Saturday, May 19, 2007
Here's part two of Johnny Hughes on poker cheaters.
Ace's Poker Wisdom: Catching Cheaters
By Johnny Hughes
Ace was one of the top all around professional gamblers in Texas and nearby states back in the fifties and sixties. He took a liking to me and took me under his wing, saying, "I'm gonna teach you how to gamble where you can make something out of yourself."
Ace lived in a large natural rock house north of Lubbock. We would sit at the kitchen table and he would delight in giving me instructions over coffee. Ace covered the table with a blanket and opened what looked like a fresh deck of Bee brand diamond back cards which were used in all the high stakes poker games back then. "First thing, you smell of the seal for fresh glue."
Then Ace fanned several cards and held them above his eyes toward the overhead light. He shifted the angle back and forth until the diamond pattern disappeared in the glare. "This in one of the ways you check for marks or daub or paint. You can buy decks of paper or pre-marked cards down at Huber's Pawn Shop." Ace said, "A paper player wears a hat where you can't see his eyes and him studying up on the backs of your hole cards. He may be moving the deck around funny to catch the glare on the marks. Let folks see you checking the deck and that will slow them down."
Ace spread a new deck face up and then put all the red cards on top and the black cards on the bottom. He shuffled several times and cut a few times and set them down for me to cut. Ace was laughing proudly as he spread the deck face up. All the red cards were still on the top. "That's a pull through shuffle and I hopped the cut. I'll teach you the move. Now anybody you can cheat, you can beat on the square if you just keep on taking the best of it. Never take a single bet without the best of it. I wouldn't flip you for fifty cents. I'd be big time ashamed if one of my friends saw me putting one nickel in a slot machine. They ain't no gamble in me."
Ace had been a school teacher and a prize fighter briefly, "Hold 'em is like boxing," Ace would say, "You keep on jabbing at them until they get thickheaded and dizzy."
To Ace, the gambling life was highly disciplined. He had a real disdain for the human weakness that surrounds the gambling world. When John Law made it real hot for gambling around Dallas in the fifties, a handful of top gamblers, including Ace, moved to Lubbock. Ace's good looks, chiseled features and erect carriage gave him a high class, almost regal air. He would make anyone's list of best dressed in these parts. Ace wore the most expensive tasteful wool slacks and sport coats and a nice hat. His loose fitting pleated slacks had deep pockets. He carried up to $20,000 in fifties money in one pocket and a loaded .38 revolver in the other. Folks knew he "carried the difference." Ace nearly always had a large floating crap game going in a motel or office building and he toted a fat bankroll. Five hundred dollar bills and thousand dollar bills were in circulation back then. Ace was the first gambler that I saw with these fine and artistic coarse notes.
As we sat at Ace's kitchen table, he pulled all types of cards and dice from a whole closet full of cheating devices. "These are Ace-King strippers ." He shuffled and pulled the strippers whose edges were slightly rounded and placed the rounded cards on the top and dealt me two Kings and himself two Aces. "When you check out a new deck, do it in front of folks which warns off wolfing. Pull your hands along the edges of the deck to check for rounded or oversized cards.''
I took the deck and could easily detect the off sized cards. A few years latter while I was shilling at the craps for the Reverend, he used strippers to play me gin rummy. I pulled up without mentioning it.
Ace took the deck and ran his thumb from the bottom to the top of the corner of the deck where all the cards would fly by in a loud second and he could check for marks. "It's like those old timey picture shows where each frame is slightly different only the patterns are supposed to stay the same. A change or mark will jump out at you. Each of these decks of diamond back Bees are cut a little different or the edge is different. You can buy five decks and make a deck of sorts with different edge patterns for the high and low cards. Most cheating is good for seven-five low ball and this is too."
Then Ace picked up the deck and dealt as if in slow motion from the bottom and then dealt seconds. Then he picked up the pace until the cards were a bit of a blur and I wasn't sure where a dealt card came from. "Never take your eyes off the deck and the dealer's hands. Now I am dealing seconds. If you can't see 'em, listen. Hear that little swoosh sound? You are pulling a card from between two cards and it makes a noise. A second dealer or a bottom dealer will start making chin music to cover. A paper player or a locator will mum up because he is probably thick headed or he wouldn't be a cheater and he is having trouble remembering. To deal seconds, you have to peek or have marks. No reason a dealer to roll over the deck except to peek. A good blackjack dealer will pick up the last hand and get a five on the bottom. Then he has a small move to roll over the deck when he needs to hit a five. Put your left arm across as a screen and roll the deck over."
"You move both your hands in a kinda funny way," I volunteered. "I can't see what you are doing but I would be very suspicious even if I didn't know you."
"That's good. Something smells funny, hop the game. There's poker in motels, car lots, and Richie's houses all over Texas. Find another game but don't cause a scene or knock another man's proposition." Ace said, "If you have a friend or partner, walk behind their chair and run your thumb across the middle of their back. That's signing them to cash out and catch the breeze. The big hat laws are coming or there is some wolfing going on or there is a hot score brewing, just thumb sign your partner and do the old heel and toe. I can smell trouble coming better than any man that ever walked in shoe leather. There is always another game tomorrow."
