We’ve all heard about the online poker scandals – and to this day I’m leery of online play. I just don’t trust putting my money into something so abstract, so immaterial. Cheating, however, isn’t limited to online game rooms. Of course, cheating in a casino, what with the extreme security in place, automatic card-shufflers and so forth, is next to impossible. Doubtless it happens somewhere in the matrix. People will be people when it comes to cash no matter how tight the security. But on the whole, I think you can play without worrying about cheating in a casino, save in the case of players at a table colluding with secret signals, winks, nods, nose-touches or the like. This is a rarity though; the extreme risk and consequences of discovery (casinos go medieval when it comes to cheaters) are deterrent enough to keep it from happening frequently.
But the place where the fungus of cheating may find a dark and moist enough environment to thrive is in a ring game, particularly when you don’t know all the players and an independent dealer hasn’t been hired. I played in one such ring game not long ago. My old friend Patty P. had invited me out to his place in Barrie, about an hour north of Toronto, to play with some friends and acquaintances of his. The game was lively and the players pushed their chips around with brio. I was enjoying myself. I even drank a couple of bourbons (I normally never drink while playing) and found myself verbally sparring with the others, who all seemed good natured and enjoyed the gamesmanship.
Among the guys was this quiet sallow dude in a hoodie named Victor. When I asked Patty about him he said he was a friend of a friend and that he didn’t know much about him except that he worked as a chef somewhere up north. I tried to make small talk with this guy but he remained tightlipped and closeted. A nondescript player, he stayed out of skirmishes, and yet his chip stacks slowly swelled. Then I noticed that when he was on the button, that is, whenever he dealt, he was often the aggressor and he often had a hand. That wasn’t so unusual. It happens. But after playing for an hour more I began to notice a pattern. Victor wasn’t playing every hand hard from the button – he was playing every second hand, and winning each time, often with a monster.
The other players, excited by the fast game and perhaps a bit tipsy from the freely flowing spirits, failed to see the pattern, but all enviously eyed his fortress-like chip stack. I watched Victor closely the next time he dealt and realized that he never asked the player on his right for a cut. When he finished shuffling and was about to deal I told him I wanted a cut. He glared at me as though I had insulted his integrity but when I refused to back down he turned to his right and allowed the player to cut the cards. Victor didn’t win that hand.
The next time his deal came – after a big hand that still had the players buzzing – I watched his shuffling with an eagle eye. I saw nothing untoward, but I knew that meant nothing. A good mechanic can do it right before your eyes and you simply can‘t see it. He turned to his right and offered the cards up for a cut but the player, still yapping about the last hand, told him to go ahead without, and so he did.
The best mechanics rarely get caught, one would think. If they refine their technique enough their legerdemain can surpass that of the best card-tricking magicians. But even someone with refined technique can slip up – or can be detected by someone who knows what to look for. The pattern is usually the tell in these matters. A pattern, any pattern, reveals a plan, a scheme. When Victor dealt the cards I thought I saw him hesitate when he flipped me mine. When I saw I had queens I went in with a raise. But when Victor re-raised me alarm bells went off and I knew exactly what was going on. I called the re-raise, even though I knew he had kings or aces. When a queen and an ace fell on the flop I knew he had aces.
When Victor indeed turned over aces I remained calm. I bought in again. The game continued. Then I told Patty that I wanted a word with him. We stepped away from the table and I explained my concerns. He said he had noticed the pattern too but wanted to pick the right spot to nail Victor. I told him to wait a few hands and if he won in the same fashion.... We returned to the table. The others, laughing and shouting, continued playing with the same reckless abandon. Victor, hidden behind his chips, wore a mild smile of amusement – perhaps an ironic smile. He was enjoying himself.
On Victor’s next deal he stayed out the hand. But on the following deal he re-raised from the button and two people called, one of whom was Patty. I shot Patty a quick look and he nodded slightly. After the flop, river and turn, three players were still in the hand and the pot was enormous. When Patty turned over trip sixes and Victor showed him a full house (the other guy had trip threes), Patty excused himself from the table. I wondered what he was going to do – there was no doubt in my mind that Victor was cheating and Patty must have known this too after that hand.
Patty returned moments later, as Victor still stacked his chips, brandishing a three-iron. He walked up to Victor, held the golf club to his face and asked him if he knew what it was.
Victor blinked and said, “It’s a golf club.”
“No,” Patty said, as he raised the club-head to shoulder level. “It’s what I use on mechanics.”
And with this he swung, not at Victor’s head (as I may have been tempted to do), but at his hands, one of which (the right) he shattered. As Victor screeched in pain and held the broken hand to his chest, Patty told the others what had transpired. Without a moment’s hesitation they leaped out of their chairs, grabbed Victor, and dragged him out to the street where they did to him what should be done to all mechanics who get caught.
Emile Frendo of the Honeymoon City is a semi-professional poker player and winner of the 2006 Pirate Poker Open Championship.