Saturday, February 09, 2008

Online Poker Crackdown in Sweden!

I have heard stories about Sweden's IRS, whatever it may be called, and apparently it is as big a pain in the ass as the good old American IRS. In any case, or I should say tax case, the Swedish tax authorities are going after what they call "poker tax cheats." Here's the story:

Sweden to Go After Online Poker Players, Affiliates

Sweden is cracking down on "tax cheats" and their primary focus will be online poker players, affiliates and operators, not to mention other online gambling related activities. Sweden is a hot bed in the online gambling industry, playing host to some of the leading software providers and poker networks including the national state owned Svenka Spel. And they are targeting individual online poker players in its tax probe.

Last summer, Sweden's tax board Skatteverket announced that it was going to start targeting online poker sites and affiliates for tax evasion. At the time, Dag Hardyson, national project leader for the tax board's Internet unit, said they weren't interested in going after poker players; only the companies that provided online poker services or those that made money by directing players to those sites would be targeted. But reports this week identified that poker players are among those now facing back taxes and penalties. Since launching their probe, Skatteverket has identified 47 cases of suspected tax evasion, representing €44.5 million in undeclared income, with €5 million purportedly attributed to individual poker players.

Meanwhile, The European Commission has launched investigations into both Swedish and German prohibitions on internet gambling. The Commission has requested further information from the countries over concerns that they restrict free trade.

The Commission has said that in Sweden's case it cannot allow betting in physical casinos or online in a state monopoly and at the same time bar foreign operators from offering online gambling.

"A Member State cannot invoke the need to restrict its citizens’ access to betting services if at the same time it incites and encourages them to participate in state lotteries, games of chance or betting which benefits the state’s finances," said a Commission statement.

The Commission is conducting an inquiry into whether Sweden's rules on poker games and tournaments are consistent with EU laws on free trade. The country has two months in which to respond to the request for information.

"[The request does not] have any implications for the liberalization of the market for gambling services generally, or for the entitlement of Member States to seek to protect the general interest, so long as this is done in a manner consistent with EU law i.e. that any measures are necessary, proportionate and non-discriminatory," said the Commission. "The Commission hopes that the answer it receives will lead to an early and satisfactory resolution of the matter."

