Saturday, July 31, 2010

X-Ray Vision Contact Lenses... Real or a Hoax?

About two weeks ago I received an email from a very good friend of mine, asking me to have a look at some contact lenses advertised on a web site of a Chinese crooked gambling distributor. The English description was badly written, but it was still possible to understand what they were trying to say. The company claimed that they had developed revolutionary contact lenses that enable the user to see through paper playing cards. The purpose of seeing through playing cards was to be able to see the print at the face of the cards. The asking price was $6,800. The payment method was Western Union.

My friend asked me to contact the company and try to get more information. First of all, I have to admit that I was very skeptical. But I was also curious to see what would happen if I called the number listed on the site. So I did. To make a story short, I never was able to have an actual conversation with anyone. All the guy ever said was to send him an email. I never had any intention to do so.

Coincidentally, two weeks later I received an email from a CARDSHARK Online member, asking me to comment on some kind of X-ray vision contact lenses. I told him that I was familiar with the site that advertises them, but that I was unable to get in touch with anyone willing to talk on the phone. A few minutes later he sent me a link to a video demo of these contact lenses. I uploaded the video, and here it is.

This video demo is not accessible through the main page that advertises these contact lenses. So, I guess the company sends out an email with the link to anyone inquiring by email.

The video was interesting and it also answered some questions. Now I could see exactly how the ink was visible through the cards. But there was only one problem. I didn't believe a thing. But the video did give me a good idea about the "physics" involved in this latest development in luminous contact lenses.

After seeing the video I had a pretty good idea how these contacts possibly work. Of course, I can never be too sure that my theory is correct, but there's nothing preventing me to do a couple of test and see if I can come up with my own solution. So that's precisely what I did.

It took me about 2 minutes to make my own contact lenses, virtually from scratch, and another 2 minutes to record a video. Then it took me 15 to 20 minutes to edit the video and optimize it for the web. Here's my video. Pretty good, isn't it?

My video also clearly shows how my contact lenses would enable the user to see through playing cards. There's only one problem, though. My video is definitely a complete hoax.

In the next part of this post I will describe exactly how I made my contact lenses and how I shot and edited my video. Please don't get me wrong. I am not saying that the Chinese distributor did the exact same thing. I am simply explaining how I did it.

First of all, my contact lenses aren't even real contact lenses. I simply took an empty soda bottle, cut out part of the curved side below the neck of the bottle and then placed a dime on top and cut-out a circular segment out around it. The small circular cutout looks more or less like a contact lens, on camera. That's good enough for a video.

Next step was to create a couple of images of playing cards, shown in reverse, as would appear if seen through the back of the cards. I simply scanned two cards and flipped the image, then made a color print. Also, I added a special touch. As you can see I slightly blurred the faces of the cards, thinking this would be how the print would appear if seen through paper.

All the remained was to cut-out the printouts and shoot the damn video. Here's a picture that shows all the props that were uses to produce the video demo.

It took me about 2 minutes to record the video. That was pretty straightforward. I simply dealt down three cards (as in the Chinese demo) and passed a contact lens above the cards so the camera could see through it. But once I put the lens back into the case, I didn't stop the camera. I let the camera run while I placed three additional cards right on top of the three initial ones. The additional cards were the two reversed printouts, plus another card face down. Once the additional cards were in place, exactly on top of the initial cards, I let the camera run for a few seconds, then I hit the stop button.

Once I uploaded the recorded video on my hard drive I split it into two separate video files. The first one was the recording of the action shot, showing my hand passing a contact lens over the cards. There was nothing amazing about that shot, as of yet. The second shot was basically a still video recording of three cards laying flat on the table. There was also nothing spectacular about that shot, but once I'd put the two of them together the result would be... interesting, to say the least.

The editing was pretty simple. I basically placed the still recording on a separate layer, under the action shot. Then I used a round mask over the top video layer and tracked the position and size of the round contact lens. I used 45% opacity to blend the two images together through the mask and I also blurred the edge a bit, to make it look more realistic. Once that was all done I used a noise filter to make the video a bit more grainy. That all took 15 to 20 minutes of my time.