Over the years that Ace told me his teaching stories, I also heard legends about Ace and his road scores. "You tell a good trapper by the furs on the wall." He would say.
Ace strongly advocated that I never cheat but that I learn every move. "Keep a clean reputation but any trick you don't know somebody can play on you." Ace said. " Here's a couple of other signs." Ace cleared his throat loudly, "That means I knocked off your move. Quit your wolfing. You can't cheat me. If they know me, that will pull them up."
Ace raised one index finger in the air, "This here is the old high sign. It means, I am in. We are in together. If I see you cold deck a game or steal something, I mum up and flash the high sign and you need to hand over a piece of any score you tip over. You know ole Hypo? Huge man drives a Hudson. He is long on short cons. He'll hang around downtown and follow a couple of heavy players into my crap game with his finger high up there in air. Now, by tradition, the steer man bringing live ones gets a twenty per cent jelly roll. Ever time Hypo blows an Abe Lincoln, he'll stop and eat hisself even. I set an alarm clock to ring middle of the afternoon and whoever has the dice when it rings gets a hundred dollar bill. Ole Hypo shoots a lone bone real slow and shakes his big ass all around and holds the dice way too long hoping to get that mallard."
"I want the players in my little poker game to know that they are getting a square gamble. The pot cut will bring them and I am the best player." I said, "I run into very little cheating. I'd be afraid to cheat the folks around here. I get some hot checks."
"Me and my banker made a deal. He promised not to play poker or fade dice and I promised not to cash checks and loan money." Ace said, "You run into people playing partners and, mostly you run into folks throwing a few cards on the bottom or the top and leaving them there. That slug might be the turn in hold 'em. In gin rummy, if the slug ain't easy, fat meat ain't greasy. Slugs and melds from the last hand are just laying out there. I throw four Jacks on the bottom and we each catch two Jacks but I am on the wise."
This seemed like a Eureka moment for me. "I've been trying to beat this bail bondsman at gin and he could be doing a bottom stack." I exclaimed.
"Findley? Pull up. Me and him are even money so it would be gambling if we played. Find somebody you know you can beat. If a stranger props you to play a game you are good at, try him on the cheap, figuring you know when to pull up and maybe he doesn't. Nearly all people think they play poker better than they do." Ace said.
"I need to learn about cheating in all the games." I said.
"In gin rummy, the dealer gives hisself eleven cards and gets way the best of it. Some of them get an extra card in deuce seven low-ball, a real cheater's bird's nest on the ground. They may palm one card and clean up when they lay down and grab the deck. Folks who know it can be fatal to cheat in Texas will try to hold out an Ace when they are drunk. Never take your eyes off the deck of cards but bird dog a drunk real hard and let him know you are eyeballing him because whiskey gives 'em the courage to go south with a card. Count down the deck. It warns 'em."
When Ace spoke of any form of human weakness, he was righteous and unforgiving. He didn't drink and kept himself in great physical shape. "I am going to tell you a couple of them you have to watch. That's Sharp Top and Will because they have to drink. I don't. Do you have to drink?" Ace asked.
"No." I lied.
"Sharp Top has been on the grift since the depression. He'd steal a hot stove or lay down beside it and claim it. That's how he got his moniker, hiding an Ace. J.B. caught Will holding out and stabbed him plum through the hand with an ice pick. Ole Will is an alligator gar sober but he has to drink. Cheating is really dangerous but these crossroaders that would cheat the kind of folks that gamble in Texas backrooms are very dangerous folks and have more nerve than a poison taster. I am gonna put them on barking iron and cash out."
"Amen. I avoid trouble and drunks. I started out bootlegging small but it causes more trouble than it is worth." I said.
"A feller like you bluffs a lot and you can ill afford for anybody to see your hole cards before you do." Ace was ribbing which was his style.
"Yeah, I cut the pot a quarter on five dollars and another quarter on ten so I get a little edge betting after the flop." I said. I really wanted Ace's approval. Running a small game and playing the big games was a chicken in the pot one day, feathers the next type of life. Half the time my bankroll looked like an elephant had stepped on it.
"I'd like to buy you for what you are worth and sell you for what you think you are worth. You think you are smarter than a circus dog." Ace handed me a pair of deep red tinted sunglasses and a deck of cards. Wearing the sun glasses, you could read large marks on the back of the cards from across the table. "You gotta watch for red tinted contact lenses. There are several ways that people know your hole cards before you do. Some folks hold the deck with the end closest to them way down and flash dealt cards to a partner across the table. In seven-five low-ball, this is stronger than a garlic milkshake. You draw one and the dealer flashes a paint, you are in trouble. A face card is easier to see. That's why scufflers start a low-ball game."
