I’ve played poker in the home game setting hundreds of times in my life, both as a host and as a guest. And it took years for the inevitable to happen—I was cheated.
There’s no need to get into the messy details, but attending a new game based on advice from an acquaintance didn’t work out so well. This regrettable situation involved nothing more complicated than collusion and signaling, with a group subtly providing one another with information about their hole cards.
As the game progressed, I began to feel slightly suspicious given my unusually low win rate. At the time, I wrote it off as loser’s regret, coupled with good old-fashioned paranoia. But at all junctures in the game, it just felt as though my opponents were reading me every time.
And that’s because they did, as I later learned from a fellow poker player who caught the cheaters in the act. He paid closer attention, and after noticing the host repeatedly fingering his knuckles after squeezing his hole cards, my pal called the guy out for signaling.
After that, I decided to play a little poker in Las Vegas. I wanted to remind myself what poker in a safe, secure, and honest venue felt like, so Sin City was the natural choice. Say what you will about Las Vegas poker players, but casino card rooms in the world’s gambling capital make every effort to protect the integrity of their games.
Upon returning home from a profitable and cheat-free session of $2/$5 No Limit Texas Hold’em, I decided to use the experience as inspiration for this blog post. After all of this, I still love home poker games, both playing in them and hosting a weekly poker night with my friends and family.
Knowing how the poker rooms in Las Vegas regulate every aspect of the game to prevent cheating, I’m happy to pass along a few tricks of the trade you can use to safeguard your own at-home poker game.
1 – Never Forget to Cut the Cards After Every Shuffle
One of the oldest poker maxims in existence advises would be for players to “trust everyone, but ALWAYS cut the cards.”
And truer words have never been spoken, as the most commonly encountered form of cheating involves nothing more than a little dexterity with the deck in hand. So-called “mechanics” are capable of riffling and shuffling a deck of cards in such a way that it seems random to the naked eye. But in reality, mechanics can stack the deck to give themselves or a partner great cards like clockwork.
In the cult-classic poker flick “Rounders” (1998), the protagonists alternate between honest play and mechanic tricks. Eventually, their decision to cheat a group of policemen gets them in deep trouble, after an astute observer notices one dealing from the bottom of the deck.
You can watch that sorry scene play out here:
The cops allow “Worm” to sit down, shuffle the deck, and begin dealing without ever cutting the cards. Like magic, “Worm” delivers his partner-in-crime (Mike McDermott) one of the most powerful hands in all of Seven Card Stud—“rolled up” kings for three of a kind.
Mike McD is savvy enough to fold the highly suspicious hand, knowing you can only sheer a sheep so much before you draw blood.
But a degenerate to his core, Worm can’t help himself, so he continues to “base deal” by giving Mike premium cards from the bottom of the deck. The scheme is eventually called out and the duo are pummeled as punishment.
That scene is obviously dramatized for audiences, but you’d be shocked to learn just how common stacked decks really are in the non-casino setting.
The funny thing is though, this scam simply can’t work when a strict “cut the cards” policy is in place. One extremely easy fix is all it takes to eliminate the threat of mechanics wielding stacked decks on the sly.
2 – Use a Cut Card to Conceal the Deck’s Bottom Card
You can always cut the cards in casual fashion by separating the deck into halves and reversing their position, but there’s a better way to do the job.
Have you ever wondered why casino card dealers use a rectangular piece of plastic to slice the deck in half when they cut? Well, this “cut card” is an essential piece of casino equipment used to further protect the game from cheaters.
In this case, the cut card’s real purpose isn’t to divide the deck, it’s to cover up the bottom card before the dealer lifts the deck from the felt.
Without a cut card, the dealer would need to use their palm to completely cover the bottom card, but this is nearly impossible every time out. Between checking their own hole cards, grabbing chips, and lifting the deck up to four times (on the deal, to deliver the flop, turn, and river), even a trained dealer would have trouble using their hand to protect the bottom card from being exposed.
And the threat of exposure is paramount here, because eagle-eyed cheats will be happy to spy on weak dealers in hopes of learning an item of information known only to them.
It may not seem like a big deal, but just ask yourself how you’d play a flush draw knowing one of the nine spades left in the deck is surely never coming? Spotting an ace on the bottom of the deck makes playing pocket kings on an ace-high flop much easier. No matter which card they happen to see, bottom card spotters can use that info to gain an unfair advantage over their opponents.
By using a cut card in your home game, you’ll have one less thing to worry about when it comes to potential cheating.
3 – Purchase an Automatic Card-Shuffling Machine
Taking things to the next level, you can remove all doubt about the integrity of the deck by adding an automatic card shuffling machine to your home poker game mix.
These machines vary in price based on the make and model. But for the price you’d pay to make a bad call with a flush draw, you can easily have a shuffling machine shipped to your door within a day or two.
The beauty of automatic card shufflers is that they serve a dual purpose. Along with eradicating the threat of mechanics stacking the deck, a quality shuffler can easily add dozens of hands per hour to your normal pace of play.
Why wait for that agonizingly slow player who seems to shuffle like they have two left hands, when you can have a fresh deck ready and waiting ahead of every new hand?
4 – Install a Security Camera Overhead
The most prominent sign that a Las Vegas casino is protecting its card games is the presence of overhead cameras.
The famous “eye in the sky” sees all, which provides a powerful form of discouragement for aspiring cheats. Even if they know exactly how to get one over on their opponents, poker cheaters seldom try to work their dark magic knowing several high-resolution cameras are watching their every move.
Installing a camera for your home game might seem like a bridge too far, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. And the best part is, you don’t even have to use a real working camera. Simply adding a “dummy” camera that looks like the real deal provides enough of a deterrent that any potential cheaters will clam up at the sight of a lens staring straight at them.
5 – Look, Listen, and Observe
While preventative measures and technological tools are always a welcome way to prevent cheating in poker, nothing beats the basic act of paying attention.
Had I thought to watch for signaling in the game that took me, I would’ve easily noticed the scheme playing out right in front of my eyes. Unfortunately, I was too trusting on that evening, so I never even bothered to scan the table for suspicious behavior.
You don’t have to fall victim to that fate, however, so long as you stay vigilant and watch out for anything that doesn’t feel right. Players shooting one another strange looks, “soft-playing” certain opponents to avoid taking their chips, or handling their cards and chips in unusual fashion are all red flags to watch for.
With that said, these behaviors don’t always mean you’re being cheated, so be careful to avoid a “boy who cried wolf” scenario. Pay close attention, make mental notes about what you’re seeing, and when you’ve gathered enough evidence, only then should you lodge a serious accusation like cheating.
Home games are meant to be casual affairs, a respite from the real world where you get to let loose and compete against friend and foe. Unfortunately, wherever money changes hands, poker cheats will try to game the system in their advantage.
Poker and cheating have always gone hand in hand, and that’s just the sad truth of the matter. But with these five useful tips at your disposal, your home game should be honest on the block going forward.