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.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

New Poker Movie is a Bad Deal!

The poker film "Deal" starring Burt Reynolds needs to shuffle up and re-deal. After the roaring success of the blackjack film "21" and the buzz surrounding the poker comedy "The Grand," the time seems ripe for yet another poker film...but I think it's a little overripe now. Dramatic poker films since the Cincinnati Kid and Rounders have all been losers, especially "Lucky You," which may have been the worst of them all. The same held true for ESPN's dramatic poker series "Tilt," which thankfully tilted off the air.

In Deal, Burt Reynolds, Shannon Elizabeth, and Bret Harrison give us the usual overplayed deal of friendship and competition. Alex Stillman (Bret Harrison) is a cocky young poker-playing student from Yale University who meets retired poker legend Tommy Vinson, played by Burt Reynolds. (I think the word "legend" following "poker" is itself a little overdealt.) Vinson immediately takes Stillman under his wing and teaches him about the game and all its nuances, paving Stillman's way down the road to becoming a winning poker pro.

In the process, of course, Vinson regains his enthusiasm for poker, and the duo predictably dominate the poker scene, until Stillman falls for, Michelle, a Las Vegas call girl (why couldn't it be a non-hooker for once?) played by Shannon Elizabeth, and their friendship begins to crumble. Stillman and Vinson eventually go their separate ways, only to meet up again as opponents at the World Series of Poker (who wouldn't have guessed this!), where they compete against each other fiercely.

The movie includes appearances by professional poker players Antonio Esfandiari, Phil Laak, Chris Moneymaker, and Joe Hachem, and also Scott Lazar, a poker pro who produced the film.

I think you might skip this deal!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Was Stu Ungar a Blackjack Cheat?

The late legendary poker player Stu Ungar was many things, including a terrific blackjack card counter, but was he also a cheat? I, for one, had never heard about Ungar's 1982 run-in with the New Jersey Casino Control Commission. That is until yesterday when I stumbled across the information on the Internet. Ungar was accused by an unnamed Atlantic City Casino of either "capping" a bet, which is adding chips to a bet at a point the cheat knows his hand has a high probability of winning, or outright pastposting, which is adding or switching chips after the bet has already won. Whichever the case, Ungar refused to admit to any gambling infraction and take a plea, which would have amounted to nothing more than a $500 fine.

But Stu Ungar would never admit to cheating. He insisted he was only a card counter whose memory and card counting skills were as good as his poker skills and he never needed to cheat or break casino blackjack rules in any way. He hired a top attorney and beat the case in court, which cost him $50,000 in legal and travel expenses back and forth from Las Vegas. In his biography, Ungar wrote that he was so wiped-out from travel and court proceedings that he was unable to defend his WSOP championship title that year.

Besides this alleged cheating incident, Stu Ungar was so feared as a blackjack player by casinos that he was often banned from playing in them. He often expressed frustration that he was unable to ply his blackjack acumen in Las Vegas or anywhere else in the world.

If anyone has more information about Stu Unger being involved in any form of poker or casino cheating, please let me know.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Best Poker Cheats Hand Of All-Time

Who's the best poker cheat of all-time?...Lancey Howard, no doubt about it! Who's Lancey Howard? He's the guy that beat Steve McQueen in the movie "The Cincinnati Kid." If you remember the classic 5-card stud final hand, Howard, played by the great Edward G. Robinson, beat the kid's full house with a straight flush and sent McQueen to the poker graveyard.

BUT HE CHEATED! How do I know? Well, I explained it in my book Dirty Poker, but if you never read it, read this:

I’ve been a dirty poker player ever since I was old enough to hold cards and count chips. Before I reached that age, though, I learned a very valuable lesson from my grandfather. I’ll never forget it. I was nine years old and I was with grandpa at the movies watching The Cincinnati Kid with Steve McQueen. I’m sure that if you’re a poker player or fan, or a cheat, there’s a very good chance you’ve seen it. Some of you veterans of poker may have had the pleasure of seeing it in the theater, as I’ve had. But I’m not mentioning this because I want to tell you how sexy Ann Margaret was or that the rebel McQueen was my first childhood hero. I just want to bring the film’s final scene back to life because in a way it shaped my own life, and had it not been shot I probably would have never been a casino cheat or written about poker cheats.

Remember that classic last hand, perhaps the greatest hand in the annals of poker anywhere? The one that was more amazing than any hand you’ve ever seen in a real poker room or on a TV poker tournament or even in front of your computer screen logged on to The one that even surpassed those doozie hands you’ll never forget from the home games you played in your basement while growing up.

Of course I’m talking about those fatal cards Lady Fingers dealt to the Kid and his nemesis, Lancey Howard. The Kid had been in command of their grueling heads-up fight to the finish, which had been going nonstop for two days. The elder Lancey looked haggard and ready to crumble, and the Kid was about to deliver the knockout blow. When the fifth and last card was dealt to the Kid, he was looking better than ever. That because he received an ace, giving him a full house of aces over tens, a monster, a virtual lock winning hand in five-card stud. After all, how hard is it to get that same hand in seven-card stud? I know most of you don’t play that game either anymore, but you still know exactly what I’m talking about.

