Cheating at Blackjack by Dustin D. Marks

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii December, 2004)

This book is the latest addition to a long historical tradition, in which a professional hustler goes public with the secrets of his trade. Ofttimes the secrets are of questionable veracity, and as a punishing bonus, the author laments his despicable past, piously offering his advice in the hopes that others may be spared from becoming the prey of the like-minded predators of his former life. Then again, Erdnase was far more honest: he said he just needed the money.

This volume stands out from much of the genre because it bears a deafening ring of veracity, and the pseudonymous author (my own extensive investigation, relying upon my vast underground resources, leads me to suspect that the stated author and the relentlessly inventive Bob Farmer are not one and the same personage) offers no apologies. In fact, he quotes Erdnase concerning his motivation. The morality of this book is frankly reprehensible—the author offers the usual grifter's rationale for the righteousness of his illegal efforts. He writes, "After watching the casino systematically peel money from the players by managing the odds, the morality of taking control of the odds didn't bother me at all..."

Morality aside, however, magicians and grifters often share significant portions of their respective interests. The relationship between the two comprises a Venn diagram of sorts, wherein the independent segments of the circles represent the differing moral foundation of the two endeavors, but where the overlap represents a similarity in technology. While Marlo may have pontificated about the fascination of some magicians with the company of cheats, nevertheless, he clearly displayed the same fascination with their technology. Vernon's search for the Center Deal does not necessarily mean that he approved of the cheater's morality. The fascination was technical. All of which is to say that this is a book that will be nothing less than engrossing for most any magician with an interest in cards, especially if that interest extends to gambling and/or gambling- themed material. It is surprisingly well written, again in comparison to many other works of this type, and most of the concepts will quickly become clear, even to those who may be new to these subjects. And just as a mentalist should be able to speak intelligently about parapsychology, anyone who makes claims of gaming and cheating expertise had better genuinely possess some, lest he be caught out and humiliated by a well-informed audience. This volume will bring the gambling demonstrator thoroughly up to speed on the specific subject of Blackjack.

After the author's declaration of his credentials in the first chapter, the next six chapters provide invaluable background material, including a cogent overview of the game of Blackjack, and an insightful discussion of casino culture, including how casinos operate, the roles of various staff, and the mentality of such organizations. The cheater's state of mind is also considered, and various security issues are presented as well. All of this material is interesting, succinct, and pertinent. There follows a chapter on "advantage play," and while magicians may use this phrase as a humorous euphemism for "cheating," the author draws a significant distinction. Here he briefly examines the techniques of card counting, and hole card techniques such as "basing" and "front loading," which take advantage of dealer error. Eventually this chapter drifts into a section entitled "Oh, Excuse Me," which describes outright fraudulent maneuvers that require neither sleight of hand nor mathematical skills, merely immense nerve. The moral lines may be fine, but to which side of them the practitioner falls may determine whether he ends up in or out of jail.

Three chapters of outright cheating methodology follow, concerning stacking, coolers (switching entire decks), and a brief look at hand mucking (switching cards in play). Concluding chapters discuss the current growth of gambling in America, legal issues, a concise overview of other casino games and opportunities for cheating within them, and some brief conclusions. Also included is a limited glossary and a very good bibliography.

There is less hype and mythology in this book than one often comes across in this kind of work, and there is good advice to be found here for gamblers and magicians alike. Gamblers are often amongst the most superstitious of people; it is remarkable to me how many gamblers believe in luck and either don't believe in, or don't even know, the odds. Perhaps cheaters are the only rational gamblers, for the author flatly and refreshingly states that "There is only one correct way to play each hand— forget hunches and instincts (emphasis per original)." This is good advice for even the most honest gambler. He even derides the use of drugs as strongly as the use of hunches. However, he endorses the use of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, a branch of pseudo- science for which there is no meaningful scientific supporting evidence. I guess even cheaters make mistakes. (But he is not alone in this belief, since it is shared by at least some other magicians—more on this subject in next month's column.)

As to advice for magicians, the author says that "the 'miracle move'—a move that cannot be detected, is extremely strong, and easy to do" does not, in his opinion, exist. But he goes on to say that the continuing search for such a move has value, and then in essence echoes Erdnase's timeless advice, namely that "Many old timers say there is no perfect move, only a perfect time."

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It doesn't cover every angle, but it does not claim to. The author seems to spend most time on those techniques with which he is most familiar, and that is as it should be but so often is not. True, the discussion of how to switch in six decks at a casino table seems utterly impossible at first—but further reading at least brings it into the realm of improbability or better. The author seems particularly savvy— he cautions the reader strongly, in warning against a particularly deadly potential error in stacking—that such a mistake will result in the worst of all possible outcomes, namely that the cheater "...will be gambling instead of cheating." How awful. And ultimately one has to respect this kind of concluding advice, of value even to those amongst us who are honest: "First, commit to excellence. Do what it takes to do the job not only correctly... but _perfectly."

6-1/2" X 8-1/2" perfect bound paperback; 232 pages: illustrated with charts and diagrams; 1994; Publisher: Index Publishing Group