BASIC PRINCIPLES of POKER CHEATING
Swindling suckers through a variety of gambling games is not a new concept. The ability to make money, effortlessly, by gambling is just a big illusion. An illusion that suckers believe in, because they want to believe it. And as long as greed remains one of the prominent human characteristics, there will never be a shortage of suckers.
I already published a blog post entitled The Basic Principle of Poker Cheating where I discuss how playing with a mathematical advantage is the only way to win at poker (or any gambling game) in the log run. In life there is no such thing as a free ride, at least not for the long haul, so any occasional lucky break is just an inevitable part of the fluctuations. In the world of gambling, most people lose money. Those who have the ability to consistently make money from gambling are not lucky, they are serious workers.
So, who are the people that make money, consistently, from gambling?
At the top of the list we have casino owners and those who provide services to gamblers, such as bookies or those who are renting space for a gambling activity, such as a card game, horse race, and so on. Those folks either have a mathematical edge against their customers, or simply charge for their services. Neither one of these activities can really be defined as gambling, in the true sense of the word.
Second on the list are the players that really know what they're doing. Those are a small minority of players that have taken the time and effort to study and truly learn the theories of various games that can be beat. This group could include skilled poker players and some others, such as blackjack card counters, backgammon players, etc. Those players could almost be listed in the same category as chess players if it weren't for the fact that the afore-mentioned games have an element of chance, which is clearly not the case with chess. But even if there is an element of chance, good strategies can completely eliminate it, in the log run, so at the end it is irrelevant if those players had to go through ups and downs. In a sense, a skilled poker player plays with a mathematical advantage, against weaker opponents, in much the same way as a casino does. If I've argued that casinos are not really gambling, due to their mathematical advantage, I will also have to argue that skilled poker players are also not really gambling.
Third group on the list of people who make money from gambling are the cheats. It should be obvious, without going into any explanations, that the cheats are also not really gambling. Yes, occasionally they do have to commit some money to an uncertain outcome and hope for the best, but generally speaking they only do that when they have some kind of advantage. So, if we look at those incidents, separately, they can be defined as gambling, but just as isolated incidents. But in the long run these players are just collecting other people's loses.
So, a poker player that only "gambles" when he knows he has a positive expectation, is going to win in the long run. That's what playing with a mathematical advantage is all about and mathematically speaking it makes no difference if this is achieved through cheating or through skilled play. Cheating just gets there faster.
A good poker cheat will actually be a "hybrid" player. Meaning, a good cheat has to mix two types of strategies, i.e. the legitimate strategies that skilled poker players would use and some cheating strategies along with deceptions. When used sparingly, the cheating strategies just offer a boost to any player that already plays a solid game. Let's have a look at a simplified example.
We all know that pocket aces are the best starting hand in poker, right? We also all know that pocket aces get crushed many times. They get crushed because legitimate strategy tells us to play them aggressively and commit a lot of money to the pot, pre-flop. By doing a big raise we try to force all the folks that may otherwise end up catching a straight or a flush to fold and we are left with one or two callers that can't possibly have a starting hand stronger than a pocket pair. But that's just a starting hand. Nevertheless, this gives us a mathematical advantage and from there on we just hope for the best. Because once we are pot committed there are still five cards that can (and often do) change everything, by the time we get to the river. An opponent with Ace-King suited could be an underdog, mathematically speaking, but that doesn't doesn't do us any good if he still ends up crushing our pocket aces with any number of combinations that may end up playing out on the board. Yes, all the poker books tell us that we are a favorite to win, in the long run. And the long run can feel like an eternity. And those that have time to wait for eternity to pass are the kind of folks that invest in government bonds, for their retirements. Poker players and gamblers really don't like to deal with the concept of eternity. Also, chance and standard deviation can be two very frustrating components that are simply impossible to cut out of the equation, with any kind of straight play. That's why some poker players like to have the option of pulling some strings, if the situation calls for it. Let's simplify things even further with a hypothetical example.
I am going to be using a simple-to-understand example where a poker player is using bottom dealing to cheat. Not the most sophisticated of card cheats, by any stretch of the imagination, but a good example, nevertheless.
