Card-Marking Strategies Cheaters Deploy to Gain Edge on Table Game Play

Editor’s Note: In the third part of Bill Zender’s series on The Future of Marking Cards on Casino Games, he discusses some of the common casino games in which players touch the playing cards and the card-marking strategies cheaters use to gain unfair advantage.

Cheaters mark cards to gain card information that gives them an advantage over other players at the table. They then use this information to make betting decisions, additional betting and possible hand playing strategies. What follows is a list of some of the common casino games in which players touch the playing cards and are able to mark the cards to gain future card information.

Hand-pitched Blackjack; Single and Double Deck
A number of casinos in North America still spread blackjack games that allow customers to touch the playing cards. Game rules are the same as the shoe-dealt version of blackjack; the object is to beat the dealer’s hand total or stand pat when the dealer busts his hand. In hand-pitched games the players are allowed to touch their first two cards plus any face down double down cards. Note: Don’t rule out marked cards in face-up shoe games. The cheaters don’t daub the cards; they “punch” the key card faces with a chip or their finger. The dent punched into the face also appears as a dent on the back of the cards.

Card marking strategies: With blackjack there are three schools of thought on how to mark cards and attack the game:

The cheaters will mark 10s and aces. This is known as playing the “top card.” Once a majority of the cards are marked, the cheaters position a person in the first seat (or an early seat position) so that person will always receive the first card off the top of the deck (or shoe). When a marked card is on top of the deck, the cheater spotting the card will signal to the person in first seat to wager close to or at table maximum wager. If the top card of the deck is not a marked card, there is no signal transmitted, and the person in the first seat wagers close to or at table minimum. This is also accomplished by using a minimum wager player in first position and a higher limit player wagering in second position. When the marked card appears on top of the deck, the player in first position sits out the hand, driving the 10 or ace into the big player’s hand. Whenever the cheater receives a 10 or an ace as his first card, he is playing with a 20 percent advantage.

The cheaters will mark the 9s and 10s. This is called “playing the anchor” or “playing third base.” The object is for the cheater sitting at the last seated position of the table to watch to see if the dealer has a possible busting hand made up of a 2 through 6 up-card and a marked card (9 or 10) as the dealer’s hole card. The cheater seated in the last position controls the approximate value of the card delivered to the dealer. If the next card on top of the deck will bust the dealer, the third base cheater stands regardless of his hand total. If the card isn’t marked, the third base cheater will draw the card even if additional hits are unnecessary. The cheater at last position is sacrificing his hand (wagered at table minimum) so that the dealer will bust more often. At the same time, his associate playing table maximum limit bets in the center of the table. The cheater wagering the big money in the center of the table plays close to basic strategy and flat bets. The cheater sacrificing his hand at third base allows his partner in the center of the table to win more often.

The last method is a card marking strategy popular in the ’60s and early ’70s. The cheater marks the small cards (2s through 5s ) with one pattern, and all 10s with another pattern. The idea is to provide the cheater with top-of-the-deck information when he is making hand playing decisions. The cheaters who “played paper” in the ’60s and early ’70s relied on this approach as their “bread-and-butter” strategy, but they would run into a brick wall in 2015. Today’s game protection personnel are more basic-strategy savvy than they were 40 to 50 years ago, and it wouldn’t take long for them to see a pattern in which the suspected higher-limit player was making hand decisions based on the top card of the deck instead of making decisions based on the dealer’s up-card.

Note: Both the “top card” and the “anchor” techniques are very deceiving. Remember, most surveillance and floor personnel look first at the player wagering the money and analyze his play. When playing the “top card” strategy, game protection personnel look to see if the variation in betting is due to card counting. When they rule out card counting, they usually fail to look for a correlation between the increased-betting pattern and the appearance of a 10 or ace as the first card in that hand. When playing the “anchor,” the person in the center of the table wagering table limit is analyzed. Generally, game protection personnel see that the big player winning the money does not vary his bets, nor does he deviate greatly from basic strategy, so they have a tendency to deem the play OK. What they don’t look at is the person playing in the last seat, using a strange hand-decision strategy and forcing “bust” cards into the dealer’s hand.