Once again, I am not saying that the Chinese vendor recorded their video in the same way. Perhaps they used a different video filter, or perhaps they used a different contact lens. And perhaps their video is not a hoax, at all. But as a general rule I have to see something with my own eyes before I believe it.

There are a few things that don't add up in the whole product description, including the original video demo.

First of all, this is the first crooked gambling gaff that I cannot explain with physics. Any other gaff I've ever seen or heard of makes sense in the universe we live in. But this one seems to have some kind of properties that simply cannot be explained. That's the first thing that stands out and that's the main reason why I simply can't believe the gaff is real.

But let's imagine the gaff is real. There are still some things that don't quite make sense.

The gaff is listed for $6,800. That's not cheap. Does the original demo video look like the kind of video that would be used to advertise a prop of that price range? Why is that video a hand-held camcorder recording of another video that was originally playing on someone's computer screen? Perhaps there's a logical explanation for that.

First of all, a camera recording of a computer screen will produce a lot of artifacts, such as noise, distortion and Moiré patterns. All those artifacts would be helpful if someone wanted to obfuscate some details that one would prefer not to be seen by attentive viewers.

Second, for most part, the second-generation video crops out the face of the demonstrator. His face is only visible for 21 frames (at 30 frames per second). Furthermore, if you freeze-frame the video and look closely, you will notice that the face of the demonstrator is not really visible in those 21 frames. It actually appears as if his mouth and eyes have been blurred-out. Have a look.

In my opinion, if someone had such an amazing product they should also be competent enough to produce a decent video that really shows what their product can do. At least that's the usual way people do business. But what this vendor is doing just happens to be the classic textbook approach how crooks that sell snake oil would traditionally do a presentation of a bogus product. They don't let you see much. instead they let your imagination fill in the blanks. Most people will not like it. But sooner or later a sucker is bound to show up and believe what he wants to believe, just because he's desperate to believe in something that doesn't exist. Smoke and mirrors.

There are some details in the video that don't quite make sense, apart from the fact that there's not physical explanation for X-ray contact lenses. Speaking of, why don't these contact lenses also see through the fabric cover on top of the table?

Nowadays contact lenses are soft. I tried to pick up a couple of regular contact lenses using a pair of tweezers and I was not able to do it quite as seen in the video. Soft contacts simply warp, especially when there's also contact lens solution stuck to the surface. In fact, that's the reason why I made my contact lens out of rigid plastic cut out from a soda bottle.

Also, contact lenses are curved and reflective. Nowhere in the original video am I able to spot a reflection that would give the impression that the surface is curved. The contact lens looks like a round cutout window through which we can see the bottom layer, just like the special effect editing I produced (in fact my editing looks better).

Furthermore, when you remove a contact lens from a liquid a lot of that liquid remains stuck on the lens. When I was recording my video I was having trouble getting the liquid to slide off the lens. As a result I noticed that droplets of water were stuck to the contact lens, creating additional "lenses" that were creating distortions as I looked through it. That's not present in the original video, although I was able to preserve some of that natural effect in my video.

If you watch the original video frame by frame you may be able to see that some red spots show up on the tip of the tweezers, as they pass over the center card (which appears to be the 8 of hearts). If special effects were used the red hearts may have bled through parts of the upper payer. A sloppy editor may be too lazy to fix it.

I could continue this list, but the most important thing is that the whole thing doesn't really make sense. What kind of illumination goes through the card, then bounces back from the printed ink at the face of the card and then passed through the card again on its way up and makes a clear picture of an image printed with ink. If that illumination can go through paper why doesn't it also just go through the print, too? After all, it seems to be passing though the print of the back design without any trouble.

Also, if illumination that can be seen with human eyes passes though cards, how come it doesn't get filtered while passing through paper? If it did get filtered the images would not show up exactly red and black.

If one wanted to give these guys the benefit of a doubt one may say that they could have produced a video simulation of what these contact lenses do in real life. One may say that the company didn't want to reveal too much, so they chose to make a fake video and that the video is just fake to protect the secret. That is a theoretical possibility.

