They were not at all of the nickel-and-dime bust-out variety. When Vera was arrested at a Spanish casino near Valencia, authorities claimed she and her partner had scammed poker players at that casino for $10,000. In one night! And that was only at the casino where she finally got caught. In the ensuing investigation, it was determined that the stylish duo ran up similar ill-gotten gains at six other casinos in Spain before their tainted luck ran out.
Imagine this, I thought putting down that newspaper. A graceful Olympic gold-medalist tumbling off her podium, spinning all the way down to the pits of poker cheating. What was the world coming to?
And then I wondered how they did it. The initial shock of who did it wore off, so I asked myself how an athlete such as Vera could go from Olympic sport queen to Madame Ripoff in so short a period of time. Was the boyfriend the real gaff artist and Vera just the sexy distraction? They must have done something banal to distract everyone in the whole goddamn casino. Something not unlike having Vera, dressed in a skimpy leather skirt with her leg muscles pumped up by stiletto heels, bend over in front of the poker table to pick up the lipstick she “dropped” on the floor while her comrade switched in a stacked deck. That would seem the most likely way it went down.
It wasn’t the case. It turned out that Vera had been playing poker regularly in several of London’s card clubs, though she had never been accused of cheating in one. But somewhere in her brief sojourn as a poker player, she learned how to mark cards. In doing so she would’ve had to put some time and concentration into it, and then a lot of practice. I am not saying that the dedication to training as a card-marker need be as stringent as what she’d given to gymnastics, though Vera would’ve had to perform similar nimble twirls with her fingers in order to bilk ten grand from a casino. The Spanish authorities refused to give details on the exact method she and her partner used, though journalists reported being told it was very advanced.
If Vera Shimanskaya could be implicated in a poker-cheating scam, could the same happen to virtually anyone? Well, I would not go that far out on a limb to say anyone, but it could happen to a lot more people than you think.
Take a look at me, for instance. Do you think that while growing up flipping baseball cards, at a time when all my peers entertained dreams of becoming major league ballplayers, I had aspirations of becoming a professional casino cheater? Hardly. In fact, I never had aspirations of becoming a professional casino cheater. It just happened within my natural evolution, and when it was happening I had no idea it was happening. It was just the result of the progression my life was taking. I started off as a gambler, blew off my bankroll, got stuck in Vegas without a place to sleep or food to eat, and after crawling out of the gutter and becoming a casino dealer, I evolved into a cheat.
Most poker cheaters take a similar bumpy route. They start off as honest though losing gamblers, then turn to cheating to either recover their losses or just to stay in action. Many of these ill at luck gamblers justify their actions, blaming other players for their misfortune and sometimes even wrongly believing that these opponents were cheating them. Thus a little revenge would be in order just to even the deck. Some losing players cross over the line from normal poker deception to cheating because they assume other players are cheating, without having particular players under suspicion. They merely rationalize the conception that if “I know how to cheat, then everyone else knows how to cheat, therefore someone must be cheating.”
Many different mindsets can induce people to experiment with cheating, though I would definitely say that a history of losing at gambling is a prerequisite for making a career of it. Every person I’ve worked with in my entire casino-cheating career had some part of his life marred by destructive gambling. Those few gamblers, poker players included, who have that rare talent of consistently beating the odds would have no reason to adopt cheating into their strategies. They’re enjoying themselves too much by doing what they like while making honest money at it. In conclusion, the vast majority of today’s poker cheaters are players who have not had success gambling legitimately and are on a mission to recover their losses the old fashion way: by cheating.
There are people, however, who cheat for reasons other than the recovery of gambling losses, though they clearly form the minority. Of these, most are adventurers and thrill-seekers. They are people who like to take risks beating the system and attain a tremendous high doing so. These are the kind of individuals who might be inclined to get involved in identity theft and credit fraud, or jump out of a plane with a faulty parachute. While sweeping in a big pot just won on the sly, they welcome the thought of casino security swooping down on them before they could stack their chips, though they believe it will never really happen.
Other people are motivated simply by their own egos to cheat. The vast majority in this category are college kids cheating poker games online. Most of them have never even been inside a real casino or cardroom. Instead of hitting their schoolbooks after classes, some of them invent computer programs that help them cheat the thousands of fish swimming within the expanding universe of online poker. Many will say they cheat simply for kicks, but when you have kids still suffering from acne risking prison to hack into online sites, you can readily believe it’s more about ego than anything else.
A final group of poker cheaters, the smallest, is made up of employees (or ex-employees) from the poker industry, mainly dealers and other personnel from live poker rooms who have grievances against the gambling establishments they work for. Unlike disgruntled postal employees known to go get their guns and rampage the facilities they work in, poker dealers take up cheating in collusion with players to exact compensation for whichever injustices they feel they suffered at the hands of their employers.

In all, these eclectic cheaters will always be part of and siphon a fair share of money from the poker world.