Cheating at Blackjack and Poker: Marked Cards
Don't Be a Mark for Marked CardsBy Steve Forte
(From Blackjack Forum Vol. XIV #1, December 1994)
© 1994 Blackjack Forum
[Note from Arnold Snyder: This article is useful not only as an introduction to cheating methods involving marked cards, but also to some of the highest-edge legal advantage plays available to professional gamblers. The legal plays involve cards marked through natural wear and tear or in the normal design and printing process.]
Marked Cards in a Casino or Cardroom Near You
In September a player named David Whitehill uncovered a marked cards cheating scam in one of the California Indian Reservation casinos. The blackjack games at the casino in question are played in a format where the bank passes from player to player. The casino generates revenue from a mandatory ante paid for each hand played.
In another recent incident, a professional poker player found marked cards in use in a major Las Vegas casino poker room.
A number of players have expressed concern that casino and poker room cheating of this nature may be widespread, and that casinos and poker rooms are either too incompetent or too corrupt to stop it. They fear that the lack of regulatory oversight may make the blackjack or poker games in some venues too dangerous to play.
Here is a different perspective that I hope will provide some insight on the controversy while offering possible solutions to the problem.
As a general rule, marked card cheating scams in casino poker rooms or on face-up blackjack shoe games start with a loophole in the casino's card control. Inadequate card control is not a California Indian gaming problem but a problem with casinos and cardrooms worldwide.
For example, New Jersey is considered to have exceptionally tight card control which continues even after the cards are used. All decks are sealed in bags and picked up by the Division of Gaming Enforcement. Marked cards, however, have surfaced in every New Jersey Casino.
In the last month marked cards have been discovered in two major Las Vegas casinos and one in Reno. A closer look at the card controls suggest that the cheating scams may have been going on for some time. Virtually every cardroom, including those in and out of California, has had to deal with this cheating scam at one time or another. I have also seen systems of card control used on California Indian reservations that parallel those used in a more "regulated environment," and even some that provide more accountability.
Marked Cards: How It's Done
Stanford Wong, in his newsletter, reported that the cards were "professionally marked, probably with a laser." Having had the opportunity to analyze these marked cards, I doubt seriously that the cards were marked with a laser, and I hesitate to call them "professionally marked."
The work is very common and is known as two-way line shade. "Shade" is made with, primarily, pure grain alcohol and a minute amount of the most permanent, fade-proof ink or dye available, preferably aniline. Shade is almost colorless but provides enough of a tint to slightly shade the card, and is most commonly used to gray the white areas of the card. Shade can be applied by hand (brush) or mechanically with the help of an air brush and templates to accurately position the marks.
If a "line" of circles, diamonds, squares or any part of the card's back design is shaded, the eye sees the marks as a darker line. Cheaters prefer the shoe game when playing shade because the top card is a consistent, stationary target (unlike single & double decks), and the action of dealing the top card creates a contrast with the next card to be dealt. Both factors are important as the eye tries to discern a light shade or tint that is virtually colorless. Reading line shade from different angles facilitates the "read" and sharpens the line, bringing the shaded areas together. The following illustration should help.
Cheaters refer to marked card scams as playing paper. These scams historically have been the most difficult to detect, and this is especially true when shade is down. In more than one casino scam, frustrated bosses have sent the suspected cards to the FBI laboratories for examination. Only after spectrum analysis could the marks be seen. The work usually turns out to be shade.
There is little or no quality information on the art and science of marked cards. There is also no easy way to discuss the subject intelligently without writing a book. Let me just say that I have seen marking systems that were infinitely more sophisticated than the marking system discovered by David Whitehill.
Everything from IR phosphors that were "read" with lasers, optic systems that utilized a combination of both contacts and glasses, daubs that oxidized after a period of time and shade that required hundreds of hours of practice training the muscle of the eye to see the marks, and I'm just touching the surface. Quite frankly, if the cards were "professionally marked," we would all still be looking for the work.
After the cards are marked they must get to the game. This can be accomplished in many ways but most include the collusion of a casino employee — a boss, security guard or janitor. In rare cases cards have been stolen during the delivery process and even from the manufacture.
If the cards have to be resealed, this is no problem. Top hustlers can get in and out of a factory wrapped card case in just minutes, without ever breaking the seal. Some controls even allow the decks to be opened prior to transporting them to the blackjack game.
