Monday, February 28, 2011


In recent years luminous readers have become so popular, it almost feels the world no longer pays any attention to other kinds of marked cards. I guess it's because we've become so accustomed to accomplishing everything through technology, most people aren't even interested in simple solutions. Never mind if luminous contacts are hard to use (not to even mention the cost). As long as it promises to accomplish something short of a miracle, that's all that seems to count.

I already wrote about N-daub in an old post, titled Marked Cards: Classic Daub, but I didn't include any images of daubed cards. Also, I am making this post because I recently made it available through my online store. At this time I only have a small limited supply available, for $75.00 per can, and the best part is that it comes packed in original vintage tin cans that were acquired from the old KC Card Company.

The vial next to the can of daub contains a liquid that I'll call daub rejuvenator. Basically, it is used to rejuvenate the daub, so that it doesn't completely dry out. The rejuvenator should be used very, very sparingly. Basically, every once in a while a small drop of rejuvenator should be added to the daub, then the daub should not be used for a couple of days, to make sure that the liquid spread throughout. The best way to ensure that the drop of liquid is small enough is to use a plastic toothpick, or some similar object.

Storage is also important. If the daub is kept at a constant temperature and relative humidity at around 55%, the rejuvenator might not even have to be used for years. So, the best place to keep it stored is in the fridge, zipped up in an airtight plastic bag.

The daub should never feel wet to the touch and it should not crackle. One of the most common mistakes people make is to put the work on the cards too strong and if the daub is too moist it will definitely produce work that's too strong.

I don't really want to provide detailed instructions about how to use this daub (or any other), but here are a few details that I am willing to share.

The can may easily be kept open in the coat pocket (a small magnet on the inside of the coat will keep the daub secure inside the coat pocket). When reaching inside the pocket to retrieve an object the painter can simply press the tip of a finger on the surface of the daub. Please note, it would be a mistake to rub the finger into the daub; pressing is the correct technique when using an open container. The amount of daub transferred to the fingertip should be minute. The image below should make that clear.

The amount of daub transferred to the fingertip in one dipping should be enough to put the work on several cards. How many cards exactly is anyone's guess, because it will greatly depend on the size of the smudges. But the fingertip should never be darker than seen on this image.

Every paper player will have his/her own techniques and code, so I'm not going to get into this here, but let's look at a sample card.

The image below shows a card that's been daubed light to medium strength. I'm not sure how well daub reproduces in photographs but I can see the work just fine, from the picture. Of course, there's a technique to reading the work.

This work was put onto a Diamond Back Bee card and the work can be read like juice (by the way, the letter "N" in the word N-daub, is the first letter of the main ingredient for one of the two juice recipes I use; the main ingredient is the main active ingredient of this daub). So, by blurring your vision you should be able to see the work better. Also, the work is easier to read at a distance. And finally, to help you read the work I made this into a rollover image. I actually took two pictures from the same distance, one picture is in focus and the other one is out of focus. So, by passing the mouse over the image, you will see the blurred version.

daubed card
Some people might still have trouble seeing the work, even when looking at the blurred image. That's understandable, especially when one doesn't know what to look for. So, to make this easier I will explain what the work looks like. If you prefer to look for the work without knowing, just don't read the next paragraph, yet.

The card is marked in the upper left and lower right corners, next to the long edges. The smudges are fat and short, running horizontally.

There's one more detail that I need to explain, or better say, emphasize, about daub in general. Let's look up some dictionary definitions of daub:

1 - n. A crude patch, splash or smear of a semiliquid substance or something.

2 - v. To put or spread a semiliquid substance, for example, mud, paint, or cream, on a surface, in a crude, irregular, or hurried way; to paint or apply paint crudely and inexpertly.

That should say it all. Daub work should not look neat and deliberate. The whole point is to make it appear as of the cards have just been smudged through regular use, should anyone discover the work. In other words, technically speaking, one could mark the cards as neatly as I did in the example, above, but that's not really how it's done.