Dirty Poker

A legendary gambler named Swifty Morgan roamed Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the 1950s. Swifty was Irish but spent most of his time playing poker with his Italian and Jewish buddies who populated the neighborhood. Both the Italians and Jews knew Swifty was a degenerate gambler who oftentimes took up cheating to recover his losses. His specialty was marking cards, usually done in a crude way by filing down his overgrown thumbnail to a sharp edge. Several times Swifty was caught in the act, whereupon the Italians and Jews alternated beating the shit out of him.
But they never barred him from the game because he was such a degenerate loser. The one rule they finally posted to prevent Swifty’s cheating was to forbid him to bring cards to the games. All decks would be furnished by whichever Italian or Jew hosted the game.
Swifty had a hotblooded Irish temper, and he got pissed off real quickly when he started losing. During a two-month span in the 1955, Swifty’s losing streak took on wacky proportions. He’d finally had enough of losing his bankroll to the Italians and Jews, so he came up with a plan not only to get even with them but to take their bankrolls as well.
There was a small five and dime store in the neighborhood that stayed open till midnight. It was about the only place of commerce that wasn’t closed by nine o’clock. The last time Swifty had been there, he noticed that playing cards were on sale.
One wintry afternoon, Swifty walked inside the store at five o’clock. He went directly to the shelf where the cards were displayed and bought half the supply of Bicycle decks. He took the cards home, and using a knife with a very thin blade removed the cellophane wrapping on the boxes, paying special attention to leave the store’s price tags in place and undamaged. He then carefully slid the wrapping off the first box, leaving the cellophane intact. He used a razor blade to cut open the side of the box, leaving the blue sealing stamp in place on the box’s flap. He removed the cards and began skillfully marking their backs with tiny applications of a daub he’d bought in a novelty store.
Finished marking, he placed the cards back in the box, reglued the open side and very carefully slid the cellophane wrapper over the freshly resealed box. After refolding the wrapper to the exact way it appeared before he’d slit it, Swifty fetched a cloth and laid it over the cellophane. Then he pressed a hot iron lightly against the cloth, sealing the cellophane. Upon final examination of his work, Swifty was satisfied that the deck, still sealed in cellophane and protected by the blue stamp, appeared as though he’d never opened it.
Swifty repeated this process for another nineteen decks. Then he immediately returned to the five and dime store. When the owner wasn’t looking, he scooped the remaining decks on the shelf and dropped them into his sack. Then he restocked the shelf with the twenty decks he’d marked at home. Now every deck of playing cards for sale at the five and dime was marked.
That night, Swifty went to one of the Jew’s houses in the neighborhood. He was swiftly searched by both the Jew and one of the Italians before they allowed him inside. He had no marked cards or cheating paraphernalia of any kind on his person. He was led to the eight-handed poker game upstairs.
The game of choice was five-card stud. The stakes were $10-$20, a pretty steep game for the times. It started at nine o’clock. After half an hour of play, Swifty was stuck $200. By ten he was stuck $350. Growing angrier by the minute and adding a bit of theatrics to his outburst, Swifty had enough. After a losing hand, he tore up his cards.
“Whaddaya do that for, you little twerp!” cried one of the Italians.
“Never mind,” Swifty said indignantly. “I won’t do it again.”
The host of the game fetched a new deck of cards and dealt out the next hand. Swifty lost on purpose. When one of the Jews threw over his winning hole card, Swifty ripped up his cards again.
“Whaddaya do that for, you little asshole!” cried the Jew who won the pot.
“Never mind,” Swifty said indignantly. “I won’t do it again. This time I promise.”
“You won’t do it again?” cried the host. “You can’t do it again. I don’t have any more decks of cards!”
“You don’t have any more decks?” another of the Italians asked in a voice filled with panic. “How we gonna continue?”
“Looks like we’re fucked,” the host observed. Pointing at Swifty he added, “Because of this little Irish piss-ass.”
“Does anyone have any cards on them?” someone asked.
“I would’ve brought some,” Swifty replied quickly. “But you guys forbade me to bring cards.”
“Shut up, asshole!” the meanest of the Italians said. Then to everyone: “None of yuz got any cards?”
Everyone shook his head.
“Shit!” hollered the last Jew. “We can’t even buy any cards. There ain’t nothin’ in this shithole neighborhood open past nine o’clock.”
At this point Swifty looked around the room longingly, preying he’d hear the magic words.
“Wait a minute!” the host said in a burst of sudden excitement. “The five and dime on Fourteenth Street. I forget the name of it, but I think it’s open until midnight…Yeah, it is! I bought some lozenges there one night when my mother had a sore throat. They sell cards!”
An instant later, the last Italian, who was also the fastest runner of the bunch, was out the door on his way to the five and dime. He was back five minutes later with two decks of pretty blue-backed Bicycle playing cards.
Three hours later, Swifty had all their money.
The Italians and the Jews beat the hell out of him on his way out the door. But not because they discovered the marked cards. They just got pissed off because Swifty was leaving with their money.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Greatest Card Scam Ever!

Dostoyevsky's card scam turns against himself!

The Baden-Baden casino in Germany is perhaps the most beautiful gambling palace in the entire world. When I was there with my pastposting team in 1994, I was so awed by the place that I couldn’t bring myself to do a move on its tables. The casino was more than just a casino; it was an art museum. Inside, below lustrous chandeliers hanging from towering ceilings were separate regal gaming rooms whose walls were lined with works of art by the masters. One of these rooms was reserved for a high-stakes poker game attended by European nobility from all over the continent.
The Baden-Baden poker game basked in the glory of its heyday in the 1870s when the famed Russian writer Dostoyevsky whiled away more time in the casino’s crowded roulette room than he did penning manuscripts. When his numbers went cold, Dostoyevsky was known to stroll up to the poker game and take a seat.
The casino supplied majestic European-style playing cards that were produced by a printer who was actually a descendant of Gutenberg and whose printing shop was located just five miles by carriage from the regal casino.
Well, as the story goes, one of the princes playing in this game was a degenerate gambler who lost so much money that he endangered both his castle and his princess. He was running up astonishing debts to the rest of the nobility in the game, which threatened to create a big enough scandal to aggravate even King Ludwig, who was already considered apathetically insane by most Bavarians. The prince didn’t know what to do, but one night while alone in his castle (his princess, furious with him for his gambling losses, had run off with a caretaker) he had a brainstorm.
One brisk, sunny fall afternoon, after another losing session at the poker game, the prince instructed his carriage chauffeur to take him to see the printer. After formalities were exchanged, he advised the printer that he had written a special poem of apology for the princess and wanted the printer to reproduce it with his most elegant calligraphy. But it was all a load of crap. What the prince wanted was a tour of the printer’s facilities, which he got from a very obliging printer who knew he would charge the prince a pretty shilling or two for his work.
Later that night, the prince drove his own carriage to the print shop, sneaked inside it and secretly altered the engraving plates the printer used to produce the playing cards for the Baden-Baden casino. The plan was that the printer would unknowingly supply Baden-Baden with marked cards.
At the time, cards were not nearly as mass produced as they are today, so the prince would have to wait a few weeks before the marked decks hit the poker table. He resisted all temptation and managed to stay away from the casino until he knew the marked cards were in play. In the interim he even had the good fortune to win back the princess, who found out that the caretaker had been two-timing her.
Naturally the prince went on a fabulous winning streak at the Baden-Baden high-stakes poker table. He busted out a collection of counts, viceroys, dukes, earls and even the great Dostoyevsky. In fact, he put such a hurt on Dostoyevsky that the famed Russian writer was forced to go home to Russia and write The Gambler, for which he received enough money to return to Baden-Baden and seek his revenge against the prince.
When Dostoyevsky returned to the casino, the marked cards were still in play. It didn’t take long for the prince to send him packing again. After writing yet another book to finance still another gambling binge, Dostoyevsky returned to the poker table yet again. This time after losing, the great Russian writer jumped up and accused the prince of cheating. When the prince, filled with indignation, demanded of Dostoyevsky to produce evidence backing up his accusation, the writer laid the printer’s business card on the table.
Stunned, the prince asked, “How did you know?”
Dostoyevsky replied, “I did the same thing but the idiot sent my cards to the wrong casino.”

