Cheating & The Rules That Counter It

Dealing & House Procedures, Rules

August 28, 2007

Unfortunately, like any activity where money changes hands, poker attracts its fair share of cheats. While today’s casino games are almost certainly cleaner than at any time in the past, players and the house need to understand cheating methods and the rules and dealing procedures were developed specifically to counteract them. Below I outline some common cheating methods, and describe how they can be counteracted. It’s important to understand that these rules exist for a reason, not just as tradition.

Holding Out Cards

This is a very simple method of cheating that usually involves only one cheater. That player, possibly with the assistance of a mechanical device, does not return a card to the deck when he folds – preferably a good card. He instead hides that card, waits for a hand that can be substantially improved by swapping it for one of the cards in the hand, and makes the swap. After that hand, all cards may be returned to the deck or the swapped card retained by the same means. In either case, the procedure can be repeated on future hands.

The easiest way to counter a holdout man is to count the deck between hands, either regularly or randomly. Obviously doing so on a regular pattern every N deals is ineffective since the cheat will simply return the held out card for that one hand and grab a new one one the next. Fortunately, Shufflemasters automatically count down the deck on each shuffle, so holding out a card becomes very difficult. In hand dealt games, the responsibility falls on the dealer to perform the same function. As a player, if you’re out of the action then count along (silently) with the dealer since in theory the dealer could be part of the scheme.

Marked Cards

Marked cards come in a variety of forms. The simplest way to put marks on cards is simply to use your fingernail to scratch or crease the back of the card in some specific scheme that gives useful information. Making use of such marks can be difficult for a single player depending on the game and which cards have been marked, but it’s certainly possible to obtain a small advantage. To defend against this, decks should be changed whenever a card with any kind of damage is spotted and the damaged card should be destroyed by folding it in half to prevent accidental or intentional re-use down the road.

Lowball draw games are particularly vulnerable to marked cards. The person marking cards attempts to mark all low cards or all high cards, and then is able to tell if their opponents caught good on the draw. This gives a massive advantage on betting after the draw if the cheat is skilled at making use of the information. Sadly, you will often see decks with numerous scratched cards after a lowball tournament, suggesting this practice is not nearly as uncommon as it should be.

Beyond simply damaging cards, it’s possible to make more sophisticated marks. A “daub” or pigment can be put on the cards that is nearly invisible to the naked eye (at most it looks like skin oil) but which is highly visible when viewed through special glasses or contacts. The tactics for exploiting these kinds of markings are the same as with damaged cards, but the daub is much easier to see.

An alternate method, which requires the cooperation of the house, is to have decks that are manufactured with marks. These can take the form of subtle variations in the card back, or images worked into the card back that can only be seen by defocussing your eyes (like the Magic Eye posters that were popular a decade ago).

There are numerous procedures that work to minimize or prevent the effects of marked cards. First, burn cards ensure that the card about to be dealt to a player is not visible to them while they are making their play decisions. Thus, even if the cards are marked, the cheat will only learn of one card that won’t come. Any game structure that has extra cards available should make use of burns on every street. This is especially important in holdem and other community card games.

Second, as a player, covering your cards with a card protector once they are dealt may make it more difficult to see any marks. The primary reason to cover your cards is to prevent them from being accidentally mucked, but the anti-cheating effect is worthwhile as well.

Perhaps most importantly, the house needs to police their card supply. This means checking all the cards that go into setups constructed from multiple donor decks, checking all decks on a periodic basis, and using new-in-wrapper decks for setups on high stakes games. Players also share some responsibility, and should be careful not to accidentally mark cards, and to report damaged cards when they spot them.


Some very effective cheating methods require that the dealer plus at least one other player be part of the scheme. The dealer is a “mechanic” capable of manipulating the shuffle and deal by slight of hand. While different mechanics have different moves, most of them use a small family of techniques:

  • Dealing a “second” whereby the second card comes of the deck rather than the first
  • Dealing from the bottom of the deck
  • Controlling a card or slug of cards during the shuffle and ensuring they remain in order and in a fixed position
  • Manipulating the cut so that a specific card or slug slug of cards ends up in a specific position, usually on the bottom of the deck

These techniques are usually, but not always, used in conjunction with a marked deck that both the dealer and player collaborator can read. Dealing a second is a means of defeating the burn. If the player sees a card on top of deck (in the burn position) that they would like to have come on the board, they signal the dealer and the dealer burns a second, thereby causing the top card of the deck to appear on the board. Dealing some cards from the bottom of the deck allows the dealer to construct more elaborate trap hands. For example, in NL holdem, a dealer might collect 2 aces and 2 kings together in the muck, keep that slug of cards together during the shuffle, and cut it to the bottom, and then deal the kings to a random player and the aces to the confederate, creating a hand where the confederate has a high chance of winning the victim’s entire stack.