Well, Lancey Howard wasn’t that impressed. His fifth card staring up from the table was the nine of diamonds. His three other up cards were also diamonds and, as we were reminded by Lady Fingers’ gravelly voice, in range of a “possible straight flush.” After the Kid bet out his two pair of aces and tens on board and got raised by Lancey, and then had the gall to raise again, to which Lancey coolly responded by re-raising, my grandfather turned to me and said without whispering, “Richard, there’s a cheating scam in the works.”

“What do you mean, grandpa?” I asked him wide-eyed but with a little less innocence than most of my nine-year-old peers had.

He pointed an accusing finger at the silver screen. “Lancey’s got the jack of diamonds in the hole.”

I looked again at the hand but the camera angle shifted back to Lancey’s face as he puffed his cigar. Suddenly he didn’t look so beat up anymore. Then the camera panned the Kid’s face. McQueen was sweating. First thing I thought upon seeing those rivulets drip off his forehead was that the Kid understood what my grandfather was saying. I on the other hand wasn’t yet the sultan of cheating I was destined to become.

But I did figure out, the next time Lancey’s cards were in view, that my grandfather was alluding to the possibility of his having a straight flush.

“McQueen’s got an ace in the hole, Richard. You can bet your sweet little arse on that.”

As I processed it all, some petty guy two rows behind us had the audacity to tell my poor, little old grandfather to shut his mouth. I wanted to verbally accost the guy and throw my popcorn in his face, but I was too intrigued by what everyone else in the theater seemed to take for granted, or just didn’t want to have verbalized.

“The dealer’s in on it,” grandpa continued. “Lady whatever-her-name-is fixed the damn cards. She dealt McQueen a full house, all right, only so Lancey could bust him out with a straight flush.”

I was now hungrier than ever for the action on the screen. If there were one person on the planet in whose words I had faith in, it would be my grandfather. To this day, so many years after his passing, I still have never valued anyone’s words the way I did his. When the hand played out exactly as grandpa had predicted, the Kid and Lancey re-raising each other until the Kid was all-in and in debt, followed by the dramatic flipping over of Lancey’s hole card to reveal the straight flush which beat the Kid’s aces-full boat, I realized that my life had changed forever and that I would always beware of the rampant dishonesty prevalent in poker, as it is in every facet of life pertaining to money.

Yes, I know I’m confusing you, but you are reading me correctly. I still believe to this day—and I am widely considered to be the greatest professional casino cheat of all-time, which if one thing does not make me an idiot—that the famous final hand in The Cincinnati Kid was fixed and that Lady Fingers, Lacey Howard, and even Karl Malden, who was portrayed somewhat in the film as the Kid’s confidant, were all involved in collusion to have Lancey wipe the floor with the Kid’s ass and cut up his money as soon as he was out the door. As a matter of fact, I’m sure of it.

How could I be wrong? I mean, just take a look at the hand: aces-full against a straight flush in a five-card game with no wild cards! I will not bother you with meaningless odds calculations. I will only say simply, Come on, if you believe that hand was on the up and up, then you’ve probably been a victim a lot more than once to the flocks of cheaters that swarm poker in all its vicinities. And you’re probably the prince or princess of their prey.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Does the Film "21" Rate a Blackjack?


I am still receiving a ton of e-mails asking me about the MIT Blackjack Team film “21.” But the latest batch have not been asking my opinion whether I thought the film was good or bad, but rather whether or not I thought it was accurate. In other words, was the cinematic version of team-play at card counting worthy of the real thing?

The answer is yes and no. “Yes” because the basic portrayal of how cards are counted and big bets put into play was more accurate than not. There have been some specific questions about the role of “spotters” in real-life blackjack card counting. One is: do card counting teams really call spotters “spotters?” well, I don’t know what the MIT crew actually called theirs but I would say more professional teams call their spotters “counters” rather than “spotters.” If this is confusing you, don’t worry. Call them whatever the heck you like!

The second question concerns what the spotters’ role is after the big player is signalled into a hot shoe. In the film, the spotters remained at the game while the big player made the big bets. Several people asked me if that’s the proper case scenario in real-world big-time blackjack card counting. Sometimes it is, depending on particular situations. If the spotters keep jumping out of the game each time the big player arrives at the table, some of the casino bosses might pick up on this suspicious version of “musical blackjack chairs!” On the other hand, if the spotter needs to cede his place to let the big player into the game, then he’s got no choice. In European and Caribbean casinos, secondary blackjack players can bet behind the original player in the same betting circle, so in those casinos the issue of whether the spotter remains at the table becomes a matter of choice.

One important element of card counting that the film did not portray at all was the need to camouflage blackjack card counting big players as high-rolling roulette, craps, and baccarat (punto-banco) players in casinos they attack. Big players should show some big action at these games before appearing at blackjack tables in order to give the impression to casino bosses that they’re all-around big players, not just blackjack big players! This charade will cut into the bankroll a bit, but these losses will be more than offset by way of increasing hours of blackjack play with a counting edge without taking heat. Remember, the key is to play for as long as possible with the least amount of card counting exposure. And when card counting teams win, those with good casino savvy will show some more action on those craps and roulette tables before cashing out their blackjack winnings.