Online Poker Criminal Deposits

Online Poker: This past week I have received 2 e-mails asking my advice about a very dangerous subject. The first e-mailer advised me that he and a cohort had successfully pulled off an identity theft and pilfered the victim's personal data and credit card numbers. He stated that he felt apprehensive about turning the information into actual identification documents and financial instruments such as credit cards and bank accounts. He wanted to know if it was safe to instead use online poker sites to deposit money off the stolen cards and then have it funneled back to him after play, after which he would do more financial maneuvering to get the money to its final destination.

The second e-mailer said she'd read a book I had co-authored called "Identity Theft Incorporated" and expressed her desire to pull off a casino credit scam similar to one that I had written about in the book. She admitted (yes, it was a woman) that she didn't have the balls (yes, that's how she put it) to go into an actual casino and try it but asked if she could somehow scam the online poker sites to fraudulently fund accounts and then cash out with the profits.

Well, this is all dangerous business. As I told each of these e-mailers: Do not screw around with credit-card and identity-theft scams with online gaming deposits! It is dangerous and you WILL get screwed. International police and investigative agencies are paying more and more attention to money laundering and other financial crimes cloaked inside online gaming accounts. Try this in the virtual world and you may have a very real world visit from the US Secret Service and FBI!

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Casino Cheatingfest in Scotland!

A big brand new casino is opening in Scotland today, and it is owned by the gaming company that owns Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. When I heard that, the first thing I thought of was that hordes of cheaters would descend on the beautiful Scottish countryside but not to take in the sights of the lush green fields but rather the smooth green felts on the tables in that casino. Those of you who know my history or have read my book "American Roulette" know as well how much I love Caesars Palace and how much cash I have taken out of its casino. In fact, in the book, I made the statement that I wanted to be buried on the grounds of Caesars Palace. But there's more to my claims that the cheaters will hit this new Scottish casino hard than my nostalgia for Caesars Palace. There is rampant inexperience there. To see what I mean, read this article in today's Scottish Daily Record.

Welcome To Fabulous Glas Vegas Glasgaw

Feb 6 2008 By Brian Mciver

Scotland's New £25m Las Vegas-Style Gambling Complex Opens Today Record Man Brian Mciver Gets Training At A Top Casino As The Company Behind Caesar's Palace Arrive In Glasgow

THE lights are bright, the girls are hot, the chips are piled high and I am feeling lucky.

The expensive carpets and wallpaper have been hand-crafted by interior designers, while the bar is stocked and ready for the punters and high rollers who are trying to find a seat at the tables of Scotland's newest casino.

Everything is in place but the only thing wrong with this picture of a mini Las Vegas is the nervous, clumsy and not very suave guy hiding behind the roulette wheel trying to juggle a tiny white marble.

At the tenth attempt, I finally manage to spin the little ball and my life as a croupier began.

Ihave just signed up for a crash course in dealer school at Alea, Scotland's biggest casino, which opens in Glasgow today.

The £25million venue, owned by the same leisure giants who run the worldfamous Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, is the latest gambling and entertainment complex to arrive in Scotland.

There is no black-tie dress code, although football colours are banned, and Venue Director Paul Rety is planning to have live bands playing in the entertainment hall, while hoping to attract the European leg of the World Series of Poker in the near future.

Asmall army of professional dealers and croupiers have been recruited and trained to deal with the influx of customers they are expecting through the doors of the complex, which has a capacity of more than 1100.

With smart outfits and big smiles, it seemed to me the dealers must enjoy one of the most glamorous jobs in the gaming industry.

