Blogs have many uses. One is to treat them like the classic soapboxes of the British parks, where you just stand up and start talking, talking about what you're thinking, why you're thinking it and why everyone else ought to start thinking about it too.
So, this will begin an off-and-on soapbox series looking at the "fine lines" in poker. The ones that we cross, sometimes because we didn't even know there was a line there in the first place.
Today's line is the one that divides the tricksters, the masters of deception and geniuses of artifice from the con artists, the scammers and the cheats. But this line isn't a clean one. It moves about and it's not always clear when it's been crossed.
Many choose to ignore this topic, claiming it isn't of any real importance. They are wrong.
Politicians, the media and the moralists have made it important. The poker community needs to take stock of the situation, examine its nuances and develop codes for appropriate behavior, lest they be imposed from outside.
Recall how 60-Minutes handled poker last year and the underhanded way in which the US Congress passed the UIGEA to appreciate how important this issue is. So:
A Little History
Cheating has always been a worrisome aspect of poker, with the understanding that theissue isn't poker, it's cheating.
Larceny lurks in many hearts and when money is involved and opportunity sits there as open and inviting as a fat cat's belly on a warm summer's day, well, you know what's bound to happen.
Poker became popular in the late 1800's. It had evolved earlier in the century from a French game (called poque) that used a 20-card deck.
As it grew, mainly in the American south, it became a popular way to kill time while on the riverboats that paddled up and down the Mississippi. And it gave us the game's first iconic offspring: the Riverboat Gambler, replete with pencil moustache, frock coat and cheroot and known for odd mannerisms in the shuffling and dealing of the cards.
A lot of these guys were cheats. Marked cards, cold decks, false shuffles, dealing seconds and off the bottom, hold-out devices, mirrors, collusion. If you could think of it, someone was doing it. It didn't take too many 'honorable' churchgoers getting fleeced before the outpourings of Puritanical righteous indignation ended it all.
After poker and other forms of gambling were shut down by changes in the law, the game went exactly where you would expect it to: underground. It still flourished, but in private games held in homes, hotel rooms, social clubs and community halls. Some of these games were pretty big and a generation of 'road gamblers' sprung up to take advantage of the well-heeled but less-skilled.
Several books have been written about this period, the best are those based on the reminiscences of Doyle Brunson (According to Doyle, reissued as Poker Wisdom of a Champion) and Amarillo Slim Preston (Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People), as well as Des Wilson's superb chronicle, .
In these books you get a sense of folks walking this fine line. There's cheating going on all around them. Games are rigged, decks stacked and, yes, they get hijacked and more than once find themselves at the wrong end of a shotgun.
Did these guys, some of them icons of the game, ever cheat? Did they ever stretch the proper bounds of propriety? I don't know, but some eight years ago we were confronted with:
The 'Cheating Tapes'
The late Russ Georgiev, an admitted swindler and cheat made a series of public accusations, mostly on the rec.gambling web site. He implicated several prominent players, including some whose photos hang in the Poker Hall of Fame.
Georgiev confessed to long-term, systematic larceny at poker games in public venues, throughout the 1970's and '80's, mainly in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
He also acknowledged having links with some of the most notorious, mob-connected scoundrels in "old Vegas," including murderer Tony Spilotro. Georgiev does not paint a particularly uplifting picture of the game.
In 2001 Mike Caro, concerned about the possible veracity of Georgiev's claims, sat down with him and two of his confederates (John Martino, a Las Vegas regular as far back as the '60s, and Bill Nirdlinger, another long-time rounder) and made the now infamous "cheating tapes" on which Georgiev and friends 'tell all.'
I've watched the tapes, all six hours. They are not exactly convincing. Georgiev was, moreover, a self-promoter who, until his recent death, used the peculiar 'fame' this episode brought him to establish a career selling DVD's of the sessions and writing about cheating.
Did he have ulterior, monetary motives? I don't know but it's hard to dismiss the thought.
But, independent of the details of the accusations, it is pretty clear that a lot of sleazy stuff was going on from the dusty back roads of Texas to the glitzy casino poker rooms in 'old' Vegas.
Happily, things have changed. The 'industry' appreciates that cheating, real or imagined, is bad for business. Far more revenue is generated when everyone knows the games are 'clean.'
But problems still exist and as the game grows, particularly on the Internet, they've multiplied. Stay tuned as we examine them in future posts in this series.