There are many types of marked cards. Some are factory-marked and according to the usual notice on the box they are to be used for entertainment purposes only. I wonder if cheating for cold hard cash can be defined as entertainment? Some types of pre-marked cards are hand painted and may be purchased from some gambling supply houses. Those cards are usually purchased by collectors or by those who want to cheat and don't know how to go about it. Needless to say that the manufacturers of those types of marked cards also condemn cheating and advise you not to use them for that purpose. This ethical approach should be of some comfort.
Serious cheats prepare their own paper and use their own marking patterns. Some of the most popular methods of marking cards are explained below. I also included descriptions of some methods that are not widely known. While some may find it frustrating that I've left out some critical information for some of the better methods, others will appreciate my discretion. I still believe that some sensitive information should be kept secret.
Cards marked by manufacturers can be divided into two main categories: a) cards produced by legitimate companies, and b) counterfeit cards. The legitimate brands can further be divided into two subcategories. One type of cards is made by well-known brands featuring a marked version of one of their own standard back designs, and the other type are decks made by an unknown brand. The later are often cheapo cards printed on inferior quality paper. One reason for this is to cut costs, as this type of print requires a separate plate for the back of each card, whilst regular cards need only one master plate for the backs of all the cards. The cheapo brands would be hard to pass in any serious soft games, as their appearance should draw attention to anyone who is not totally ignorant.
The picture shows a detail from a 1989 catalog by Piatnik, one of the leading European card manufacturers, from Austria. These cards appeared in the Cards For Magicians section of their catalog. As you may see the company discontinued the production of these cards but for some reason were still listed in their catalog that year. In fact, many legit manufacturers abolished production of such cards.
It should also be noted that some older (now collectable) factory-marked decks do not feature the maker's name on the Ace of Spades. Although I hope you will never become the victim of this supermarket-brand paper, should such cards ever reappear on the market, this may still be a point worth remembering.
Counterfeit playing cards are something else altogether. Counterfeiting in general is a complex issue. Nowadays, one is able to buy a counterfeit product of almost any established brand-name, from watches, musical instruments, designer clothes, medicine, electronic equipment...etc. There are different standards of quality for counterfeit goods. Some goods are made from inferior materials and break down quicker, but there are also plenty of counterfeit goods that even experts cannot tell apart from the originals, because they are made from the same materials, and assembled on the same machines. Ironically, there have also been some counterfeit goods that end up being of better quality than the originals.
High-quality playing cards are by no means easy to counterfeit. First, one must produce or obtain the same kind of paper used by the legit playing card manufacturer. Then comes the print, finish and cut, all followed by the packaging, which also has to be duplicated. I remember seeing some unlicensed reproductions of European playing cards, many years ago. However, those counterfeits were of poor quality, and are of no interest to us because they were not marked (I assume they weren't marked, I actually didn't check at the time).
Nevertheless, I was recently able to obtain two kinds of factory-marked counterfeit cards that had supposedly come from Asia. In both cases the cards were cheapo replicas of "Bee" cards, that had obviously not been produced by the US Playing Card Company [USPCC]. Each set of cards appears to have been produced by different manufacturers. One of the counterfeit Bee decks I was able to obtain is a bridge-size deck, and the other is poker-size.
In addition to their poor quality, which makes them impossible to pass as real in any game, those particular counterfeit Bees have some inconsistencies when compared to the genuine thing. The box is wrapped in cellophane, but there is no security seal. The cards are bridge-size, but the box is labeled as "POKER", and "STANDARD". By contrast, genuine bridge-size Bee cards have the words "BRIDGE" and "NARROW SIZE" printed on the box. The box is printed entirely in one color; genuine bridge-size Bee cards have a two-color print, whilst poker Bees have some details printed in gold in addition to blue and red.
The box itself, which is undoubtedly made from the cheapest paper they could find, is of a different construction than the original USPCC box. This is most notable at the bottom, where the box is closed by a tuck-in flap similar to the one at the top. The contour of the flap at the top is not round, as it should be, and the disclaimer on the flap is full of typographical errors (it is difficult to know if those error are deliberate). It should be noted, however, that even genuine Bee decks come packed in different boxes, depending on the market they were made for.
