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Deck Switch and Cold Deck - Cheating in Live Card Games

Gambling is - of course - all about risk, but in games of chance, there’s a certain authenticity to even the wildest of situations that is very hard to emulate when cheating.

As a player, I’ve seen legitimate bad beats of every description, including four aces crushed by straight flushes and crazy folds based on seemingly superhuman reads. All of these were on the square, but when a cheater or gang of grifters try to engineer this type of scenario, there’s one factor that can expose any casino scam and can be almost impossible to beat.

In the early days of “The Real Hustle”, we created a fake documentary where myself and Alex would apparently be followed on a journey to the World Series of Poker, starting as amateur players but learning from experts along the way. Of course, this was just a story to help us set up several scams and was only possible because we were still shooting the first season, and no one in the gambling world yet knew who we were or what the real show was about.

In fact, our true goal was to cheat expert players by switching decks during a live game. Having played poker since the early nineties, I’d seen lots of hands where several players get outdrawn by a crazy river, so I prepared a deck of cards to recreate one of these all-in scenarios. The goal was not to get away with the money but to make entertaining television and to see how our professional players would react.

And these were serious pros - the Hendon Mob - and between them, had seen many more hands in their career than I ever had (or would). Midway through a tough game, with the pros putting immense pressure on mе and Alex, Jessica arrived to create a natural distraction while I switched decks and dealt the cooler.

What Is a Deck Switch?

It’s worth explaining the term “cooler” for those who don’t know. With regard to cheating, a cooler is a pre-stacked deck in a known order that is switched for a shuffled deck already in play. This is derived from the term “cold deck” which refers to the fact that the stacked deck has not been handled repeatedly for the last few hours and is literally cooler (in temperature) than the deck just stolen from the table.

The deck switch is one of the most dangerous and difficult moves at a card table due to many factors, not least that you are switching fifty cards for fifty-two other cards using sleight of hand! I will discuss the art of switching decks in another article, but for now, know that it’s both risky and extremely difficult, and while I have done it under fire many times, doing it in front of the Hendon Mob while being filmed for a TV show was another level of pressure!

Thankfully, the deck switch was perfect, no one suspected anything, and the hand I dealt was a monster. Once the smoke cleared, Alex had won a small fortune in chips, and Barny Boatman, a legendary player and one of the game’s true gentlemen, was knocked out.

But as he stood to leave, he said something that made my blood run cold.

He said: “That was a cold deck!”

I couldn’t believe it! I knew for a fact that no one saw or felt anything when the decks were switched, and trust me: When someone knows, you feel it every time. Before Alex and I could respond, the other Hendon Mobsters nodded in agreement as Barny stepped away from the table without challenging us or questioning what just happened.

In conversation, it quickly transpired that “cold deck” was a common poker term for a multi-way pot with several made hands, no doubt derived from the cheating term but not an accusation of cheating in the least!

All Barny was saying was that this hand was “like a cold deck” and that was the end of it.

We continued, played to the end, and then revealed what we had done before having a conversation about cheating in live card games. The Hendon Mob were a group of famous gamblers and poker players who knew more about cheating than the average rounder, and when I revealed how Barny’s remark had made my sphincter lock tight, they laughed.

From their experience, such hands do happen, and the more you play, whether in live casinos online or in land-based games, the more likely you will witness this kind of “Hollywood hand”.

And, of course, now - many years later - the term “cold deck” is well-known and over-used, often thrown around by commentators whenever there are several good hands before a flop!

A Surprising Turn of Events

All of our scams would be planned to happen at least twice in case something went wrong, a target refused to sign, or we just needed more material. So after the Hendon Mob left us, another group of players arrived, and we repeated the scam, but these were not professionals, and their level of poker was in the basement by comparison to the guys whom we’d played a few hours earlier. In fact, they were pretty terrible, and even Alex and I could have taken all their money in a fair game!

One of the players was a typical table loudmouth, who analyzed every hand after it was over, flush with the wisdom of hindsight, relentlessly gaslighting his own decisions as if he had anticipated every outcome. In short, he was an asshole, and I couldn’t wait to take him down at the earliest opportunity. As it happened, we barely waited an hour before I threw in another switch and sat back to watch the show as Alex smashed all three players on the river.

This was exactly the same stack we used before, with the same hands outdrawing the same players in the same way, but as the smoke cleared, the reaction was entirely different.

“That’s impossible!” Loudmouth proclaimed and started multiplying the odds of one hand against the odds of another in a display of staggering mathematical ignorance. Whereas the Hendon mob knew such hands could happen - and had seen them in the past - this self-proclaimed expert was now convincing the other suckers that something must be wrong because that hand was “impossible” and despite this guy being dead wrong about the chances of this happening, he was dead right about one thing: something was definitely off!

It took me a long while to understand that our knuckle-headed mark was actually quite right, despite his failure to calculate probability. His lack of true experience and aptitude for arrogance made the perfect combination for a dangerous mark. Alex and I were too flush with our earlier success and too pissed off at this guy to anticipate that we should have a different reaction than we did when cheating the real experts. Had this been a backroom, illegal card game run by cartoon gangsters, I seriously doubt that explaining the nature of odds and outcomes would have saved us a trip to the hospital.

Even though the outcome of our cold deck was for a television audience, we overplayed our strategy, and our marks immediately woke up to being cheated! We hit them too hard and too strong with a scenario outside of their experience.

Another dynamic was that Alex and I shifted from playing the part of rookies in the company of masters to outplaying this B team and therefore adopting a more powerful position at the table.

This dynamic competed with our loudmouth, who was already pissed off that we were (according to the story we’d told in advance) being gifted a free ride to Las Vegas while he wasn’t. All of this played into the jackpot we found ourselves in, and while his calculations and reasoning were moronic, his feeling of being cheated was absolutely accurate!

Moral of the Story

This is the true danger of playing with an unbeatable advantage: Even if you get away with the big move, if the suckers wake up to being cheated, the jig is up! Playing with an unbeatable advantage is easy if you want to get caught but takes experience and patience to avoid grabbing the money too quickly and getting nailed to the nearest wall.

There’s a lot more to it than taking your time, and while I am not keen to provide a guide on how to cheat better, in the future, we will discuss how various situations (like the two just described) affect cheating strategies.

In the gambling world, poker players, casino dealers, and security personnel have an innate sense of when something is not quite right, and in my next article, we’ll discuss how multiple poker scams were exposed not because the scammers were caught in the act of cheating but because the victims began to suspect they were being cheated.

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