Line work is the proper term for the tiny little marks everyone starts looking for as soon as someone mentions marked cards. A dying fluid is made to match the color of the back design and lines are added in certain areas of the design. The ink is usually applied with a photographer's retouching brush. The use of a metal quill pen is usually avoided as it might scratch the surface of the card; but this is only true if one doesn't know what kind of pen tips to use and/or if one doesn't have the hand for it.

It would be impossible to cover all the possibilities of altering the card design because paper players usually develop their own favorite patterns. But generally speaking lines are usually added to the areas where there is a crosshatching pattern.

marked cards: line work (scroll work) marked cards: line work, Bicycle Lotus Back

The illustration shows an old example of line work for Bicycle Lotus Backs that used to be common in the 1890s. The five-petal leaf is just a detail from an ornate back design. The duce is unmarked, but the other values are marked in a clockwork fashion starting with the high card. The first petal on the is marked to denote and ace; followed by the second petal for a king; third for a queen; fourth jack; and fifth ten. Then the clockwise system is repeated with two petals, from the nine to six. And finally three-petal markings for five to three. A similar system has been worked out for the suits, with the spade unmarked.

Needless to say, if you "take this deck to the movies" you will have an pretty animated show. In this example lines have been added to add entire crosshatching patterns over some areas of the back design. This old example has been borrowed from the classic old book, Sharps and Flats (1894).




marked cards: blokout workBlock-out work is a descendant of line work and may be used in combination with it. The same tint made for line work may be applied on the back of a card to block-out certain white sections of the design.

The picture to the left shows and old well-known example of block-out work on the back of a Bicycle card. The top card is unaltered; on the bottom card one of the birds has been erased (blocked-out). This might represent an ace. The absence of the second bird might mean a king. The third bird might stand for a queen and so forth. Again, the meanings of the marks are up to the individual.

The method just described is not a very good one. Yes, the average sucker might miss those marks if he doesn't suspect them but once discovered there is no arguing whether or not the card design has been altered, because this marking code is simply too bold.

marked cards: block-out work The picture on the right shows a better example of block-out work. The first card is unaltered. The second is marked by shortening the white line inside the wing; and on the third card the shadow on the angel's collarbone has been thickened up. Both of these alterations are difficult to spot if one doesn't know where to start looking. On the other hand, if you put the work there yourself, and focus on that specific area as you deal cards, you will be able to notice them with ease.

I just mention a few out of countless possibilities to have a marking system. Cheats prefer to use their own as that makes it harder to detect.

On a Bee deck, which backs feature an all-over diamond design, block-out work may be used to enlarge parts of certain diamonds. Another application of this type of work on Bees would be to reduce the sizes of certain white diamonds by thickening up their borders.




marked cards: cut-out workIn this case a chemical is used to remove small portions of the ink. Again, the first card is unaltered. If you closely examine the leaf on the middle card you will notice that part of the ink has been removed right where the leaf meets the stem. This makes the "armpit" of the leaf design a tad shallower. In this case the leaf is white, which means that it is part of an un-printed portion of the card. To alter its shape the cheat must remove part of the ink surrounding it therefore exposing more paper; i.e. a white portion of the design has been enlarged.

This is not the case on the third card. The vein in the middle of the leaf is a printed line. In this example the ink has been removed to shorten the actual printed line at the bottom. Another option would be to shorten the top or to cut it somewhere in the middle. Smaller lines could even be completely removed.

Probably the best-known chemical for a cut-out job is a substance well-known to forgers called Carbolic Acid [C6H5HO], also known as Phenyl Alcohol, Phenic Acid, or Phenol. Technically speaking, Carbolic Acid is not really an acid because it is not capable of neutralizing alkalies. In any case, it should be handled with extreme caution (if handled at all) because it is a nasty poison. If swallowed, one is strongly advised to see a pathologist immediately so that a death certificate can be filled out correctly, without the need for an autopsy. Sniffing is probably also not recommended and if spilled over tissue it will cause paralysis. Somewhere out there I bet there is a gravestone with the inscription: "He used Carbolic Acid for a cut-out job".




marked cards: shading and tint workThe same dye is used as for line work and block-out work except that it is diluted so much that it only tints the card lightly over the white areas. The tint is applied with a retouching brush and will only show up over the white areas because the printed portions of the card are already darker, and of the same color. This type of work will not show up in the riffle test because the shadows of the falling cards mask the intensity of the light tint work.

The picture shows an exaggerated example of tint work. In reality it should never be so strong. In this case the head of the angel has been tinted. This mark could represent an ace. Other areas to mark could be one of the wings, both wings, one or the other side of the hair, arms etc. Again there is no rule to what marking system a cheat might use.