However, Chinese crooked gambling distributors have some history with their web sites. Many years ago I found a Chinese site that advertised luminous contact lenses and some other gaffs. The images they used on their site, supposedly to show their own products, were images they lifted from my site, without my permission. They also used images of my prism shoes to advertise prism shoes that they supposedly sold. One should wonder, if they really sold these products, wouldn't they be able to just take their own pictures of their own products? Why lift images from the web?

That site eventually disappeared and another site appeared, under a different URL. That new site bore a striking resemblance to the former site. But this one didn't use my images. Instead they used generic images of contact lenses that could easily be found through Google. And this time they used eBay images of dealing shoes to advertise prism shoes. The images were of clear shoes; meaning the faceplate was 100% clear. The idea of a prism shoe (i.e. second dealing shoe) with a clear faceplate is simply ludicrous.

There were other instances with other sites that looked more or less the same, but I stopped paying attention. Every now and then someone would send me an email, letting me know that my materials were showing up on Chinese sites. I didn't care.

Back to the X-ray contact lenses.

We have to ask the question, what could anyone possibly stand to gain by making a hoax presentation of a product that doesn't exist? The answer to that one is very simple.

One of the greatest con men of all times, Victor Lustig, made a name for himself after it became known that he had managed to sell the Eiffel Tower, not once but twice. The Eiffel Tower did exist, it just wasn't his to sell. But good old uncle Victor also managed to sell a money duplicating machine, also more than once. That machine never existed, but that didn't stop him from collecting a few payments from a few clients that really wanted to have it.

If the Chinese site is a hoax the logical explanation would be that the site is very likely to disappear without a trace, as soon as too many suckers get mad and put the word out that they've been had. Whom would they complain to, anyway? Would they report the site to the Chinese authorities, explaining that they've been cheated while trying to buy cheating equipment to cheat others?

I really have no proof that the Chinese site is a hoax and I am not saying that it is. But if it is a hoax they probably do sell some of the other products that they advertise. After all, I do own a Chinese crooked mahjong set that came from one of those distributors.

I don't know why I'm such a skeptic, but I never believed in the impossible. So, I don't believe in this product either, especially when there are too many other explanation that are anything but impossible.

I wouldn't blame you if you wanted to add a set of X-ray vision contacts to your collection of crooked gambling gaffs. But for $6,800 you might as well spend a couple of thousand dollars more and visit the Great Wall of China, and arrange for a live demo. I definitely wouldn't recommend sending that kind of cash via Western Union, to some guy that sells cheating equipment, for a product that sounds too good to be true.

PS - I also put together a video that shows my original video recording next to the doctored version, X-Ray Vision Contacts... Exposé of Hoax Video.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Mysterious Will & Finck Device

This morning I received an email from someone "seeking information on an unusual brass Will & Finck device." I asked the gentleman to send me some pictures. Next time I checked my email there was a reply with the following five images.

The email read:
The item is brass, approx. 8.5" L x 5.5 "W (marked Will & Finck... is genuine/authentic) but for unknown use. Possibly gaming/gaff related, however it does show some ink and reverse ghost lettering (illegible).

The armature raises and slides both in vertical as well as horizontal positions, two clips for holding down paper. Dial can be positioned and set to pivot in a semi-circular radius. Initially, I believed it perhaps a card marking (cheating device). However, it certainly does not look like any gaff that I have ever seen.

My other thought upon having it in hand was it was perhaps for some type of printing use, such as maps, charts or billheads (seems an odd device for that). I am fairly up on Will & Finck but can find no reference, therefor with your experience I thought perhaps you might have at least come across something similar by another maker.

I took a close look at the images and flipped the last picture to see if any of the text could be read. I also applied some filters to enhance the contrast.