If the movies are anything to go by, they also get to mix with the rich and famous and score awesome tips from big winners and high rollers. And when you think of movies such as Ocean's 11 or Croupier, it seems like a pretty exciting way of life.

All in all it sounded like an attractive proposition, so when management offered me a spot at their croupier school, I decided to volunteer.

My teachers for the day were Gaming Manager Johanna Johnston and croupier Ann-Marie Welsh, from Glasgow, who has just started at lea after years in other city casinos and aboard cruise ships.

The 23-year-old insisted it is a lot harder than it looks but I was eager to show I had what it took and started off with the roulette wheel.

Ann-Marie flicked the ball with ease and it sailed around first time.

It was my turn next, which is when I found out Ann-Marie was right, as the ball bounced like a golf ball across the wheel. The next time, I got it a good few inches around the rim before it tumbled down pathetically.

Ten attempts and several frustrated moans from my teachers ;later, finally got it to stick to the wall of the wheel with success lying in the flicking of the fingers technique.

Once it lands, it's a time to calculate the wins and losses. Ann-Marie spouts out figures and calculations like a short-skirted calculator and has the kind of internal arithmetic that would put a NASA scientist to shame.

I, on the other hand, would have to rely on fingers and thumbs to help me keep up with the scores.

But the most amazing thing about watching a skilled croupier is the way they handle the gaming tools.

They can stack the chips up and down, stroke the roulette ball, cards and dolly (the wee glass object which sits on the winning number) around with a speed that means you hardly notice their movements. My hand movements were about as smooth and subtle as a drunken kung fu fighter.

Having spent many a caravan holiday playing pontoon as a child, I figured a card game would be easier. How wrong I was.

One thing I always thought would be abig part of the job would be having eagle eyes to spot cheats, like Rain Man style card counters or organised crooks on the make in Las Vegas. The reality is alot less exciting.

Ann-Marie said: "People talk about card counting and cheating but it's not something you see much of. There is so much security with hi-tech cameras everywhere.

"You do keep an eye out for people who look agitated, who are playing with their chips a lot, or look very nervous but it doesn't happen often.

"Most people are here just to have a good time and we make sure they do so. We are always friendly and you need a bit of personality to get on with people."

I was even worse at handling cards than I was the roulette ball and, if I was ever in charge of a table with any cheats, they would be too busy dodging the cards I was throwing like tiny plastic-coated missiles to keep up any scams.

I decided to practise shuffling and hoped I could pick up some tips to flick adeck from hand to hand like the experts.

Unfortunately, I showed as much composure here as with the roulette wheel and ended up having to nerdily file them one by one, while Ann-Marie sifted and sorted them with quick hands.

After my day at croupier school, manager Johanna Johnston gave me her verdict and she was very kind, considering.

"You need to have a bit more confidence and composure about what you're doing and it just takes practice, because it is not as easy as you might think," she said.

"A few more weeks, or maybe months and you might, eventually, get it. We have learn-to-play sessions and leaflets to help, so maybe you should start there."

With my lesson over and my croupier diploma apparently lost in the post, I decided to hang up my cards, chips and roulette ball and venture back to the other side of the gambling table, which is a much easier, if more expensive, place to sit.

I had failed pretty miserably at roulette and cards - so it's maybe just as well they don't shoot craps, as they do in the movies.

'People talk about card counting and cheating but it's not something you see much of - there's too much security'

Indian Casino Gets Away with a Slot Scam of its Own

Judge dismisses jackpot lawsuit against Sandia casino

The Associated Press
Article Launched: 02/04/2008 05:09:19 PM MST

ALBUQUERQUE—A state district judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by a Bernalillo County man who accused Sandia Resort & Casino of not paying him a jackpot of nearly $1.6 million.

Gary Hoffman claimed he was playing a slot machine in August 2006 when hit the jackpot. The casino refused to pay, saying the machine wasn't working properly and that Hoffman had actually won about $400.

Hoffman alleged the casino violated the Unfair Trade Practices Act and he sued for the jackpot winnings plus punitive damages.

Paul Bardacke, an attorney representing Sandia Pueblo, argued that the tribe couldn't be sued in state district court because of sovereign immunity (Sovereign immunity, gimme a break!), and Judge Linda Vanzi agreed during a hearing Monday.

Hoffman's attorney, Sam Bregman, said he will appeal the ruling.

Bregman argued that tribal sovereignty wasn't meant to protect tribes from luring people to their casinos and then cheating them out of their winnings.

"This decision has national implications," he said. "There are billions of dollars at stake when it comes to Indian gaming and the idea that they never have to be held accountable is very troubling."

