Cheating at High Stakes Poker: Rarer Than Historians Think
Tuesday, 2 October 2012
By Johnny Hughes
In my own experience, and as a researcher on gambling history, the major mistake many historians make is to overestimate the amount of cheating among gamblers in the past and how essential a “square gambler” reputation is to a successful gambling house or a professional gambler. If a gambling joint is known as a “bust-out joint” or “brace joint”, it cannot attract players.
In the evolution of gambling in America, there have been three groups that strongly opposed each other: square gamblers, crooked gamblers and reformers. Well-managed gambling houses do not cheat because it is bad business. Gaining a reputation as a square gambler means more and more business, and the house edge is all they need. The varied gaming control boards enforce rigid laws. There is no reason to risk the gambling license.
In general, in the Old West, the very fanciest gambling houses were owned by square gamblers and employed square gamblers. Gambling boomtowns followed the trail drives, buffalo slaughter, railroads and gold and silver strikes. At first, they were nearly lawless, attracting all manner of crooks. Later, the silver would play out or reformers would pass anti-gambling laws and they’d all be off to the next boomtown.
A wave of reform hit America after World War II, in the late forties. There were the anti-gambling Kefauver hearings in 14 cities. Boss gamblers from across the country got a fresh start where gambling was legal, Las Vegas. This included Ben “Bugsy” Siegel, Moe Dalitz, Benny Binion, Sid Wyman and Guy McAfee.
When Mob biggie Meyer Lansky took over supervision of the casinos in Havana, Cuba, at this same time, they had a crooked game called razzle-dazzle, and he barred it. The Mob knew you could make more running a square gambling joint, and they took that knowledge to Las Vegas.
Let’s look at Denver in the late 1880s. Big Ed Chase was widely known as a square gambler. He owned several places including the Palace, with a vaudeville theatre that seated 700, a big gambling hall and one of Denver’s finest restaurants. In Cheyenne, Wyoming, Big Ed would sit in a chair at the bar in his joint with a sawn-off shotgun in his lap as he watched over the gambling area. A travelling theatrical group owner once lost his whole show to Ed, and that’s how he got in show business.
Soapy Smith, meanwhile, was one of the best known cheaters, and he had a gang of absolute thieves working for him. They dealt three-card monte on the street, which is always crooked. Soapy’s gang was written up in the Colorado newspapers, leading to new laws and reform. The cheaters hurt the square gamblers by attracting the reformers. Big Ed could see reform coming so he sold out. Bat Masterson bought the Palace, and kept it a few years, until reform drove him out of Denver. Big Ed, Bat Masterson and Soapy Smith all married show girls from the Palace.
Cheating at cards is most rare because it is very, very difficult to do. The gamblers at the highest stakes know what to watch out for and there are nine people watching your hands across the green felt. And they’re not just any nine people; they’re people who know about cheating. They’re people that will shoot your ass. Boom. Boom. Indoor gun smoke has such a pungent and memorable aroma.
In one history I just read, a noted author says there was a lot of cheating in the Old West card games, but it was overlooked if you were good at it. Cheating was admired or allowed? Bullshit. A gambling house takes a big investment. Cheating hurts the house and the professional gamblers and they will not have it. Fear of harsh penalties stops cheating. It’s not a moral issue.
The Old West gamblers that I write about had reputations as square gamblers. They were called that in the newspapers of the times. In the major fancy gambling houses, such as The Long Branch in Dodge City, the Oriental in Tombstone, the Arcade and Palace in Denver, and the White Elephant in Fort Worth, they hired men with reputations as square gamblers, but also men tough enough to keep order, protect the bankroll and prevent cheating. The gunfighter gamblers could walk into any fancy gambling joint and get a job dealing faro. They had a clean gambling reputation. They knew how to prevent cheating and protect the house money.
Doc Holliday, Ben Thompson and Luke Short each killed a man in a dispute over that man cheating, not them. Ben and Luke each shot up crooked gambling equipment in rival gambling houses. Ben told the newspaper in Austin the equipment was crooked. They went alone. You’d be as crazy to cheat these people as you would if you tried to cheat at the Shop, Lubbock’s poker game and outlaw hangout for 30 years. When I started out in the late 1950s in high stakes poker games with big players, I learned the principal that the higher the game, the more honest, because of the talent, their knowledge of cheating, and their toughness.
For several years, I ran poker games in the house or apartment where I lived. I never saw cheating. Each day, I’d buy two new decks of Diamond Back Bee playing cards. One was red, the other blue. We would open the seal in front of everyone. I’d smell the seal to see if there was new glue, indicating tampering. I had a magnifying glass there where any player could examine the cards. I let players take the old decks home.
My best move was to shuffle slowly and make several cuts slowly, and make it obvious I was not doing anything they could not see, easily. I kept an open box of shotgun shells, with a few missing on the kitchen counter. So I was bluffing and didn’t really have a shotgun, but I did have a pawn shop pistol at all times. Guns prevent cheating. The Shop was one of the few poker games open to all road gamblers. All manner of outlaws showed up at times. You knew some of the men could cheat at poker, but not well enough for anyone smart. You knew they would not cheat because some of the guys sitting around had killed people or been in the pen. To say they had tough reputations is a mild description indeed. People did not cheat because of ethics, but because of justified fear.
One night when it was wild and folks were drinking, I saw this El Paso road gambler fixing up a cold deck through the barely-cracked bathroom door. He came in with it off his lap in a clumsy move I could easily see. Four kings beat four eights. Tooter, who got a write-up in Doyle Brunson’s book, was in with the cold-decker. Shortly after that, the Shop quit allowing all-night poker games.
In 30 years, that is the only cheating or attempted cheating that I saw. This was like a club and gamblers wanted the respect of the other members. Everything was done in a fair and honest way. For 40 years, my cousin, WC “Bill” Stapp, worked the Las Vegas gambling tables for the Mob, then Howard Hughes and finally the corporations. He said he saw very little cheating by the joints or customers. WC worked for Big Sid Wyman when he and Johnny Moss spread what Crandell Addington called “the biggest cash poker game of all time” at the Dunes.
Texas road gamblers were known as good “bird dogs”, meaning they knew how to detect cheating. With Moss, and about ten Hall of Famers in the game in a Mafia joint, you’d have to be rather dim-witted to think the game was not on the square. Houdini would have been afraid to go south with a card.
Those playing there who were selected for the Poker Hall of Fame included: Johnny Moss, Doyle Brunson, Crandell Addington, Sid Wyman, Puggy Pearson, Sarge Ferris, Red Winn, Joe Bernstein and Corky McCorquodale. The Dunes game had $200,000 pots at a time the World Series of Poker, billed as the highest poker in the country, had a first-place prize of $130,000. Benny Binion had a reputation in Dallas, and later Las Vegas, for being a square gambler fading square dice. He said the folks wanted “good food cheap, good whiskey cheap, and a square gamble”.
Being the very definition of old school, Benny allowed no cheating at Binion’s Horseshoe and dealt most harshly with the fools that gave it a try. Other casinos would call Vegas Metro, the police, but at Binion’s, cheats and thieves would be “back-roomed” – taken away into the casino to be given a severe ass-whupping by some big, healthy Texas security guards. In all these decades of the World Series, the accusations of cheating have been few and far between. Folks will cheat if they can get by with it, but sharp dealers, sharp players, the eye in the sky, and prison sentences make cheating in casinos insane.
Johnny Hughes is the author Famous Gamblers, Poker History, and Texas Stories which is available from Amazon in paperback, hardback and Kindle editions.