I replied to the gentleman that I had no idea what this device was. It looked as if the stains were chemical reactions, perhaps from some photographic process. He gave me permission to pass the pictures around and also make a blog post in hopes that someone might be able to come forward with some information. He also asked me not to reveal his identity, so the gentleman shall remain anonymous. His follow up email contained some additional information:
The arm to left of mechanism raises the dial device on the upper horizontal bar so as to allow an item to be placed underneath the vertical clips (to thin for glass plate), as well as pivots the center round dial when slide up or down vertically.

The lower arm below dial also adjusts radius by up or down movement. There are two holes in the lower arm, of which some device for marking/impressing/cutting appears to have been placed. There is also a dial located under the base which is for some adjustment.

I collect and sell Will & Finck items and this is by far the most unusual...

...I have thought to check with the historical societies as well as Bancroft in hopes they may have any original Will & Finck catalogs or microfilm. Unfortunately, many original documents were destroyed. The only Will & Finck full line retail catalog I know of, 1896, belonged to the California Historical Society in San Francisco. A Will & Finck gambling catalog was held at the Bancroft, which is what lead me to Maskelyne's book Sharps & Flats and your site.

Original Will & Finck items are highly desirable by collectors and highly priced. This item looks very unique so there is a chance it is a one of a kind. Perhaps it was a tool the company used in the fabrication of some other items.

The purpose of this blog post is to show this item around in hopes that someone may come forward with some information. Should anyone know anything about this item, or know of a similar item, please contact me through my site CARDSHARK Online.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Replica of an Early Baccarat Dealing Shoe

In a recent blog post, titled Replica of an Early Baccarat Dealing Block, I talked a bit about the evolution of casino dealing shoes. All the dealing shoes that we see today seem to have spawned from a simple accessory called a marble block, described in the book The Stealing Machine. Failing to find an original antique marble block I explained how I made a couple of replicas based on a picture in the book.

Another early gaming accessory that's also described in the same book is an early baccarat dealing shoe, which is open at the front and has no slanted ramp. I believe this is the earliest style of dealing shoes ever made. I've never been able to come across one of those, either, so I also decided to make a replica.

The shoe came out good on my first try. I used purpleheart wood and I am particularly happy with the way the box joints came out at the rear side of the shoe. I wasn't quite sure how to resolve the slanted piece at the rear (because the photograph in The Stealing Machine is not clear) so for now I simply placed one of my dealing blocks there (that's why the colors are mismatched). When I have some extra time I'll experiment with some other solutions.

The shoe works very well. According to the book these kinds of shoes used to be used for the game chemin de fer, which is a version of baccarat that's no longer popular.

Looking at this simple gaming accessory it's pretty amazing to think that nowadays people seem to need automatic shufflers and electronic dealing shoes just to be able to gamble. That definitely wasn't the case in the 19th century.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Vintage Postcard of Two Young Ladies Playing Cards

This is a rare vintage photo postcard of two young ladies playing cards. I found it on eBay for $15.99, plus $1.56 S&H. This postcard is a real find and definitely one of my favorite card player images.

The photograph is definitely a posed studio shot, but unlike most of the other card player photographs from that era, this one doesn't feel posed.

I particularly like this shot because of the mood. There's just an overall nice feel to the image. I would even go as far as saying that the photograph almost feels as if Vermeer was the photographer. Vermeer painted mostly domestic scenes and this picture almost feels like his Lace Maker or The Milkmaid. What sets the mood is, of course, the presence of the two young ladies, especially the gentle, feminine pose of the lady resting her chin on her hands.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Replica of an Early Baccarat Dealing Block

What would a 19th century time-traveling gambler think of our casinos, today? And what would he discover on his journey into the future?

I have no doubt that our time traveler would experience a culture shock. There would be all these new games to play. Even older games would now come with many new (and "exciting") betting options. He may also get excited about all these "free" trips to all these casino destinations (available for anyone that looks like he may be willing to blow his retirement money on the spin of a wheel). And last but not least, he would be stunned by all the new equipment that is being used on the casinos floor.

