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From issue 5

Poker is an amazing game. It requires aggression, bluffing, money management, the ability to read tells, and knowing how to play hundreds of different hands. It also requires some luck, and lots of hard work. No wonder it’s the most popular game in the country. Anyone can play, and practically everyone does.

But poker also has a dirty little secret. It’s called cheating. Cheating happens in friendly games, casino card rooms, and in professional tournaments. My friends in gaming enforcement tell me it is the largest unchecked crime in America.
In Mr. Lucky, there is a character named Tex “All In” Snyder, a professional poker player who happens to be a cheater. In researching this character, I spoke with dozens of professional poker players, and was surprised to learn how much cheating goes on at the tournament level. Unlike scams that use marked cards or sleight-of-hand, these scams are invisible, yet inevitably help the cheater “get the money.”

Rat-holing is a term which describes hiding chips. It is most frequently used by card-counters, who hide their winnings from the eye-in-the-sky surveillance cameras. But rat-holing can also be used in poker tournaments to help a cheater get an edge over another player. This is how it works.

Most poker tournaments will have several different games which players can enter for a fee. These games may include Texas Hold ‘Em, Omaha, Seven Card Stud, Razz, and other variations. The cheater will enter one of these games and “rat-hole” the majority of his chips, then later use these chips in another game. Since each player is supposed to start a game with equal chips, this gives the cheater a huge edge over the other players.

Preferential Seating
When a tournament begins, players are assigned tables to sit at. If you sit at a table with weak players, your chances are good that you’ll win, and proceed to another table. If you sit at a table with strong players, your chances are greater of going back to your hotel room early, and watching the ball game.

Cheaters have been known to bribe tournament directors into seating them at tables with weak or inexperienced players. This gives the cheater a huge edge, and will almost insure that they aren’t knocked out of the tournament the first day.

The Fix
This nasty scam has surfaced at several tournaments, and insures that the cheater makes it into the later rounds, while also giving him a huge edge.

The cheater bribes the tournament director into letting him sit at a specific table. This table happens to be filled with his friends, each of which the cheater has “staked” his entry fee. The cheater’s friends now proceed to lose every hand to the cheater, and give him all their chips. At the end of the session, the cheater has his original chips, plus all of his friends’ chips. This gives the cheater a huge edge when he proceeds to the next table, because the chances are great that none of the other players have won as many chips as the cheater has. The other players are “short-stacked” and playing at a disadvantage. The cheater will usually end the tournament in the money.

Collusion among players is a problem in all card games. Major scams involving collusion have surfaced in bridge tournaments, Canasta tournaments, and any card game where large sums of money is at stake.

Tournament poker is no exception. Cheaters will very often establish signals among themselves in the hope of pushing other players out of the tournament. This lets the cheaters proceed to the later rounds, where the money is made.

This practice has been going on for a long time, and has a number of names: Whipsawing, Playing Top Hand, and Playing Cousins. In each case, a cheater will use simple signals (usually with his hands) to tell the other cheater at the table if his cards are strong. The other cheater will then “bet up” the pot. The cheater with the strong hand will call the bet, but never raise. This practice will suck other players into betting, and will inevitably force them out of the game.

There is only one way to stop cheating at tournaments, and that is for the people running them to strictly enforce the rules. No preferential seating, and keeping a running count of chips at all times is a good way to start. Tournaments also need to make it clear that no breaking of the rules will be tolerated, and that players who do break the rules will be banned for life.

At the same time, players need to smarten up. Assuming that a game is “on the square” just because it’s a tournament is a mistake. Talk to other players, and find out which players have a reputation for cheating. If you end up at a table with one of these players, watch them. Cheaters hate “heat” and will usually play clean when being scrutinized.

And remember, as Matt Damon said in the movie Rounders, “If you’re playing poker and you can’t figure out who the sucker is, it’s usually you.”

James Swain
James Swain is the national bestselling author of fourteen thrillers. His novels have been translated into ten foreign languages, and chosen as Mysteries of the Year by Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews. Swain has received three Barry Award nominations, a Florida Book award for fiction, and the prestigious Prix Calibre .38 for Best American Crime Writing. An avid magician for most of his life, he has written and lectured extensively on the subject.