"That's all anybody is playing, hold 'em and seven five low-ball. At Dolly's or Morgan's or Wilbank's, you can't deal but these two games." I said.
"There are many ways a man can knock off your hole cards." Ace said, holding up a single Bicycle playing card. "From flashing, peeking, marking, and shiners or mirrors. There's the back of the card to read, the edges to read, and the face to see with a shiner, a peek or a flash. Lookee here at these Bicycle cards. Some of the birds have only one wing. Some of the bicycles have a spoke missing."
"I buy two new decks of Bee's, a red and a blue, and open them in front of the players and count them." I said.
"That's the colors a good dauber would be ready for. He'd paint those paste boards late in the game right at the table like he was Picasso patting for a dance. Look at my hands. Did you notice the band aid on the third finger of each hand?" Ace asked.
"You said it was rubbed raw from playing golf." I said.
"Lying is the kind of thing that could give gambling a bad name." Ace laughed. "See under this bandage is a tiny hole with a piece of sandpaper. Cards get dirty fast. You can clean the edges of the Aces or the paints where you can see them when the deck is on the table. You can rough up the corners of the Aces where you can feel them. You can clean the edges with a thumb nail. You can bend the corners or finger wave the cards." Ace rolled over his other hand. "What's more dangerous is what they call 'the light'. There is a tiny concealed mirror under this little hole. You spray paint a light bulb with this mirror stuff and then break it and get a little bitty piece that is rounded some to put under the band aid. Dealing seven five, you know whether or not people caught a paint on the draw. See this cigarette lighter, it's a shiner. See this key chain and ball point pen. All mirrors. When you first sit down, the very first thing you do is check everyone's fingers for band aids and the table for cigarette lighters. Get the shiny shit off the table."
"Seven five has more luck than hold 'em." I said, "All poker games have more luck than hold 'em."
"Hold 'em is harder to cheat at. The best way to cold deck is to switch decks when it is your cut right behind the dealer. You palm the whole rigged deck in your right hand and go to your lap with the other deck with your left hand. I know a man keeps a rigged deck in his shirt vest and throws the cooler on his own deal. That's real hard. A cold deck nearly requires you to take your eyes off the deck if only for a second. Some partner will knock over a drink or fall out of their chair for a diversion. Eyeball the deck, always or tell them to deal around you a couple of hands. If you suspect a cold deck, jump up fast and get dealt out and it screws up the plan." Ace said.
"Which players around here know all these moves?" I asked.
"I'm not stooling anybody off but some folks got a regular move, copping chips adds up. Folks wolf at gin or short cards and you play no limit like they were partners. Even characters and crossroaders know that the bigger the poker game, the more on the wise the players are and more ready. I get the deck ready letting them see the cards and shuffle real slow and cut lots and make sure folks know I am on the square given some gossipy talk and all." Ace said.
Ace pulled a lot of low cards from the deck and made a perfect seven five for low-ball. "You pick up the best low hand and bend down the corners and put 'em on the bottom like this and leave them through the shuffle. After you hop the cut and deal, you wait a little and as they look at their hands, then you drop the pat hand from the bottom and put the deck on the hand dealt you." Ace demonstrated the move several times, slow and then fast as he always did.
Ace and I didn't play in the same games too often but I'd watch for him around the restaurants and hotels and barber shops. Ace always, always picked up my check and always enjoyed teaching me about gambling. Ace was very proud of being a gambler. Once I went with Ace on a gambling trip to Longview, Lufkin, and Gladewater, all in east Texas. There were horse races, dice games, and poker games of all sizes. Everybody knew Ace and knew what he had in his front pockets..... both pockets. In Longview, I climbed up in a shoe shine chair and watched a huge razz game. Ace played a while and then bankrolled both Pat Renfro and Johnny Moss. All three were best friends and partnered often.
If I would tell Ace about a bad beat or running bad, he would offer ridicule rather than consolation. "If I lost a pot that size with my case dough on the table on queen nine off suit, I'd set fire to the rest of my money to punish myself." Ace would say.
Ace came into a motel room seven five low-ball late one night when I was down to a short stack and my college tuition was due the next day. Over time, this same sad but true tuition-is-due story gained me stake money and loans from several older gamblers because they wanted me to stay in school. The game was full and they were playing higher than a hawk's nest.
"You want to put in with this?" I asked Ace, referring to my pathetic boodle.
"I don't put in with nubbins." Ace got a laugh from the table.
"You put in with it and play it. I'm hacked in the head." I whined.
Ace took my seat and dropped a heavy wad of coarse notes on my tiny stack. Ace folded a couple of hands then magically caught the nuts, a pat seven five low, on his deal. There was five way action and the biggest pot of the night. Ace gave me half the pot and made me leave. I was standing behind Ace and don't know what, if anything, he did. I had tuition and the rent one more time.
"Whichever way your luck is running, it is bound to change." Ace would say.
Johnny Hughes is the author of the novel, Texas Poker Wisdom.
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