The equipment would probably be what would make the jaw of a 19th century gambler drop all the way down to the carpeted casino floor. Slot machines would be nothing compare to fully automated games, such as the robotic baccarat game, or the touch screen craps table, to mention a few. But even dealer dealt games would now be fitted with breathtaking equipment, such as the one2six automatic shuffler, the Angel Eye intelligent shoe, the JohnHuxley optical dealing shoe, and so on. And he thought the 19th century was the era of the great industrial revolution. But to a 19th century mind our casino wouldn't even look real. It would look more like an artificial landscape that came from the creative minds of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells.

For us to really comprehend how our casino equipment would look through the eyes of a 19th century gambler, we would have to have a closer look at the equipment that is the 19th century equivalent of today's electronic dealing shoes. But we do not have to hop into a time machine to look into the past. Fortunately, many old objects are in the hands of collectors. And whatever can't be found in private collections can sometimes be found in old books.

One gambling prop that I've always been fond of is the marble block, described on page 28 of The Stealing Machine. What I like about the marble block is its simplicity. To think that this simple prop is the great grand daddy of the one2six automatic shuffler is quite amazing. Perhaps it's precisely the simplicity of this prop that is responsible for its disappearance. This prop is so nondescript it was never likely to be picked up by a collector, unless one knew exactly what it was. So, I've never been able to find an original marble block, anywhere. That's why I've decided to make my own. I actually ended up making two pieces. And mine are not made from marble, but from ebony.

The marble block shown in The Stealing Machine also appears to be made from wood. It's hard to tell, actually, because the photograph is dark, but it does appear to have wood grains. So, I've decided to take the liberty to use wood, to make my replica. And since wood is definitely not marble, I've also taken the liberty to rename the prop and call it a dealing block, instead.

The first dealing block I made was the steep one, pictured on the left. I used some basic geometry to analyze the perspective on the original photograph, and then used my measurements to make my dealing block match the original in size and proportions. I've soon realized that my dealing block would work very well on a hard surface, but it was impossible to deal cards on a padded card table. The reason was the angle at the front, which is rather steep. So, I've experimented with angles and them made another dealing block that works well on a padded surface; that's the dealing block on the right. If these props were made nowadays, one would have to know what kind of surface it is intended to be used on, before settling on the angle. Next photo is the dealing block in action, on a padded surface.

According to the author of The Stealing Machine, the marble block was used to the game of baccara en banque. That game was dealt with two decks of cards shuffled together (some further research revealed that the game was also sometimes dealt with three or four decks, but I don't know if the marble block was used in those cases, or if dealing shoe would be more common.

Overall, I am really happy with the way my dealing blocks turned out. It was actually quite time consuming to make these props, but since original dealing blocks can no longer be found I am glad I took the time to these replicas. Another reasons for making these replicas was to include a photograph of a dealing block in my upcoming book Manual for the Bustout Dealer: The Two Shoe, which has a chapter on the history of dealing shoes.

Now that I've figured out how to make these props I may actually offer them in my online gaming supply store. So, if you're a collector you might want to pick one up.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Deland's Daisy Deck

Collectors of gambling paraphernalia will probably be familiar with De Land's mechanical decks. Those were always listed in the Blue Book crooked gambling catalog of the KC Card Company.

De Land's mechanical decks were factory made marked cards. They came in various back designs and they all used the clock system. I just picked up a Daisy deck from 1944 (as seen on the tax stamp; but the Daisy decks were designed in 1919).

De Land's mechanical decks were not really cheating gaffs to be used in card games. They were designed for card tricks. However, since the KC Card Co. did sell them, I thought I should add one to my collection.

The cards are really poor quality, in every respect. The paper is terrible and the print is sloppy. The daisies seem to have been whited-out by an intern on a lunch break, as there are plenty of imperfections in the print.

All of De Land's decks were sold with instructions, however, I those were not included with the secondhand decks that I purchased. In any event, the basic code is easy to break. I included a picture showing a spread of all the hearts, from Ace to King. The code for these cards are the daisies in the upper left corner; the orientation of the crescent around those daisies indicate the suit (the hearts are open at the bottom).

I wish the deck did come with instructions because I would be happy to include them here. Perhaps someone can send those to me and I can edit this post.