Given the sophistication of today's cheaters, it probably seems difficult, if not impossible to protect yourself. This is not the case, and the irony of this controversy is that professional players are almost always better equipped than those working in the industry when it comes to evaluating suspicious play.
What to Watch For
The biggest mistake most professional gamblers make is that when a player plays a hand incorrectly versus basic strategy or a card counting strategy, the player gets chalked up as just another "sucker" donating his time and money. You should always take a strange play one step further and correlate these deviations with the dealer's hole card and/or top card, especially when the money hits the layout. A consistent correlation with information not yet available spells trouble!
There are numerous tests you can use to help detect a marked deck. Black lights, certain filters, angled light, and the "riffle" test, to name a few, can all be helpful at times. There are even tests that might help detect the marks during play (provided the work is on strong), such as looking to the right or left of the shoe, throwing your eyes out of focus, and reading from a distance — all designed to stop the eye from focusing.
But there is no test more valuable than to simply evaluate the play. This test is your best chance to ever detect sophisticated card marking systems in play.
I have been asked numerous times to look at suspected marked decks. I always respond by saying, "Can you tell me something about how the hands were played?" or, "Don't send me the cards, send me the surveillance footage."
I know from experience that after assessing the video footage I can give an accurate answer as to whether marked cards were in play. How they're marked is of secondary importance. What's important is to find out if you're being cheating, not how you're being cheated. Although there are literally hundreds of ways to mark cards, there are only three basic ways to exploit this information. In all instances, the play is fairly transparent.
Marked Cards and Top Carding
Beware of any player who acts first, bets big, and always seems to start the hand with a ten or ace. The nine is a break even card and is sometimes included in the combination for cover.
The cheater may also be the second player to act with the first player (an accomplice) sitting out when the top card is read big. Just playing the topcard for betting strategy, a decent spread with little or no deviations from basic strategy is very strong. When the top card is used to help play the hands as well, the cheater's edge is insurmountable.
Also, don't assume that the aces must be marked in a way that indicates big card. Betting the ace in early position can be obvious, so most cheaters prefer the ace marked in a playing combination such as : (Aces, 2's, 3's) — (4's, 5's, 6's) — (7's, 8's, 9's) — (Tens, J's, Q's, & K's).
Marked Cards and Hole Card Play
Almost all pros are familiar with the typical hole card plays: player stands with stiff against a big card and dealer turns out to be stiff; player avoides a routine double down and dealer turns out to be pat; and so on. Perfect insurance decisions could also be a big gain but insurance is not allowed on most reservations at this time.
Anchors and Card Steering
Anchors are player-cheaters who will alter their play according to the marked cards in an attempt to strengthen or weaken the dealer's hand. To cheat the player-banker, anchors will attempt to leave the dealer with bad cards and take off (hit with) the good cards.
This aproach is strongest when more than one cheater is the player to act last. A classic example is where the last player(s) stand with stiffs against a big card because the hole card is read small and the top card is read big. This results in a dealer bust. It's also possible to have a take-off man bet the limit in middle position, without ever making a suspicious play... the player(s) acting last do all the work!
In CBN, Wong stated: "Marked cards benefit the player, who has control over how his or her hand is played, but not the banker, who plays a fixed strategy." This is a common misconception. The reality is, players can be cheated with marked cards too. Here, the player-banker is in cahoots with the anchors taking off bad cards and "playing short," leaving the good cards.
Another variation is where the player-banker teams up with a cheater that sits in front of a targeted player, usually a high roller. The cheater takes off good double down cards and overall attempts to leave the player with as many stiff drawing totals as possible. This variation is known as an "early anchor."
That's it. Top carding, playing the hole card, and the anchor (with steering) are the three basic playing styles used in conjunction with marked cards.
What can be done to stop this scam? First, two of the most common misconceptions:
Misconception #1: A "brush," "door," "curtain," or any cover designed to hide the top card of a choe will prevent a marked card scam.
Not true. If the dealer must deal a hole card, a split second is all that's needed to read the hole card. This is probably what happened in the Whitehill play. The 9-10 combination suggests a hole card play that would work even with protection to the shoe.
Misconception #2: If the player-banker does not take a hole card until all players have completed their hands (European no hole card style), marked card scams are eliminated.
Wrong again. Cheaters have plenty of control over the dealer's hand when the hole card is dealt after the player hands are completed. Just watch how often the player-banker gets blackjack, twenty or even nineteen when the dealer's second card is predicated on how the cheater(s) play.