This is almost the same as tint work except that, in this case, the tint is applied to the entire back surface of the card, except for a small area which is left out. When viewed from a distance the white area stands out (if you know it's there). This is a good advantage as the cheat may not bother to look at the back while dealing since the marks will be easily seen later from a distance (provided that the backs are exposed). People will be less suspicious of a person looking in the general direction of the cards if they lay across the table. This type of work is usually used by professional cheats and is impossible to detect in a riffle test.

Needless to say that the application process for flash is kept hush-hush: from the actual tint and solvent, to the actual application technique. Furthermore, today's cheats face an new problem due to the fact that the US Playing Card Company [USPCC] changed the finish on their cards. Years ago the USPCC used to make cards that were resistant to alcohol. For this reason alcohol could successfully be used for flash, simply because it evaporates quickly enough not to buckle the card. Today the USPCC uses a finish that is not resistant to alcohol. Alcohol actually destroys the finish on the cards and leaves a dull frosted mark. For this reason paper players had to look for other solutions for flash. One solution is to find a supply of old cards. Naturally, as time goes by this solution is less and less feasible.




marked cards: Bee 67 Line ShadeThis type of work has been specifically designed for the Bee - Back No. 67 cards. The system had appeared in some old books and crooked gambling supply catalogue. Nowadays, it is rarely even talked about, despite the fact that Bee cards are still widely used.

Although it is called line "shade", the system is not shade work. Technically speaking line shade is a simple variation of line work, but in this particular case the end result of the work produces a shade effect.

Basically the Bee - Back No. 67 pattern consists of stripes that are made out of white diamonds, connected by three half-diamond shapes. In this case some of the white diamonds are simply split in half with a line that matches the lines between the half-diamonds. When viewed from a distance, this produces the effect that part of a cross-hatching stripe looks shaded. This makes this work very practical, because the alteration is minimal (i.e. a minute line that by itself can only be seen from a close examination), but the work can be read from a distance be cause the work appears to darken up an area of the card. Unfortunately, the work is not exactly invisible, should a suspecting player decide to examine the cards.




Bee 67: swollen and reduced diamondsThose are yet two more examples of work that have been developed specifically for the popular Bee - Back No. 67 cards.

Swollen diamonds (a.k.a. enlarged diamonds) is basically a cut-out job. This work appeared in several old crooked gambling supply catalogs. One catalog describes it as such: "The enlarged diamonds when made by artists who understand their 'stuff' are very hard to detect... ...of all the firms making this work we know of only one which can produce this very 'smart' enlarged diamond work".

Reduced diamonds is the reversed of enlarged diamonds, described above, and is essentially a block-out job. Compared to swollen diamonds this work is much easier to produce, as it doesn't require a precise removal of the ink.

Both types of work have been known to use several different marking codes. One catalog advertised a code that used combinations of only three diamonds, all grouped in the same corner (so that the player would not have to look all over the backs to find the marks); another method was to enlarge or to reduce diamonds in entire rows (as seen in the images).




Early playing cards used to have plain un-printed backs. In England and America backs of playing cards were plain until the 1850s, when the English artist Owen Jones (artist for Thomas de la Rue, London card makers) began designing cards with ornate backs. However, in other countries patterned backs have been in use for far longer.

Some manufacturers have continued the tradition of plain backs into the 21st century. For example Piatnik, from Austria, kept manufacturing cards with plain backs for Italian Baccara (namely Baccara 1403 and Baccara 1404 decks). In the late 1980s a friend of mine gave me a plain-backed Baccara deck that he managed to steal (yes, he actually managed to steal a few complete decks) from an Italian casino. Although the backs of those particular casino cards were plain, they were still printed with a solid dark blue color.

Although it may seem that cards with plain backs should be impossible to mark they still offer a number of possibilities. In fact, the idea of marked cards has been born well before the idea of cards with ornate backs.

Ancient cards with un-printed backs did not have any finish at all. The stolen casino deck that ended up in my collection also seems to have been printed on uncoated card stock, or it just has a very light coat of dull finish, at best. Such surface makes it particularly suitable for wax work. The work is put on by ruling lines with paraffin wax on the backs of the cards. Those marks are visible at any distance when the deck is tilted in a slanted position to catch a reflection of light. Although this type of work originated when the cards had plain backs it can still be used for cards with ornate backs.

marked cards: wax marks

The marking code shown above has been replicated from an illustration from the book Sharps and Flats, first published in 1894. The author, John Maskelyne, describes this marking code as suitable for "a game such as poker, where the suit is of no consequence". Although this statement is not entirely accurate, because the suits do have a consequence in poker, a paper player can still gain a strong edge in poker just by being able to read the values.


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