In 18th century England it was common practice for competent dice cheats to take on apprentices for substantial fees and teach them the tricks of the trade.  The indenture often included a guarantee that the apprentice would not be allowed to practice until the chances of his getting caught were reduced to a minimum.  Fees were sometimes as high as the equivalent of $ 1500, and one master of trickery took on four pupils a year, advertising in the press for “apprentices to highly fortunate banker.”  The cheats operating these ‘schools” would take their pupils with them into the gambling houses as assistant or decoys.

America, too, has had its share of professional cheats who made fortunes from the gambling activities of others.  Typical of these were the cardsharps who flourished on the plush steamboats that began to play the Mississippi and Ohio rivers in the early 1880s.  The first of these steam-powered paddleboat's appeared in 1811.  By 1820 thee were 60 of them in regular service: By 1833 there were around 500.  And the number gradually increased as the small frontier towns of Louisville, Cincinnati, Memphis, and St. Louis blossomed into large cities.  The people who traveled up and down the river in this way were an odd, cosmopolitan band. But they generally had two things in common: They were nearly always extremely wealthy, and they were nearly always easy prey for the professional cardsharp.
At first the cardsharp was an outcast on these boats.  He was tolerated, but only so long as he remained discreet; if he was caught, he could expect no mercy.  But as the boats grew in size and the passenger lists started to swell, the status of the cardsharp changed.  Suddenly the boat’s officers became aware of the large potential income that lay at the tips of the cardsharp’s fingers – and they became his accomplices.  (Many captains even considered it bad luck to leave shore without at least one cardsharp aboard.) When a victim complained, he was ignored.  If he continued to complain, he was silenced with a knife or a pistol.

By the 1830s as many as 1500 professional gamblers had been attracted to the steamboats that ran between New Orleans and Louisville.  Most of them were experts with almost every kind of cheating device –marked cards, reflectors, loaded dice, and so on.  And they seemed to have little difficulty in fleecing the wealthy slave owners and planters who welcomed the chanced to enliven a dreary journey with a holdem poker, brag, whist, or faro.

A Game of faro - the American “Old West’s” favorite gamble –at the Orient Saloon.  Arizona ( 1903).

The river gamblers generally worked in teams, adopting different disguises, and pretending not to know one another.  Thus, when one of them had succeeded in tempting a few “suckers” into a card game, his  colleagues would always be at hand to make up the required number.  This teamwork was also useful when a sharper found himself in an honest game with experienced players –for then it would be too risky to try the usual tricks.  On these occasions the cardsharp’s accomplices would watch the game casually and signal (or “item”) to the sharper the strength of his opponents hands.

Some cardsharps made a specialty of signaling, and were known as “itemers.”  The most celebrated of these Mississippi itemers was James Ashby, who used to disguise himself as an eccentric old violinist.  During the journey Ash by would walk around the boat, talk wildly, play tunes on his violin, and watch the gambling.  The tunes he played were in fact signals to his accomplice who would be playing at one of the tables in the guise of a country simpleton.  But Ashby wasn’t content to fool the ordinary passengers.  He often pulled the trick against other cardsharps- and his act was so polished that he succeeded in fooling them for several years.

Above and right , portable backgammon and crown –and-anchor sets used by an American riverboat gambler (at the turn of the 19th century) who piled his trade up and down the Mississippi River on the famous Natchez.

The crooked professional gamblers of most Hollywood Western films are modeled on the stock image of these river-boat sharper: Generally they are villainous-looking characters who were black frock coats, black string ties, black moustaches, and long sideburns.  Of course, the modern baccarat game cheating projects a different persona though his methods are just as professional and effective, and the manace to the gullible amateur remains the same).  One modern version of these moustachioed originals is the race-track confidence man.  Usually, he works in the most exclusive enclosures, is impeccably dressed and beautifully spoken.  His all-too-simple technique was described to me by the chief security officer of a British racecourse:

“The con man often begins by asking a ‘mug’ if he’d be so kind as to lend him a pencil.  He then marks his race card with the borrowed pencil and starts up a flow of easy conversation.  Presently his confederate appears and hands him a wad of notes, remarking that he’s off to see one of the ‘heads’ to gain information for the next race.  The con man give a satisfied smile, pockets the notes, and continues to talk affably to his victim.  Invariably the victim congratulates him on his good fortune, and displays an eagerness to be ‘in the know.’  At this the con man plays hard to get and politely tries to steer the conversation onto a more general topic, whereupon the victim naturally becomes more eager than ever.