Online Poker Cheats Stir the Soup!

The latest scandal in online poker comes from the European site, Betfair. A group of players discovered a glitch in the software that when all of the players in a six-seat tournament went all-in on the first hand, the winner would get the first-place money, but the site would erroneously give second-place prize money to all of the other five players, which was an amount well above the total entry fees. Then a large number of players conspired to exploit this software bug for as much money as they could squeeze out of the system before Betfair discovered the problem and fixed it.

Well, it's not surprising that people will be dishonest or unethical, but I was kind of taken aback to find threads in poker forums where players admit that they were involved in the Betfair incident, and others saying that they wish they had known about it so that they could have gotten into the free-for-all for some easy money. Other uninvolved players said they saw nothing wrong with what those who were did. Talk about candidness!

Here are some of the posts I read:

"Superluminal" wrote, "Well, yes, for one that isn’t cheating. The site made the screw up which made the games pay out more than they took in. This is certainly not cheating by any definition available."

"Bad Beat Bill" said, "I think that most of us, if we found a bug like this would probably have tried to exploit it too. Being honest I would have tried knowing that I wouldn't have much to lose...and potentially a whole lot to gain." Well, that remark smacks of honesty, in spite of how dishonest his intension would have been. As for me, what do you think I would have done...hah-hah? If I said I wouldn’t have jumped in, I would have to jump off a plank for having lied!

"Ariston" said, "Any poker player who can put his hand on his heart and say they wouldn't have sat in a few of these if they saw what was happening is kidding themseleves or is lying." Well, you gotta believe a guy with his hand on his heart, don’t you? I mean especially a poker player. Especially an online poker player. Then Ariston also added, "Oh and as I have already stated if I had been up that night I would have gotten involved and played these as well. I can honeslty say I don't know a single person who wouldn't as human nature/greed would've kicked in."

"Bonified" replied, "Don't you know anyone with the foresight to realise how they'll feel about something later before they do it?" Good psychological reversal there but totally full of shit!

"Chillin_dude"), who admitted his involvement wrote, "I do think that people took this a massive step too far in their judgements and their condeming of the players that took part, and that if they were in such situations themselves, it wouldn't be such a clear cut right or wrong...." Here I think anyone could see clear what is right or wrong, but I also think that most people would just have to go for the “wrong.” I mean, how many of us would walk past a $100 bill lying in the street? Then Chillin_dude added, “I truely do doubt that many people wouldn't get involved if they found out something like this was going on in the heat of the moment."

"Lucymagem" another self-admitted guilty party, complained about how Betfair froze her uninvolved father's account, probably because they wanted to prevent the possibility of her dumping her ill-gotten winnings off in his account. I guess she doesn’t think the company has a right to be pissed off after it gets ripped off and then try to prevent furhter damage. Well, she may be wrong, but I’m not feeling any sorrow for Betfair.

Some major forums are actually inviting members to confess their poker sins. Hey, not a bad idea! Maybe soon we’ll see a website called “ It would have a booth and all. But let’s not get anybody too religious involved.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Poker Cheating on Poker Forums

I often get e-mails from people reporting about poker scams or other alleged incidents of cheating at poker tables as well as poker cheating online. Lately, for some reason, I have gotten a dozen e-mails asking me if poker forums were a good source of information about poker cheating, especially inasmuch as getting good tips to avoid being cheated and which online poker sites tend to have the most cheating going on. Well, I hadn't really asked myself about the reliability of poker cheating information found on the poker forums, but I did already have a preconceived notion about the general level of info found in the anonymous rambling of so many alleged virtual poker gurus. I first started seriously reading forums upon the publication of my book "Dirty Poker." Some of the comments were sound and intelligent, others were completely ridiculous, still others drifted so far away from the initial thread of "Dirty Poker by Richard Marcus" that it was both comical and goofy. But this kind of diversity and range is the norm for not only poker forums but just about all forums on the Internet. However, when it comes to cheating at poker, both online and off, it is imperative that a vast majority of the information be accurate and informative. So after a tour of cheating threads on some major forums, I would have to conclude that poker forums are not a good place to get dependable information on poker cheating.

Which might make you wonder why I don't administer a poker forum on this site. Well, I have certainly thought of the idea and would love to do it, but it wouldn't serve well as I would have the same problems with a poker cheating forum that anyone else would. I just wouldn't be able to control the content, thus a lot of inaccurate information about cheating would be disseminated on my forum. I would then be forced to spend all my time examining and deleting faulty statements. So for the time being, I will continue to respond to your individual questions concerning poker cheating by e-mail. Please keep them coming.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Poker Tips: Cheating Ahoy at Betfair!

Online Poker Cheating: Betfair Poker Players Told To Repay Winnings!