Mini Baccarat
Since hand-touched or squeezed baccarat games usually require that the cards be replaced after every shoe, the marked card attack can only be effective in the mini baccarat dealt format. Mini baccarat is dealt with the dealer being the only individual touching the cards. How are the cards marked? They are usually marked while key cards are sitting atop the discards in the discard holder. In baccarat, the best cards for the cheaters to mark are the 6s through 9s. Marking in this manner provides the cheaters with information regarding the best hand option on which to bet. When a 6 through 9 is the top card of the shoe, and top card falls as the player’s first card, the cheaters bet the player and gain an approximate 12 percent advantage. If the top card of the shoe is not marked, it would be a zero (10/picture) through 5. The cheaters can then wager on the banker’s hand and gain an approximate 5 percent edge.

Card marking strategy: Because the action of reaching into the discard holder and marking cards is considered extremely overt, the cheater will only attempt to daub the 8s and 9s. If an 8 or 9 is marked, and a marked card is the top card in the shoe prior the hand being dealt, the cheaters at the table will bet heavily on the “player” hand. By knowing the first card dealt to the player hand will be an eight or a nine, with any player wager the cheaters will realize a return of approximately 20 percent.

Card Room Poker
In most cases, attacks using cards marked at the table are very limited. The game structures for Texas Hold’em greatly discourage the use of marked cards based on the community cards “burn and turn” dealing procedure and that each player receives only two hole-cards (which they immediately attempt to conceal by placing the cards on top of each other). Seven Card Stud is a little more vulnerable in as much as the “river” card is dealt face down, as well as the first two player cards. Knowledge that the “river” card is a jack, queen, king or ace provides the cheater with valuable information, but this information may be useless if this down card completes a straight or flush. In these games, the cheater would need to rely on cards with more sophisticated markings indicating ranks and suits. This is beyond the practicality of the cheater who must mark cards during play at the table.

The games most vulnerable to daub card-marking attacks are structured around the game of Lo-Ball poker. Lo-Ball poker is a game requiring the player to make the lowest hand possible; straights and flushes mean nothing, aces are treated as the lowest card. The lowest possible five card hand is A-2-3-4-5, known as a wheel. The players receive five cards and then are allowed to discard and redraw the number of cards discarded. The players usually toss high-value cards since they hurt the value of their hands and redraw cards that they hope will be lower than the discards and at the same time not make a pair.

Card marking strategy: If the cheater were to mark all the big cards such as 10 through king (and sometimes 9), this information would be invaluable during the final betting round. The cheater would know if the other players drew to a poor hand based on them receiving a marked high card. A game similar to Lo-Ball draw poker is Razz. Razz is the seven-card stud version of Lo-Ball.
Common cards marked in this poker format are identical to Lo-Ball. In some instances, the cheater may mark 9s and 10s in one spot on the card back and jacks through kings on another spot. The “two-way” markings allow the cheater to know to what degree the unexposed card “river” hurts the player’s hand.

Because a marked card scam is only effective if a number of cards in the dealer’s hand or dealer control community cards have their card backs exposed and visible, the cheater will look for games procedures that provide opportunities to illegally gain as much information as possible. For instance, if the game of Mississippi Stud in one casino is dealt stacking or concealing the backs of all three cards until the cards are needed, the cheater will look for another casino that dictates that the community cards should be spread and the card backs evident.

The game of baccarat can be eliminated from this threat list by either installing a cover over the discard holder or mounting a slide or brush faceplate over the window in the shoe. In hand-pitched blackjack games, emphasis needs to be placed on the dealers to strive to protect the top and sides of the deck as much as possible from being exposed.

Be aware of what to look for in the customer’s hand play and/or wagering strategy. In traditional games, look for players making strange wagering decisions and then look to see if these decisions correlate to information gained from an unexposed card. For instance, you watch a player sitting in first position wager from near table minimum to maximum. Does this betting decision directly correlate with the appearance of a 10 or ace as the first card (top card) dealt? In alternative games, does the player stay in on hands he should have discarded when the dealer does not possess a qualifying hand? Is the player wagering during the previous betting turn when the only time it would make sense is that the cheater knew the value of the unexposed community cards on the layout?

The old maxim “forewarned is forearmed” holds true when protecting casino card games. By knowing how the cheaters attack the different casino card games, understanding the marked-card strategy cheaters use for different games, and by using a marked-card reading device such as Galaxy Gaming’s Spectrum Vision SV-1, you will be equipped to adequately defend your card games against anything modern card markers and daubers can throw at you.