So, a poker cheat working a bottom dealing scam can only hope to cheat when it is his turn to deal. But if he only wins on his own rounds the other players will notice that something's off. So, this player must also play some rounds on the square, when other players are dealing. In fact, all the sudden it becomes less of a problem if his aces get crushed, since he knows that he can make it all back as soon as the deck gets passed to him. But if he wins on another player's deal, when the deck was all the way across the table, it makes him look good. He ended up winning a legitimate hand, after all. The same exact concept applies to a more sophisticated cheat that uses riffle stacking instead of bottom dealing. But let's look at a completely different example, now.
In the next example there are two or three players working in collusion. One of the players is dealt a pocket pair of aces, but one of his partners signals him that he just folded A6. So, the player with the pocket aces knows for a fact that one of his out (an ace he hopes to see on the board) is definitely out of the game. The odds for this player change dramatically and he doesn't have to take the same chances that he would normally have to take, if he played on the square. Even if both of his partners signaled that their hands did not contain any aces, he has an advantage over any legitimate player that would have to decide what to do with his pocket aces.
In a different example he could have AA and his partner could have KK and they both go all-in, against one opponent, with the understanding that they would work in collusion all night and then split their winnings at the end. Even if this was an even contest of chance between three players cutting to high card, the colluders have a mathematical edge over their opponent. But poker is more complex that cutting to high card and good colluders have a more significant edge than partners in a pure contest of chance.
Basically cheating yields a bigger advantage, over the existing advantage that a solid poker player may already have over weaker opponents. If a swimmer can win a silver medal on the square, the same swimmer might be able to take the gold, with a few steroid shots. Those athletes are still some of the best in the world, and not just some average guys that expect to win gold by swallowing a couple of little red pills. At the poker tables, the best cheats are none other than some of the same winning players we were discussing in group 2, on our list of winning gamblers.
There are, of course, also many cheats that minimize the amount of legitimate play, or don't bother playing on the square at all, unless the situation forces them to. Any strategic play carries a level of short-term risk, whether the strategies are legitimate or crooked. Legitimate strategies will always carry more short-term risk than most crooked ones. So, some players may decide that it's just a waste of money to let the suckers collect too many short-term wins. Why not just let the suckers win each other's money? This brings me to the next point.
Winning and Losing
A poker player that never loses eventually sticks out like a sore thumb. If this kind of player also displays some amateurish traits it is just a matter of time when people will start wondering if the player may be doing more than meets the eye. People don't like losing money. And when they consistently lose money to the same opponent, they start to pay closer attention, if for not other reason, simply because they are trying to figure out how to break that player. But if things just don't add up, there is a good chance people will start talking.
Of course, it is also not unheard of for some winning poker players to have acquired legendary status, without being suspected of cheating. But as a general rule those players have to display some other qualities that will convince everyone that they posses legitimate skills. In other words, if people are convinced that a player is a grandmaster of poker, they will not suspect fowl play. In fact, they may even be blinded by the idea that the player is a grandmaster. But in poker, even grand masters have to occasionally lose on the turn of a card.
Smart poker cheats will "lose" by dumping their loses to their partner(s). Many poker cheats work in teams anyway because many advantages can be gained by being teamed up. Traditionally poker mobs had to work together at the same table, so they could collude against their weaker opponents. But with the introduction of poker tournaments this all changed. In poker tournaments the members of a poker mob don't necessarily have to work at the same table, to gain the mathematical advantage that makes them win, in the log run. This seeming detachment makes it much harder to identify members of a mob, but by playing a joint bankroll they are in fact shifting the odds in their favor. This is something that I discuss in the article on poker collusion. But the point is, when poker mobs work a tournament, some members of the mob will get knocked out of the tournament, which will create the illusion that these players lose on the turn of a card, just like everyone else. But if we look under the hood we see that their bad luck is just an illusion because their team strategy increases the odds for their team to make it to the final table and thus grab a piece of the pie.