That's a good one! It happened last Thursday night, and I thought I'd heard it all!
Call it "Group Cheating."

Betfair Poker sent a letter to online poker players demanding that winnings won during a recent software glitch be returned. According to reports made by UK News Source ‘The Telegraph a glitch in Betfair’s payout system was exploited during what was referred to by Osborne as a ‘late-night sting operation’.

Betfair Cheating: According to reports there were between 20 and 40 late night online poker players involved in the exploitation that caused the Betfair poker software to award more winnings to several players in sit n go tournaments.

The glitch was reportedly discovered on Thursday night, somewhere between 3am and 6am, players found by pure coincidence that ‘certain all in situations’ triggered the glitch. Once triggered, several people could win the second place prize in each sit and go style tournament, therefore one person won first place, the rest of the tournament participants took second, just by going all in.

As players learned of the glitch, that according to some players has been in existence for months, they experimented with it a bit, testing boundaries and learning what triggered the unearned payouts. Next the players involved allegedly moved up within the stakes, paying bigger buy-ins for bigger prizes, or a better return on their ‘investments’.

On the 2+2 forum, here's what one 19 year-old player who was allegedly involved had to say: I'm 10 and meant no harm, and saw it as a flaw on their side which may have allowed me to pay for next year's tuition ($6k).

Hours after players began taking advantage of the glitch, all players accounts were suspended, and a stop was put to the exploitation.

The Great Titanic Chess Scam!

Poker Cheating and Casino Cheating have been the main focus of my blog since its inception, but if you will allow me to wander off the beaten track for just this one post and let me tell you about the World's Greatest Gambling Scam of all-time, which, believe it or not, happened on a chessboard aboard the Titanic the night before it hit the iceberg. The ingenious British con artist behind it, Piers Morgan, never got to enjoy the fruits of his master scam, as he drowned in the icy North Atlantic, but the tale of his chess scam made it to safety on one of the Titanic's lifeboats.