Countering a skilled mechanic is very difficult. First and foremost, the house is responsible for having honest dealers. However, that’s no guarantee that a mechanic doesn’t slip into the pool, or that the whole house management isn’t corrupt. Using cut cards makes it very difficult to deal off the bottom. Requiring a “scramble” or “wash” of the cards between hands makes it much more difficult to create a slug of cards. Players should be leery of dealers who deal with a mechanic’s grip although the absence of one is not a sure sign of dealer honesty. The house should not allow dealers to deal with a very concealed grip such as this. Mechanics inevitably deal with a very fast motion to hide what they’re doing, and this plus the “sliding” sound that dealing a second makes is a tipoff that the dealer is not on the level.  In self-dealth games, players should insist that everyone deals sufficiently slowly that it’s easy to see the top card sliding off the deck each time.

Cold Decks

For a mechanic one of the most difficult aspects is creating a complicated slug of cards that gives a specific hand to multiple players. One way around this difficulty is to bring in a deck that already has such a slug, and then rig the shuffle to maintain that slug of cards and put it in the right place to have the desired effect. Such a deck is called a “cold deck” and is a sure sign that house management as well as the dealer are corrupt.

Luckily, cold decks are easy to counter. All decks for new setups should be delivered to the table in rank and suit order, spread face-up for the players to see, counted, scrambled, and then shuffled. This renders the deck that comes in from the outside no different than a deck coming from a previous hand.

In houses where this procedure is not followed, do not play the first hand after a new deck no matter how attractive it looks. And of course consider finding a better run/more honest game.

Palming Chips

A very simple cheating method that can be employed by either a player or the dealer is palming chips out of the pot or off the top of a player’s stack.

The simples rules defense against this is that players should never touch each other’s chips, and bets should be distinct from the pot until the dealer pulls them in. Thus there should be no opportunity for a player to palm a chip. As an additional defense, players should not put oversized chips (for example a black chip in a red chip game) on top of their stack where they might be a temptation.

Preventing a dealer from palming chips is more difficult, but if players are concerned they should count the pot (which is a good idea anyways) and make sure they receive that much less any rake if the pot is pushed to them. Dealers should clap in and out to ensure they have nothing in their hands.

Shorting The Pot

Sometimes players will try to short the pot an ante or a fraction of a bet. This is especially common in games where bets are a large number of chips.

This, however, is easy to counter. All antes should be visible in front of players before the dealer pulls any of them in, and players without an ante do not get a hand. All bet sizes should be verified by the dealer. Players should never splash the pot or mingle their bets with it, and if they do the pot size should be verified before play continues. Players should count the pot, and object if they get less than what the pot should contain. Player bets should be stacked or layed out in a way that’s easy to count, and dealers should educate players who bet in a difficult-to-count manner.

Peeking Devices

While not a common method, players can use small concealed mirrors or cameras to see the faces of the cards as they are dealt. The camera based schemes require a collaborator somewhere else to watch the camera feed and radio back to the player at the table what they see. Usually, this is only possible from the seats closest to the dealer or via a camera on the dealer. Sometimes, if a dealer is very weak, it may even be possible to see the face of a card as it is dealt without the aid of any sort of cheating device.

Camera based versions of this are hard to counter since house management is usually involved, but simply having the dealer pitch the cards sufficiently low will defeat everything else. Players should object if a dealer deals the cards too high. The house should require dealer uniforms that do not provide a ready place in to put a camera or other device. Jamming and radio signal detecting equiptment in the casino can help with cameras, but since management is usually involved they aren’t of any practical use. Thankfully camera schemes are complicated and very uncommon, and players should not be unduely concerned about them.

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