Of course all this common sense gets flushed down the toilet when we declare a marriage between poker and television. Television has such an influence on the masses that common sense simply breaks down. In other words, television legitimizes things. If a broadcaster were to televise an alien invasion, on a regular news program, just as a prank, it would look real to at least 50% of the viewers. Never mind that those people would only be "witnessing" the event on the same equipment that they use to watch science-fiction shows and special effects. And if the broadcaster were to keep repeating this news over and over again, within one year the skeptics would be a tiny minority likely to get trampled by the masses of believers. In the eyes of the believers the skeptics would be just a bunch of conspiracy theorists that need serious psychiatric help. Logic and commons sense cease to exists and it's all thanks to television.
Television has elevated many gamblers into godlike creatures. Allow me to ask you a simple question? Who in the right state of mind would ever consider playing poker against a group that calls themselves The Hendon Mob? Poker is not a partnership game and I'd never though I'd live to see that day when a group of poker players would be able to openly call themselves a mob and still be embraces by the poker community without anyone objecting. But I guess I didn't consider the possibility to build up the credibility of such mobs through television.
Of course there are many other poker mobs that don't openly advertise the fact that they are teamed up, although they don't exactly hide the fact that they know each other very well and that they are part of one big family of celebrity poker players.
How common is cheating in poker?
I believe that poker players that have never done any cheating, at all, are as common as drivers that have never done any speeding on the open roads. There are definitely many drivers that never got pulled over for speeding. That doesn't meant they've never been driving over the speed limit. It only means that they never got pulled over. In theory every single diver that drives over the speed limit should get pulled over, but in practice it rarely happens to those that are just slightly over the speed limit and don't drive recklessly.
In my opinion, at the poker tables there is no shortage of "drivers" that fit this profile. In other words, there are plenty of players that engage in activities that may be classified as mild forms of cheating. I am not saying that those card players necessarily do it on purpose. In fact, even the drivers that are moderate speeders usually don't intentionally go over the speed limit; but just because they don't do it on purpose, it still doesn't mean they are not doing it.
Furthermore, there are plenty of players that are not even aware of the fact that their actions could be classified as cheating. How can that be possible? Well, first we have to have a very clear definition of what may constitute cheating. If you ask me, any action that is not an integral part of official poker strategies and ends up costing any player any amount of money, no matter how "insignificant," should be classified as cheating. I am not even talking about scenarios when players unintentionally get a glimpse of some of the cards and fail to report it, I am talking about other common scenarios that some players even object to, but their objections are often brushed off as, "Relax! This is a friendly game, here." Consider the following scenario.
Two good buddies are actively engaged in one particular hand, pre-flop. There is significant action, still pre-flop, and both of them make significant raises. Their raises lead to all their opponents eventually folding. It eventually comes down to a heads-up game between the two buddies. Neither one of them had any ill intentions. In fact, both of them had monster hands and had every right to raise the pot. But after everyone folds, one of them says, "How do you want to play this?" Then the other one answers, "Let's just check it down to the river." Now they both turn their monster hands over and deal-out the flop, turn and river without putting another penny into the pot. One person makes a small objection and then one of them informs the group that, "We don't play against each other." The river card determines the best hand and the winner takes the pot. Neither one of them would even dream of splitting this pot under the table and neither one of them thinks they did anything wrong. The question is this: Did these two players cheat?
You bet they did!
This is just one example of unintentional cheating. Some will argue that this scenario does not constitute cheating, because there was no intention to cheat, but the facts are that a) this is not how poker should be played, and b) their actions of raising and re-raising resulted in other players folding their hands, after they committed money to the pot, and c) they stopped playing against each other after everyone else folded (by changing their "strategy" mid-game they hurt other players), and d) if they wanted to intentionally steal the pot by cross-firing, this would be exactly how they could choose to do it (the only difference is that in the intentional scenario there would be a premeditated intention, but the end result is the same for the other players), and e) both of them profit, in the long run, from this kind of action.
Friends either do play against each other, i.e, they are seated at the same card table, or, do not play against each other, in which case they they should be seated at different tables. But in the game of poker it is not possible to be seated at the same table, be involved in the same pot and still "not play against each other." So, yes, players that engage in this kind of "friendly duel" are in fact cheating; the only difference between this and intentional cheating is that they are also incorporating the element of pure ignorance.