“Soon  the confederate reappears and whispers to his colleague.  By this time the victim is begging for information.  The first con man turns hesitantly to his confederate and asks, ‘ I wonder if we might let our friend here in on this one?  He seems most anxious to have a bet and hasn’t much reliable information of his own.’  There is a show of reluctance on the second con man’s part.  He doesn’t know whether they ought to.  What would the source of their information say if he discovered they were leaking confidential tips to strangers?  And so on.  ‘You see,’ the first con man explains, ‘we have a very private source of information – as a matter of fact the trainer of one of the leading stables and of course it plays havoc with the betting and gaming if there’s a sudden rush.  However, I daresay you weren’t thinking of putting on more than a fiver, were you?’

Crooked card players often work in pairs, signaling to one another by means of a series of prearranged hand gestures.  When one of the pair is dealer, his partner may signals the card or cards he wants to be dealt or, depending on the game of poker, the card he wants his partner to discard.  These signals are often made by sweeping the hand across a particular part of the face or body.

“Until this encounter, the victim probably hadn’t intended putting on more than a few shillings.  But now he’s all eagerness.  Diffidently he says that he’d very much like to put $ 20 on –or even more if it could be arranged.  Suddenly he’s overcome by the thought of a certain win and begs to be allowed to bet every penny in his pocket.

“The con men begin to shake their heads.  ‘Awfully sorry, it’s too big a risk – a breach of confidence.  I’m sure you’ll understand.’  They begin to move away, raising their hats politely.  At this point the victim is practically in tears.  ‘But surely,’ he says, ‘ you could add my money to yours.’  The con men look rather pained at this, as if they don’t relish the thought of acting as errand boys to a casual acquaintance.  But at last they succumb.  They take the victim’s money and disappear – for good.  Often they use the money to lay their own bets.  And win or lose, it’s never unprofitable to bet with other people’s money.”

This is one method of cheating the racing public.  Another, known as the “ticket method,” is equally successful.  The “ticketers” who work this trick are forgers rather than con men.  Ticketers usually work in pairs and their method takes advantage of the fact that British racecourse bookies issue numbered tickets as receipts to bettors.  This is how they work:

On the last race of the day the ticketers a bookmaker, place a small bet, and take away the ticket as a specimen.  Then they print a series of tickets numbered from 1 to 1000, identical in every respect to the bookmaker’s own tickets.  Armed with these, they attend the next day’s meeting.  The watch the book-maker closely, making a note of any substantial bets that are placed- and of the numbers issued to the bettors.  When one of these “large” bettors backs a winner, the ticketers rush in, present the forged ticket, and run off with the winnings.  (If necessary, one of the ticketers delays or obstructs the bettor until his partner has had time to collect.)  As can be imagined, this swindle often proves very lucrative indeed-though it can only be worked a limited number of times at each meeting. 

But crooked professional gamblers have never confined their activities only to the race tracts or gaming rooms. You can find them on sidewalks or in back rooms hoodwinking the innocent in games of three-card monte.  Or, at the other extreme, you can find them, like Ivar Kreuger, on the fringes of respectable investment and finance circles.  In the latter field, the swindlers can come up with the most fantastic schemes; and the more fantastic they are, the more readily they seem to succeed –for a while.  The “casino investment concern” (which I will discuss later) is one of the most recent creations of this type: but probably one of the most infamous was the swindle that has gone down in history as the “South Sea Bubble.”

The “division” of the body for a typical system of signals is shown on the left.  Right-and page, the signaler in action.  By moving a hand across his hairline, for example a hand across his hairline, for example (right), he signals “I need a king” by moving a hand across his eyes he signals “I need a queen”; and so on.