In closing, I will just mention that professionals almost always work teamed up. One or two painters will sit early in the game and put the work on the cards. They will leave the game early and walk away with the only piece of incriminating evidence; i.e. the actual can of daub. One or two players will join the game at a later time and exploit the work. Two players is always, especially on kidney shaped poker tables, better because each can read one half of the table and signal to the other.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Early 20th Century French Playing Cards

France played a very important role in the development of playing cards. Although I'm not a historian, I've researched some of the historical facts from various sources and I find the information to be very interesting. In this post I want to go back a hundred years and look at some early 20th century playing cards from France.

Before I begin, there are a couple of books I should mention. One is The Stealing Machine (original French title La Machine à Voler), from 1906, and the sequel How They Cheat You at Cards: Mr. Rakeoff in The Provinces (original title Comment on nous Vole au Jeu), from 1909. Both books were written by Eugène Villiod and are an absolute must read for anyone seriously interested in the history of crooked gambling. The reason why I mention those books in this post is because the history of playing cards is closely tied to the history of gambling, and the history of gambling is simply incomplete without the history of crooked gambling. Anyone that thinks otherwise is simply a sucker, simply put, and history shows there has never been a shortage of those. Just take a walk around any casino and you'll see plenty of them. So, those two books are the most important source of historic information for anyone researching the subject of manipulating early 20th century playing cards, for the purpose of cheating at gambling.

The first deck of cards is a 32-card pack from c.1910, by Dieudonné & Cie. I'm fortunate to own the complete pack, in excellent condition, along with the original wrapper. When I handle this deck I really feel like I'm holding a piece of history in my hands. They just don't make them like this any more.

The cards are printed with four corner indices. Corner indices are actually an American invention, dating back to the 1870s. In America the first cards printed with corner indices were called Squeezers. Corner indices became popular and most European countries started copying the idea during the 1890s. Note how the aces are indexed with the numeral 1, and not the capital A, which is a later invention.

One of the most interesting details about this deck of cards is the wrapper. In those days people didn't think much of the wrappers, after all a wrapper is just a flimsy piece of paper, which is why original wrappers are now hard to find.

The wrapper bears the name of the maker along with some other information. Those wrappers were commonly used before telescopic boxes became the norm. In his book The Stealing Machine, Eugène Villiod tells us how cheats would break open and reseal those wrappers for the purpose of stacking the cards for baccarat. The wrapper is basically sealed with an excise band that wraps around the back and is glued only at the two ends that wrap over the front of the pack. In Villiod's words: "...the Government puts a wrapper, which, doubtless for economy, it takes great care to glue together not along its entire length but only at its ends, and when the Government affixes its stamp, it believes it has taken the maximum necessary precautions to prevent fraud..." He goes on to explain how no card sharp can resist the temptation to wet the government's excise band with steam or saliva, to loosen the glue and gain access to the cards.

The face of the wrapper has a round notch cut at the right side. Due to the fact that the image of the wrapper was captured flat on a scanner, this notch is not very visible in the image above, but basically the purpose of the notch was to enable anyone to check the tax stamp on the ace of clubs, while the deck was still sealed in the wrapper. As Eugène Villiod explains, this presented no problem for sharps resealing stacked decks, because they would simply cut their stacked deck to the ace of clubs and reseal the stacked decks that way.

Note that the long sides of the wrapper state that the deck consists of 32 cards and that it is made for poker. Historians tell us that the earliest form of poker was played with as little as 20 cards and that cards were added later until eventually a full deck of 52 cards was used. Also, if you read Scarne's Guide to Modern Poker, published in 1980, you'll see that the author, John Scarne, tells us that in those days it was not uncommon to play poker with stripped deck. The 32-card pack, stripped of all the cards from 2 to 6, was possibly the most commonly used stripped pack for poker. Furthermore, in many European countries folks would always associate poker with a 32-card pack, throughout the 20th century, and for some European folks it was almost inconceivable to play poker with a full 52-card deck. This, of course, changed once Texas Hold'em tournaments flooded TV channels around the world, but the practice of using a 32-card pack for poker actually still remains in some European localities, because sometimes it's hard to break old habits.