The scenario just described is in no way a rare occurrence. But there are plenty of other scenarios that also do not involve any intentional cheating, but still produce the same end result. In addition to any similar "innocent" scenarios, there are plenty of scenarios where the players are well aware of the fact they are not playing fairly, but choose to ignore it and don't even admit it to themselves.
So, if we put all these players in the same group with the conventional card cheats, we just expanded the head count, dramatically.
The "unintentional" cheating scenarios, as the one just described, are of less interest to us. Since they lack the psychological angle of the premeditated scams, they are not quite as interesting, even if they may lead to the same end results. Hardcore cheating is usually what gets people's attention, if discovered.
Around the time of this writing I did a routine search for "poker" on my local Craig's List listing and found the following post:
This was not the first time I stumbled upon a "cheat alert" post, on Craig's List. I am not sure who this group of alleged colluders (with shaved heads) are, but I have seen several other teams that more or less fit the same profile. In fact, squeezing players on hands is a very common cheating attempt. And does it sound familiar? Well, it more or less sounds like the afore-mentioned scenario where a couple of buddies "don't play against each other."
The other scenario that is very common with unsophisticated cheats is to "sneak peeks at the next card," also mentioned in the Craig's List warning post. There are several methods of peeking that are "industry standards" of professional cheats, but the difference is that with sophisticated cheats it is not quite as obvious. Unsophisticated cheats make it obvious because they telegraph the move too much; either because their timing is off, or the body language is wrong, or both.
If I were to think of one single thing that is sure to get any cheat flagged, that would making a bad call... and then winning. Consistent losers make bad calls - not consistent winners. Any loser may win an occasional pot after making a bad call, but consistent winners are likely to get immediate heat even after making a single bad call, that turned into a miraculous outcome.
Of course there are many other situations that are likely to raise eyebrows and bring heat down on the cheats. One thing that comes to mind is repetition. We have to start with the assumption that any scam, no matter how sophisticated or well executed, can be discovered. I believe that all the scams have tell-tale signs that telegraph the work. If the scams are well-executed most people will not notice these mannerisms. But even if the scams are expertly executed, anyone will start to catch on sooner or later, given enough repetition.
Another thing that comes to mind is if a cheat is unable to stay in character. Basically, when a cheat is working a scam he is pretending to play in a certain way. The opponents will try to figure out his play and use this information to the best of their abilities to beat the player on the square. As we've previously discussed there's no such thing as cheating 100% of the time, so any cheat will still have to play on the square, in all the rounds that offer no opportunities to cheat. So, any such player may just decide to fold during these uncertain rounds. This will result in the other players figuring him for a tight player. That's all fine, so far. But what happens when this tight player is suddenly out of character and shows down a winning hand that no one figured he would ever play? If it happens only one time, people may not think too much of it. But if it happens consistently, and every time it results in a win, people are likely to start feeling something is off.
Cheats will also get busted for poor executions of various manipulation attempts. That is of course not a big revelation. But what I'm getting at is not the inability to do difficult manipulations well, but the inability to do the simplest stuff. This is not uncommon.
For example, imagine that some card mechanic is expert at riffle stacking. He can do it so well that you can't see anything, even when he's doing it right under your nose. Obviously, the guy spent some time practicing. But the problem is that his culling skills suck.
Riffle stacking is an interesting skill to keep practicing. But riffle stacking is just the final stage of a scenario that involves other manipulations. What precedes the stacking is putting the initial cards in place, in readiness for the stacking. This is called culling. It is not uncommon for guys that practice manipulation techniques to spend a lot of time practicing stacking techniques and no time at all (or just minimal time) practicing culling. The reasoning is simply because culling seems simple enough to not require much practice. If a guy like that sits down at the poker table and attempts to cheat he will soon find out that culling is not as easy as it seems. So, even if his stacking is perfect, he may simply get heat on his culling. I've seen a lot of covert videos that were recorded in the California poker room in the 1980's. In some of the recordings the mechanics was so good that I would have had no idea that he was stacking the deck if I didn't see that he was culling some cards before his shuffle.
Controlling the Showdowns
Every poker player is always eager to see what cards his opponents were playing. This is the reason why good poker players will avoid showing their cards, if the don't have to. This is also the case with the cheats, but for different reasons.
