52 Ways to Cheat at Poker by Allan Zola Kronzek
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii March, 2008)
One suspects that the poker craze in this country has reached such heights that if we came upon a newly discovered pre-literate tribe in the remote depths of the Amazon jungle, we would likely discover that they had words for the Flop and the Turn assuming that they would already have a word for "river." With that extraordinary explosion has, no doubt, come a comparable resurgence of cheating. There is an infinite supply of marks,and few of them would know what hit them were a nervy amateur cheat to try their hand at an occasional "pickup stack" or ring in a commercial marked deck, now provided by major manufacturers for their advantage pleasure. Fewer still would stand a chance were a competent mechanic to take a nearby seat at the table.
The popularity of poker also assures a flood of books on the game; Gambler's Book Shop lists almost 250 titles. A steady current amid this flood comprises books on cheating. Such works invariably comprise a mixed bag, with the genuine experts few and far between, often out-promoted by the phonies the self-styled cross-roaders who pawn themselves off as veteran hustlers while lifting the work of the true experts, or puffed up self-promoters who recycle the same time-worn information that has been repeated ad nauseum for a century or two or more, slathered in a gummy soup of fictional characters and faux adventures to try to make it somehow more commercially appealing. Oftentimes the experts have better data but poor writing skills; other times the wordsmith stylings of the genre's literati are even worse than their moldy data.
Alan Zola Kronzek is a magician, lecturer, and author who has written a delightful new manual of cheating that updates the recycling bin with skillful writing, fresh new info, and to put it bluntly a refreshing lack of bullshit. His first hook is that he describes 52 ways to cheat, one for every card in the deck which, of course, means nothing. His more meaningful hook is that in addition to explaining how these 52 scams and strategies work, he also offers meaningful advice about how to spot them, how to try to stop them, and how to try to defend yourself against them. Other cheating manuals often pretend to address these aspects, but typically fall short of offering meaningful or even comprehensible advice. Mr. Kronzek does a far better job than the norm, especially in a work for the general public, as opposed to in material intended for experts that can afford to be far more arcane. The author doesn't simply go for the flashiest, sexiest moves; he spends time explaining in cogent prose the power of more prosaic strategies like collusion "working the telegraph" and the many ways such signaling can be applied. In a hold 'em scenario, for example, perhaps four Spades are on the board and the cheat holds the King, such that the only card he fears is the Ace turning up in an opponent's hand. The cheat can ask a partner via signals whether or not he holds the Ace. If he does, the cheat is home free. In this same section and many others as well the author adds a sidebar tracing "the earliest mention of collusion at the card table" by citing a book written in 1550. By providing genuinely clear and readable explanations, contemporary applications, entertaining but true anecdotes from real experts, historical background, and legitimate advice, Mr. Kronzek has produced a remarkably fresh turn on a very old subject.
It's one thing, for example, to talk about punch or "peg" work as a method of dealing yourself or a partner a winning hand. But Mr. Kronzek points out that "the most sophisticated use of punchwork is strictly for information." The dealer/cheat knows who has Aces or high cards, depending on the game and the strategy, thereby providing a tremendous advantage without ever having to resort to the Second Deal.
The author generally avoids irrelevant details, and transforms potentially useless explanations into meaningful advice by explaining the details when necessary. In "A Simple Riffle Stack" he explains how a series of easy "top-card riffle peeks" can add up into a simplified form of riffle stacking without the need of extreme sleight-of-hand skills. In fact, there is very little of the faux instruction that often fills these manuals, beyond the explanation of some overhand shuffle run-ups, several false cuts, and a handful of other items that no average reader will learn (such as a Push-Through False Shuffle) yet still might benefit from the description. By the same token, he also "betrays no confidences," as Erdnase said, in that he does not expose techniques like the Zarrow Shuffle, or devices of more use to the magician than the cheat.
Chapter 43, "Stacking the Flop in Hold 'Em," is a good example of contemporary information, an ingenious but quite manageable scam in which the burn cards, flashed to an accomplice as the table is cleared for the next deal, are used as a lay stack for the next flop. Effective use of this attack is available to anyone who can manage a convincing full-deck false shuffle the usual challenges of the cut notwithstanding and as Mr. Kronzek observes, "Knowing which cards will hit the flop doesn't guarantee victory but it sure saves money."
It is an old saw that books on cheating and its accompanying lore are invaluable to magicians as fodder for presentations, and indeed critical if you intend to pass yourself off as some kind of gambling expert. 52 Ways to Cheat at Poker is a perfect example of such a resource. It's also pleasant to read, and without doubt is now the first book I would buy a friend who asks, "I'm in a weekly poker game. Do you think anybody would try to cheat me?"