The next deck is a 52-card pack from c.1925. I love this pack of cards.

What I love most about this deck of cards is the Scottish-plaid pattern back design. This back design appears in both of Villiod's books and as he explains, this patterns was perfect for cheaters to produce marked decks: "As lines of the cross-hatches don't end at the same point along the edges of the cards, swindlers profit from the discrepancies to distinguish one suit and rank of cards from another..." and then he proceeds by explaining how hustlers divide the cards into five groups. Basically, he is talking about a marking system called sorts.

One detail that's hard to miss about this deck of cards is its thickness. This deck is about 40% thicker than any 52-card deck made today. I believe this is due to the fact that French playing cards had to be printed on watermarked paper.

In the next photograph you see a closeup shot of two cards. One is the ace of clubs that bears the tax stamp and the other one is a deuce, which is the perfect card to use to examine the watermark.

As far as I can tell, the cards are not exactly printed directly on watermarked paper. Instead, it would appear that the watermarked paper is glued on a thicker stock of paper, thus making the cards thicker.

If you ever have the opportunity to come across some antique French deck, you might come across one that has no tax stamp. That would indicate that it's most likely an earlier deck, because in the 19th century French decks had no tax stamps. That was a distinct feature of French playing cards and that's why the cards were printed on watermarked paper. Basically, the makers were obligated to buy the paper from the government and the watermark was proof that tax had been paid. Another reason why a French deck might be missing the tax stamp might be that the deck was made for export. And the last reason why a French deck might be missing the tax stamp might be if the deck is a facsimile edition, which brings me to the next deck.

I purchased this deck of cards from a dealer in Paris, about six years ago. The dealer explained to me that this was a commemorative facsimile edition, but I am unclear if it is an exact reproduction of a deck as it used to be made in the early 20th century, or if it's a fantasy brand. This is a 32-card pack with an extra card, the 4 of clubs. The wrapper bears the name Arripe Papay & Cie Srs and the label says that the company was founded in 1834, in Toulouse, but the 4 of clubs bears the brand name Hija de A. Comas, Barcelona. So, it is unclear if this reproduction was made by a Spanish company or if this is a reproduction of a deck that was originally made by a Spanish company and distributed by a French company from Toulouse. In any case, the presence of the four corner indices would indicate that this is a reproduction of a deck that might have originally been manufactured around 1910.

Whatever the story might be regarding the brand, the back design is a true reproduction from cards that were manufactured during that era. Photographs of playing cards with this exact pattern appear in The Stealing Machine and I'm sure many original decks have also survived.

French playing cards from the last turn of the century look almost identical. The cards do not bear the name of the master that made them and the faces are almost identical.

Those cards are commonly known as Portrait Officiel. Basically, the court cards were first printed as black line drawing, then the colors were added through stencils. Each maker used a different palette to color the court cards and with the absence of the original wrapper that's often the only indicator as to which card master made them.

Lastly, one detail that is not apparent from the photographs is the size of the cards. French cards from that era are a bit smaller than the standard size made today. I believe the average measurements are 53mm wide and 83mm high.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Lazy Tongs Sleeve Holdout

When it comes to being caught with incriminating evidence of cheating, at the card table, I can't think of a more obvious gaff than a mechanical holdout machine. Even if you know nothing about card cheating, you know what this is for, if you ever catch anyone wearing one. Here are a couple of photos of a holdout machine from my gambling collection. I actually don't even consider myself to be a real collector, but I did end up with a few interesting items over the years.

The person that owned this holdout before me said this machine dates back to the 1930s to 50s. I believe the condition of the leather straps should be a good indicator of the age of this object. I happen to have an antique trunk with leather handles, from about the same era, and the leather does appear to be in more or less the same condition as the leather straps on this holdout. In other words, the leather is almost disintegrated, and it feels that it wouldn't take much to break it.