Genuine Bee cards have "No 92" printed at the top, but the counterfeits have "No 99". To the best of my knowledge there is no such thing as Bee "No 99". Interestingly enough, the counterfeiters removed the USPCC name from the Jokers and from the tuck-in flap, but they left the wording "THE U.S. PLAYING CARD CO. • CINCINNATI, OHIOH 45212" on the side of the box. Incidentally, the Jokers and the Ace of Spades have been completely redesigned (were the counterfeiters possibly worried that they may be sued by the USPCC?).
The work is so crude that it is difficult to believe it could ever pass unnoticed. All the marks are located on the large diamonds in the upper row. The image shows the deuce of spades. The value is marked on the left side, and the suit on the right. The enlargement shows the marking for the deuce, which is represented by clipping the lower corner of the first diamond (to represent an ace, the diamond would have been clipped on top). A similar mark, with the clipping on top, can bee seen on the opposite side even without the enlargement. This represents the suit of spades.
The overall quality of these cards is poor. The paper does not have the proper flexibility, the print has a lot of messed up spots throughout the deck, and the finish looks and feels like a thin plastic laminate. Surprisingly, the cut is very good and consistent, which is often not the case with genuine USPCC cards. Although the cards are basically bridge-size, they are actually slightly smaller than any standard bridge decks produced by legit playing card manufacturers.
Unlike genuine Bees, this deck does not contain any advertising cards, and the order of the cards has also been changed. The original factory order of USPCC cards should be (from face): Joker, Ace through King of Spades, Ace through King od Diamonds, King through Ace of Clubs, King through Ace of Hearts, and Joker. The counterfeits are packed: Joker, King through Ace of Diamonds, King through Ace of Clubs, King through Ace of Hearts, King through Ace of Spades, and Joker.The cellophane wrapper is heat-sealed, as opposed to glued, which is how the USPCC currently seals their decks. Finally, the tear-strip does not have the "Bee" watermark.
Although this particular deck was so poorly made that it would be totally impossible to pass them as real, it is still important to know all the details that may give away a counterfeit deck. Counterfeits in general are inconsistent in quality because they can be made by any number of different makers. Some forgers may be able to reproduce good cards, but may be forced to cut corners on the wrappers, or the box, because of practical reasons. If there is one inconsistent detail the deck may be a fake.
The quality of the counterfeit poker-size decks is slightly better than the quality of the bridge-size decks; but still not acceptable. The box is also slightly better made, and it has a USPCC seal, but it is still not a true replica of a Bee box. At first glance the counterfeit box would appear to be a replica of the old Bee box design. Old Bee boxes used to have a slightly different design than the boxes made today. Furthermore, the entire old box design was printed in one color, and there was no print in gold.
In actuality, the counterfeit Bee box is not a replica of the old Bee box, but rather a replica of a modern Bee box that has been made for the Asian market. Below is a picture of a dismantled red counterfeit box, and a picture of a blue original Bee box that has been made for the Asian market (both boxes produced in 2003). Upon close examination it is easy to see the differences. Compared to the original box, the counterfeit box is not made to be glued at two sides, instead, the bottom is made to be closed by simply tucking in a flap, much like the top of the box. In addition, the counterfeit box does not have the half-circular cutout shape at the upper rear side.
The metallic-green round sticker on the rear of the box is the identifying seal of Connell Bros. Co. Ltd., one of the largest international marketers and distributors of specialty industrial chemicals and minerals in the Pacific Rim, with headquarters in San Francisco. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the Connell Bros. Co. is not in any way involved with the distribution of counterfeit Bee cards. In actuality, they are one of the biggest clients of the USPCC and they supply USPCC playing cards for the entire Pacific Rim. Currently the company distributes playing cards only through the following divisions: China - Hong Kong, China - Guangzhou, and Korea - Seoul (playing cards are listed under the "Food and Consumer" listings in their regional directories).
Currently all the playing cards distributed by Connell Bros. have the metallic-green seal on the boxes. The seal bears the following inscription: "Bee®" -- Insist on the Original Genuine Bee -- Distributed by Connell Bros. Co. Ltd., Made in USA. Since counterfeiting is a big problem in Asia, it would be safe to conclude that the USPCC and Connell Bros. may have started using those seals as a security feature to help consumers distinguish their product from the counterfeit good. The logical thing for the counterfeiters to do was to place the same sticker on their cards.