Although independently, neither procedure provides absolute player protection, a combination of these two procedures is the answer. The strongest protection possible against marked cards in a player-banker format is no hole card until all players have acted, combined with a cover to hide the top card of the shoe.
One simple procedural change would virtually wipe out any future marked card scams. I say "virtually" because I know of one system where the top card does not have to be seen or touched and the shoe is completely legit, yet its value is known to the dealer who then signals to the cheaters to play according. But confronting this scam is unlikely.
There are many Indian reservations throughout the state of California that take the integrity of their games very seriously, and to date have not had any major problems or incidents. Don Speer, CEO of Inland Casino Corporation, managing the Barona Casino in Lakeside; Murray Ehrenberg, Casino Manager at Table Mountain Rancheria in Fresno; and Bill Taylor & Tom Elias from the Santa Ynez Casino in Santa Ynez, are just a small sampling of top management throughout the state. Their games are good, honest and fun for players, profitable for professional player-bankers, management teams and tribe.
The opportunity for the professional player in California is enormous. I know many players making money. Professional players are welcomed (if you can fight through the syndicates that have established ground) and are the major element supporting and banking these games.
The working relationship with management is unprecedented in the world of blackjack, and more clubs are scheduled to open in the very near future. The choice is yours. You can learn to protect yourself and continue to take advantage of the opportunities, or choose to play in a more regulated environment where the only down side is unbeatable games, sweat joints, preferential shuffles and getting barred.
The professional players will have as much impact on keeping these games honest as any management team or law enforcement agency. When the hustlers stop saying, "Hey, these guys are suckers," the isolated incidents will become even more isolated.
After experiencing the game's unnerving fluctuations, it's no wonder that many blackjack players have a paranoid nature. But if a few incidents — even a handful of suspicious plays — is justification for avoiding the game at all costs, then add a few more games to the "too dangerous to play"' list. You can start with poker, and avoid playing the game anywhere in the country!
Poker can be treacherous considering that the simplest scams are also almost impossible to detect. Look at crews "playing from the same pocket," "playing cousins," or "playing top hand," of which there is reasonable evidence suggesting these scams occur on a day to day basis. You should also avoid any player-banked Asian game and for that matter stay away from casino blackjack. Even the big stores have had incidents of players getting cheated.
If you decide to wait for California to form a Gaming Control Board, you might miss the opportunity altogether with the legality of these games still open for interpretation. The real motive for forming a GCB may be to generate tax dollars from the cardroom industry. In instances of cheating GCB's are after the fact agencies. They won't stop you from being cheated, they'll just give you someone to scream to after you've been to the cleaners.
California Indian gaming is a strange animal in a jungle of impressive gaming revenues, legal controversies and hidden political agendas far beyond the scope of this article, but they continue to flourish in much the same way as the California cardroom industry has without a gaming control board. It's even money that the Indians will continue to prosper with little regulatory intervention.
I realize that marked cards in the California player-banker format can be devastating to the unsuspecting player as the scam doesn't figure to be a one shot deal. If a cheater and "inside man" get marked cards to the game once, you can assume that the cards will be marked day after day until some player "tumbles." But, with a bit of common sense and a little street smarts, no knowledgeable player has to worry about getting cheated with marked cards!
The Whitehill incident is unfortunate, and not for a second am I down-playing its seriousness. I know that the publicity has already made a few management teams more aware, has forced some of the clubs to tighten up their card controls, and opened the eyes of many players. The biggest fear for most players is the unknown, but if you follow some of the guidelines detailed here, the unknown can't hurt you.
In theory, player protection should come from the policies set forth by the management teams, security, surveillance and the appropriate law enforcement agencies, but in the end, the only protection you should ever count on is your own knowledge. Awareness on both sides of the table will keep the games honest, popular and lucrative for everyone. ♠
*Note: If you're concerned about marked cards and cheating at blackjack, poker, or dice you might interested in reading Steve Forte's Poker Protection - Cheating . . . And the World of Poker.
For more information on marked cards, cheating at blackjack and poker, and how professional gamblers deal with it, see the Blackjack Forum Professional Gambling Library.
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||Steve Forte on Marked Cards in Casinos and Poker Rooms
Marked cards have gotten onto poker and blackjack tables in casinos and cardrooms despite cardroom controls designed to protect the casino from marked card scams. Marked cards, in fact, are not even unusual in casinos and poker rooms. Steve Forte describes exactly how marked cards can be used and exactly what marked cards look like. He also describes how to protect yourself from marked card cheating scams.