Charles Lamb once called card-playing “war in disguise of a sport.” Just like mortal combat, poker tends to bring out the best and the worst in players, some of whom feel compelled to cheat in order to win.
The best defense against poker cheats is to be aware of how they go about it and stay on the lookout for telltale signs. Once any form of cheating has been detected, there are a number of remedies that can be taken shy of pulling out a hand gun, as was once the custom in the Old West.
Let’s begin by looking at some prevalent forms of poker cheating seen at live tables. These scams typically center on the handling of cards or chips.
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Marked Cards – This involves cutting, creasing or otherwise marking the backs of cards so that the cheat can identify their values without seeing the faces. It occurs more frequently in private or home games than at poker clubs or casinos, where management watches the cards and players closely. A remedy is to change decks frequently.
Deck Manipulation – Again, this occurs mainly in private games where players take turns dealing. A good “mechanic” can deal from the bottom of the deck, set the deck (order the cards in a certain way) or deal “seconds” (cards beneath the top card, which is saved till needed). Deck manipulation can be hard to identify, so the best countermeasure is to have a single, dedicated non-playing dealer. Otherwise, always insist on cutting the deck before each deal.
Shorting the Pot – A cheat may try to add fewer chips to the pot than required by “splashing,” i.e., tossing chips onto the table so they are impossible to count. Splashing is prohibited in most money games and chips should always be counted to ensure that “the pot’s right.”
Rat-Holing – Following a big win, the cheat removes chips from the table and pockets them to make his/her position look weaker than it is. This is against the rules in most poker rooms. Keep an eye out for suspiciously shrinking stacks.
Chip Dumping – This scam applies to tournaments, where two or more cheats play at the same table and agree to go all-in against each other so that one ends up with the totality of their chips. To guard against such collusion, only play in tournaments where seats are assigned at random, not chosen by the players.
Chip Passing – Again applicable to tournaments, two or more cheats arrange to pool high denomination chips from different tables during a scheduled break. Removal of chips from the table is a form of rat-holing subject to disqualification. Report any witnessed excess or shortage of chips to the tournament organizers.
Angle Shooting – This refers to underhanded or unfair methods used to take advantage of inexperienced opponents. Such actions include peeking at others’ cards, showing one’s own cards without folding to provoke a response, stalling the game by deliberately making an incomplete call with fewer chips than required, spilling a drink on the cards or feigning illness to get out of a bad hand, and so on. Angle shooters attempt to bend the rules without breaking them, but they are still taking unfair advantage, tantamount to cheating.
In the world of online poker, where cards and chips can’t be touched, the ingenuity of cheats is still quite evident. Here are some virtual poker ploys to be aware of.
Going South – In ring games (cash games), a cheat who is winning may cash out and then rejoin the table with a smaller stack. Doing this over and over is called “short stacking.” Live poker rooms typically prohibit such reentry or have long waiting lists that preclude such tactics. Online, the best response is to go to another table.
Collusion – Two or more players form a “team” at the table, sharing card information via phone, texting or instant messaging. Such cheaters are often easily identified by peculiar patterns in their play, such as “foot sawing” (raising on weak hands to get others to bet more) or always staying in against each other to steal blinds by forcing others out. Additional signs may be always playing slow pre-flop (as they exchange information) or reacting slowly when making any decisions. If collusion is suspected, report it to customer service and move to another table.
Poker Bots – Automated poker playing programs are banned by many online poker rooms. Web site operators can identify them by patterns in their play and long periods at tables without taking breaks. If a bot is suspected, report it and move on.
Pulling the Plug – Equivalent to the angle shooter spilling a drink, the online cheat will disconnect from the Internet in an attempt to flee a bad situation. Good poker rooms monitor disconnects and if they happen frequently for a certain player, security personnel will investigate. Supposed plug-pullers should be reported to customer service.
The good news about all these forms of cheating is that they are usually employed by players who are not particularly skillful at the game itself. Even if the cheats manage not to give themselves away, they will often go down in defeat through poor play.