One of the greatest gambling scams of all-time did not take place at a poker table but it was certainly hatched on one. Believe it or not, it happened onboard the Titanic, the night before the great ship hit the iceberg. The guy who pulled it off went down with the vessel, but before dying he recounted the scam to a young stowaway while they lay clinging to a life raft in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. The first thing the bowled over lad did upon his rescue was to tell anyone else who’d listen.
Among Europe’s elite and wealthy on the passenger manifest for that fateful voyage was a good old Anglo-Saxon con artist. His name was Piers Mason and he was as dashing and charming as they came. He travelled with a well-heeled and very attractive woman named Isabel, who for some reason resented the upper crust of society and liked teaming up with Mason to rip off its elegant members.
Mason was quite aware of the roster of fortune holders making that historical crossing and wasn’t about to miss it for the world. He had called in all his markers and then begged, borrowed and stole every penny of front money he could without knowing exactly how he’d use it on the ship. The one part of his plan he was sure of was that removing those rich pigeons from their money had to be done through some form of gambling.
Like the riverboats steaming down the Mississippi, the principal form of gambling on the gigantic ocean liner was poker. The nightly high-stakes game onboard was filled with Barons, Earls and varied aristocrats who fawned on each other in several languages, most of which Mason spoke fluently. His first idea was to slip a marked deck of cards into play and thieve his noble opponents by reading their hole cards. But the main problem with that was that some of these people were sharp (after all, most people who’d made fortunes were not idiots) and might notice the markings. In those days, specially made eyeglasses or contact lenses for card scams did not exist.
Isabel and Mason had been in their stateroom dressing into formal evening attire when Piers suddenly called off his plan to mark the cards.
“But how else are you going to get their money, honey?” Isabel asked with comic but great concern.
“I don’t know but I’ll figure something out while I’m playing.”
“That’s right.” Mason’s confidence, like that of all con men, was unshakeable.
“But darling,” Isabel said with a seductive rub embracing his shoulders. “How can you play honestly with them? Our bankroll is only fifty thousand pounds.”
“I will play conservatively,” Mason assured her. “It’s only my presence in the game that is important. While sitting there amongst all that blue blood I will figure something out. Trust me.”
She did and he did…figure something out.
Stuck nearly ten thousand pounds that first night at the gilded poker table, Mason picked up an interesting tidbit in the lofty chatter flowing across the table. Aboard the ship were two chess grandmasters on their way to a prestigious chess tournament in New York. One was Russian, the other German. Both had been invited to take part in the poker game but both professed to be too busy studying their chess strategies and declined.
At a well-chosen moment in the game, Mason, who had by that time ingratiated himself into their crisscrossing conversations, made a statement that none of the regal gentlemen could believe.
“My fiancee can play and hold her own with either grandmaster,” he declared like a bellicose general who knew his troops would recapture the hill.
None of the poker players at first believed his ears, but finally one of them asked Piers to clarify what he meant. When Mason repeated it, another of the players said in amazement, “You think your…fiancee can play chess with Borzov and Heilmann?” Borzov was the Russian, Heilmann the German.
“I’m sure of it,” Mason said in a steely voice, all the while knowing that Isabel had never touched a chess piece in her life.
After a hearty round of chuckling, one of the nobility said to Mason, “Would you care to wager on that? I’m sure I can convince Messieurs Borzov and Heilmann to accept an invitation for a match.”
“I will tell you what,” Mason said boldly. “I will have my fiancee play both grandmasters. I will stake forty thousand pounds (all he had left) that she attains a stalemate with at least one of them.”
They all laughed again. Uproariously. Finally one asked, “Well, then, which of the two grandmasters would your fiancee play first?” He looked around the table seeking mock assurance it was a good question.
Mason shrugged grandly. “She will play both simultaneously.”
Again the laughter roared.
“Simultaneously?” It was a chorus.
“Yes, simultaneously,” Piers repeated for effect.
The majestic group thought the emboldened con man was off his rocker, but the last thing they thought was that he was a con man. After a few more rounds of belly laughter, a wealthy retired British admiral hushed his high-society fellows and stood up at the table facing Mason. He gave the con artist a lookover and then smiled.
“You’re quite a dapper young man,” he said to him, “but I think you’ve lost your marbles. Do you really want to wager forty thousand quid that your girlfr…fiancee can earn a stalemate against either Borzov or Heilmann, two of the greatest grandmasters in the world?”
Mason stood up and met the admiral’s gaze. “Yes, I do.”
The admiral’s eyes scanned the men seated below him at the table. Then to Piers, “Mind if I ask how much money you brought along on this journey?”
“My life savings,” Mason answered proudly.
After a collective exhalation of shock, the admiral asked, “And how much would that be?”
“Fifty thousand dollars.” But Mason did not let it be known that the totality of that sum had been made up of loans and stolen booty.
“And you want to wager forty thousand of it?”
“I’ve already lost the other ten.” Mason indicated the poker table, which drew a guffaw from the men seated around it.
The admiral smiled broadly. “If there’s one thing I admire within His Majesty’s realm it’s one of his subjects with big brass balls. And those, young man, you seem to have. So I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to arrange simultaneous matches between your fiancee…what’s her name?”
“…Isabel…and both chess masters, and if Isabel achieves a stalemate with either one I will give you one hundred thousand pounds sterling. You don’t need to put up one penny. If she wins one of the matches, I will pay you one million pounds sterling. I won’t bother mentioning the possibility of her winning both matches because I can’t even believe I had the audacity to suggest that her winning one is somehow possible.”
Piers nodded politely. “And if she loses both matches I owe you nothing?”
The admiral looked around the table as if for concurrence. He seemed to get it. He nodded graciously. “Yes, though I would expect you’d buy us all a glass of champagne and cognac.”
So the admiral and his regal mates set out to organize the match. Naturally Borzov and Heilmann, who each had the large ego typical of any chess grandmaster, were loath to lower themselves to a match with “some unknown woman.” But the admiral promised to sweeten their pies should they indulge him. It seemed he was a man who knew no limit when it came to entertaining himself.