A legitimate poker player will try to maximize the amount of money that his opponents put into the pot and then win the pot in one of the two ways. Either he will take the round all the way to the river and win a big pot, or he will attempt to cut the round short and take a smaller pot without a showdown, if the board is starting to show cards that may end up crushing his hand. For example, let's imagine that the player started with a high pocket pair, for example K♤ K♧, and was slow-playing before the flop. Then the flop comes: K♢ Q♢ 8♡. In this example, the player did hit a set on the flop, but his set could easily be crushed by a diamond flush or even by a straight, by the time the round goes to the river. So, in this case a legitimate player may opt to make a big raise to force his opponents to fold, before some lucky bastard hits a flush or a straight. However, if the flop was K♢ 2♧ 9♤ the legitimate player would want more people to build up a bigger pot before the river. A poker cheat may not want to play the same situations exactly the same way. But it would depend exactly how that player is cheating.
For example, let's imagine the cheat is working a shuffle scam and he is able to deal many high pocket pairs, throughout the course of the evening, either to himself or to his partner. First of all, a legitimate player is likely to make a substantial raise before the flop, with a high pocket pair, to force many players to fold. But that would not be what a cheat would do, if he was being dealt many high pocket pairs. A legitimate player has to wait for these opportunities, and when they occur, he doesn't want to be crushed. But a cheat running up his hands gets these high pairs all the time, so he doesn't want to force people out just yet. Also, he doesn't want to make a big raise that would commit some people to the pot and thus force them to stay all the way to the river, which would mean there would have to be a showdown. So, a cheat is likely to always slow-play a hand such as K♤ K♧, pre-flop, which in his case is a frequent occurrence. However, once the flop is dealt out, everything changes.
A cheat that gets dealt K♤ K♧ all the time, definitely doesn't want to take all his rounds to the river. In his case it is much better to take a few small pots, without ever showing the goods. So, once the flop is dealt out the cheat will try to drive everyone out, regardless if this makes good play. He doesn't really care about good play, since he is stacking the deck. The only goal after the flop is to take the pot without a showdown. This is, of course, accomplished with a big raise, on the flop or on the turn. The cheat will also make sure to use this strategy when players are not short-stacked, so should anyone happen to call, at least the pot will be big enough to justify a showdown.
The exact scenarios will vary depending on the situation. We are assuming that the cheat is running up a pocket pair and making it hit a set on the flop or on the turn. But there are still some random cards to deal with, as well as the action of the other players, which cannot be predicted. This is why the cheat will be better off using this strategy in late position.
Even with a stacked deck there are still many variables. But the point is that a cheat will attempt to minimize the number of showdowns, just to obfuscate the scam. Of course, in some cases he will actually want to show.
Let's imagine a different scenario where the cheat is stacking the deck to deal himself J♢ 10♢. Furthermore, he is able to stack the J♤ for the flop, and the 10♧ for the river. So, before the cards are even dealt, he knows for a fact that he will have at least two pair. The other three random cards will determine how he will play out this hand.
For example, if the other cards don't make any significant change to his hand and he ends up with nothing more than two pair, it would be good to have a showdown. Two pair is a solid hand and J♢ 10♢ was also a very good hand for late position. If he didn't have to call any monster raises he will show down a solid hand and take the pot without anyone suspecting anything. The opponents get to see his take a moderate pot with a solid hand and that's the end to the story. In other words, with a hand like that the cheat will probably try to play it out more or less like a legitimate player would do it. The only difference (and not a minor one) is that he has advanced knowledge that he will have at least two pair on the river. Also, by knowing that the river card is the 10♧ he knows exactly what to do if there are two clubs before the river. By comparison, a legitimate player will have to take some chances, not knowing if the river card will be a club. And the same goes for the possibility of straights. Just knowing the exact suit and value of the river card is a tremendous advantage, even without any of the other business.
The point is, a good cheat does not only play to win some pots. Cheating is all about deception and controlling the showdowns is just part of the deception. Failing to use these kinds of tactics will result in many showdowns. Yes, the pots will be bigger, but to the players will also start to catch on pretty quickly.
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