I had the pleasure to meet some executives of the USPCC at a trade show, in New York, in 2003. They were very much aware of the Asian counterfeit Bees and told me that their legal department was "all over this", but to my surprise they had no idea that the counterfeits were marked. Furthermore, they weren't the least concerned, or even interested, about that issue. They were only concerned about the fact that those counterfeits would bring a bad reputation to the USPCC, because of their inferior quality.
The work on those cards is quite clever. Some of the white diamonds have been slightly enlarged throughout an entire row. This creates a break in the continuity of the repeating pattern and as a result some of the cross-hatching stripes appear to be a bit thicker. Unfortunately, the work is too strong and easily discovered, even by unsuspecting eyes. This is too bad, because otherwise the work would have been quite good.
This work is similar to a very old marking system, especially designed for the Bee pattern, called swollen diamonds. The swollen diamonds was basically a cut-out job, put on by hand; basically some of the white diamonds were enlarged, or "swollen". It would be virtually impossible to use the same hand-marking technique as for the old swollen diamonds to produce the work found on the counterfeit Connell Bros. Bees -- that work can only be put on during the printing process. In fact, since playing cards are printed on one sheet of paper, and since the pattern on the counterfeits is not uniform, and since Bee cards do not have white borders that could compensate for small misalignments in the print, the counterfeit Bees were made a bit smaller than regular poker-size cards.
The image above shows the marking code found on the Connell Bros. counterfeits (it should be noted that the strength of the patterns has been greatly exaggerated for the purpose of this display). The work is easier to spot from a distance, while looking at the entire card. Furthermore, there is a viewing technique that can be used to enhance the strength of the patterns to the trained eye, but this viewing technique is discussed separately under the heading juice work.
It should be noted that the cards described above were produced in 2003, and the advertising card bears a 2003 calendar. These should not be confused with similar counterfeit cards made at later time. In 2003 these counterfeit cards flooded eBay auctions and some convenience stores around the US (mainly Chinese-owned stores). In the year 2004 these cards were no longer to be found anywhere. In 2005 a new incarnation of the Connell Bros. counterfeit appeared, but these were not marked and they were of different quality which may suggest they were produced by a different counterfeiter.
The South African Casino Scam
A historic marked-cards scam was uncovered at the Caesar's Palace Casino, in South Africa, in May 1999.
For security reasons casinos use cards with customized backs. Such decks are made-to-order and it would be logical to assume that the manufacturers guarantee some kind of security over the entire order.
In the South African Casino Scam some clever cheats managed to have casino cards marked at the actual manufacturing plant, Protea Playing Cards, by altering the actual printing plates. These ready-marked decks were later delivered to the casino (under rigorous security, no doubt). Once the cards hit the casino floor the cheats were able to read cards before each card was dealt out of the shoe.
Only the aces and 10-values cards were marked, so that blackjack cheats were able to identify the top card in the dealing shoe and make hit or stand decisions accordingly. This scam made the casino's blackjack take drop down to 11%, from its usual 14%. Investigators believe that the operators of the scam sold the information to gamblers for a flat fee.
On one of my trips to Las Vegas, in February 2001, I had the privilege to examine a few of those actual cards, after they were confiscated and some samples sent to the US. The person who showed these cards to me was Bruce Gates, who recently retired from a high-ranking position with the Gaming Control Board, and currently runs his own gaming consulting business.
I was already familiar with this scam because I had read the story in an article several years ago, however, I had not seen any pictures of the cards until then. Although the alterations were very minute the marks could easily be seen at a distance.
The South African cards had an all-over Gemback™ design and the work had been put-in in the corners. Typically the "gems" from Gemback™ cards have a larger blank area in the center. That blank area nests a small printed design made out of four small lines aligned around in a circle. (Those represent the pointed part of a precious stone that can be seen through the top of the gem). On the marked cards, one of the small lines has been removed, so that the inside designed now formed a half moon instead of a full moon. In effect, the work replicated cut-out work. The work could easily be seen from a distance because the blank area had been enlarged. The cards could be read through the open area where the cards come out of the shoe, because the top car always protrudes a bit over the lip of the shoe, before the dealer pulls it out.
Some of you may notice that those cards have the popular Gemback™ design pattern, which is the trademark back-design of Gemaco Playing Cards, from Blue Springs, Missouri, USA. However, those cards were made by Protea Playing Cards, in South Africa. I had not yet been able to find out if Protea had been licensed to use Gemaco's trademark pattern.
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