At dinner the evening of the match, the atmosphere buzzed with anticipation of the event. Nobody took the match itself seriously, with the exception of Mason, but nearly everyone was just dying of curiosity to see who this mysterious if not talented could be. Mason had already paid off stewards working the cruise to spread the word that she was extremely beautiful, which was only a slight exaggeration.
The tables were set up in the ship’s grand ballroom. A partition separated them. It was agreed that one-minute intervals would be the maximum between moves. The only request Mason had made of the admiral was that spectators be prohibited from viewing both matches. He explained that Isabel’s concentration would be thrown if people were watching and commenting on her play in two different matches. The admiral, after discussing the request briefly with his peers, consented. The grandmasters as well saw no reason for objection, though they expressed their consent with derisive chuckles.
So chairs for the spectators were set up in such a way that allowed them to view only one of the two matches.
When Isabel made her grand entrance wearing a beautifully tailored, exquisite white evening gown, the audience buzzed first with sighs of delightful approval and then in hushed banter about whether or not this striking woman could play chess. At the time, women had not made significant inroads or contributions to the chess world, and according to Borzov and Heilmann never would.
The match with Borzov started first. The Russian played white, so in all fairness Isabel would play white against Heilmann. Borzov opened by advancing a white pawn. Isabel studied the board with a seemingly practiced eye, then suddenly stood up and gracefully skirted the partition to stand across the board from the German. She made her opening move, waited for Heilmann’s countermove and then returned to her match with Borzov.
Isabel did not sit down again. She moved with poise from table to table, never coming close to the one-minute limit on the clock. After ten minutes, it appeared to everyone on both sides of the partition that Isabel was holding her own and would be no pushover for either opponent. The spectators appeared astounded. The only person not looking amazed by the events unfolding was Piers Mason, and he was also the only spectator aboard the Titanic who knew that before this grand evening of chess, his graceful protégée had never seen a chessboard that was not on display in some fancy store’s vitrine.
Thirty minutes into the matches, Heilmann began to show visible signs of distress. Beads of perspiration began seeping out on his forehead. Not being able to put away an unknown chess opponent was bad enough, but not being able to win out over a woman was a sheer blow to his Teutonic pride. He would not be able to face his friends in the beer halls of Munich. How on heaven’s earth was this woman staying in the match with him?
The admiral, although he seemed amused by the idea of shelling out a barrel of cash should this woman reach a stalemate or better with one of her opponents, seemed to be in the grips of stupefaction.
After an hour, the Russian began coming apart as well. He knew he was playing white, which afforded him the advantage against any player in the world, even those who might be slightly better than him. But in spite of that, each and every offensive move he made was countered perfectly by this beautiful woman. How was this possible? How could he show his face to the genteel New Yorkers at the chess tournament? If news got out he couldn’t beat some woman on a boat, no matter how goddamn big the Titanic was, he might as well just walk outside to the deck, peer into the darkness of the ocean and….
Soon Heilmann was beside himself. He’d played against the world’s best. He’d seen every schematic opening, knew the histories and subtleties of each. They were all vulnerable once the slightest miscalculation was made by the player with white. Virtually every opponent he’d played black against made the slight error Heilmann needed to turn his defending black chessmen into an offensive onslaught.
But not against this woman! Not…what was her name again? Her offensive attack was relentless. All he could do was ward off her thrusts and hang on. And that was only to attain the stalemate. He was leaps and bounds away from thinking about winning. Leaps and bounds! This was madness!
Nearing the end, both grandmasters knew they were helplessly deadlocked with their opponent. It was unthinkable but it was happening. However, the Russian playing white still knew he couldn’t lose the match, therefore would never accept a stalemate. The German, on the other hand, was beginning to believe he could never win the match, and if he lost it (unaware that an iceberg would soon end his embarrassment) would actually contemplate suicide.
In the most humbling moment of his life, the grandmaster Heilmann offered his lovely opponent a draw.
None of the three chess players survived the catastrophic accident to live in the aftermath of that unforgettable night of chess. Neither did Piers Mason. He froze to death clinging onto the raft in icy waters. Only the stowaway Mason confided in before dying would live to tell how Piers and Isabel did it. Mason had told the kid only because he wanted him to brag about it so that everyone in England would remember Piers Mason for having pulled off the greatest scam in maritime history.
I think he did.
Like any fantastic hustle, its beauty was in its simplicity. The fact that Isabel didn’t even know how to move the knight had no bearing on the outcome. Mason’s brainstorm was in recognizing that by having the two matches partitioned off from each other, he could effectively pit Borzov against Heilmann, with Isabel’s role in the challenge being nothing more than a mere messenger between the two. And they managed to keep the audience in the dark as to what was going down.
The key to making the scam work was threefold: having Isabel play white against one opponent and black against the other; having whichever opponent playing white make his move before Isabel opened with white against the second opponent; and allowing a sufficient interval between moves. In that fashion, Isabel was able to get up and prance between the two tables for a full minute before having to make a move.
But she hardly needed the full minute. All Isabel did was take each move Borzov made against her and copy it to the adjoining chessboard against Heilmann. Then when Heilmann countered, she simply took his move and copied it to the chessboard between her and Borzov. The result of this chicanery was that Borzov and Heilmann were engaged in a chess match against each other and neither knew it. To further enhance the scam, Mason came up with the idea to disallow the viewing of both matches by anyone, thus no one could spill the beans that Isabel was plagiarizing both players’ moves.
The scam was truly ingenious. In my twenty-five years of developing fundamentally sound cheating moves, I strove to come up with those that were simple because simplicity always works best. It may seem astonishing that two great minds such as Borzov’s and Heilmann’s were unable to reason how Isabel had managed the stalemates, even more so when the odds of that miracle were in the neighborhood of infinity. But since the grandmasters were so obsessed by their chess-playing and their egos, the thought that the matches might have been a scam never occurred to either of them. I’m sure if they’ve read this passage, they’ve rolled over in their graves.