I don't think anyone ever owned a holdout machine without at strapping it on at least once, before putting it on a shelf. I did try to use this machine, but to be perfectly honest I don't really know how it's supposed to be triggered. There's only one string attached to the lazy tongs mechanism and there is a locking device at the other end. It's easy to figure out how the locking device works, but I don't really know to what part of the body it's supposed to be attached to.

The main reason why I haven't taken the time to figure out how this works is because I didn't want to risk breaking the leather straps. One day I might make a replica of this machine and use that one for the purpose of studying the moves. But for now the machine is just sitting on my shelf, along with a few other items I don't know what to do with.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Shell Game Postcard from 1908

This is a great addition to my growing collection of gambling/cheating postcards. It only cost me $5.99, plus $1.56 S&H. I've never seen this postcard before, so I guess it must be a rare one.

The postcard is titled Playing the Races and it features a swindler playing the shell game against four representatives of "minorities" (to use politically correct terminology). The suckers are an Irish man, a black man, a Chinese man and a Native American man (that has become a minority on his own continent). The swindler is of course a representative of the white race (unlike the Irish man, I guess).

Racial humor is frowned upon nowadays, but a hundred years ago it was acceptable (as in The Mott Street Poker Club).

This postcard is easy to date because there is a postal stamp that says 1908. The postcard was addressed to a Mr. Charles Bauer, from Pacific Grove, California. The sender is unknown, because the card is unsigned, but whoever sent it from Sacramento, California, on August 21, 1908, at 4:30PM, left a few fingerprints in black ink, on the back. There is a nice print over the word California and a partial print next to the stamp.

Due to the theme of the postcard I can't help but wonder if either the sender or the recipient of this postcard might have been a customer of the old San Francisco based "sporting emporium," Will & Finck.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Hand Painted Dasâvatâra Ganjifa Playing Cards

Historians are still not sure where playing cards have originated. One theory says that they came from Persia, another theory says that they came from China. Both theories can't be right, so it's also possible that playing cards have been invented independently in more than one regions of the world. In fact, that's also one of the official theories and it's the one I like most, especially because that theory states that Chinese playing cards are very different from Western cards, so it's possible that they are in fact two independent inventions.

Whatever the truth about the origin of playing cards might be, historians do seem to agree on a few facts. One is that playing cards have definitely been brought to Europe from the East. And another fact is that the earliest playing cards were individually hand painted and thus only the rich could afford them.

With the invention of woodcuts, Europeans began mass production of playing cards, in the 14th century. That marked the beginning of the end of hand painted playing cards; at least in Europe it did. But in some countries the tradition of hand painting playing cards continued throughout the centuries, even to this day.

Below is a deck of hand painted Dasâvatâra Ganjifa playing cards from my own collection. The deck consists of 120 cards. This is a 10-suited deck, and in fact dasâvatâra means "ten colors."

Most Ganjifa cards are circular and patterns vary depending on what region (or even city) they come from. However, in general, Ganjifa decks have 12 cards per suit: low cards from 1 to 10, plus 2 court cards, the king and the minister (sometimes called adviser or general).

This deck of cards came from Orissa, India, and was painted by Banamali Mahapatra, whose family has been painting Ganjifa cards for five generations. It takes a skilled artisan 2 to 3 weeks to make a complete deck. I've been told that some ignorant Westerners have been known to use circular Ganjifa cards as coasters. That's probably because labor in India is still cheap and some ignorant Westerners don't seem to care about the work that goes into hand painting a deck of cards, as long as they can buy them cheap.

The card stock is also hand made, usually from layers of pressed paper or from layers of cloth glued together (this deck is cloth). And I would imagine the paints used for the job must also be hand made.

All in all, this Ganjifa deck is definitely one of the most unusual decks of cards in my personal collection. An expanded view of all the cards is available on my Playing Cards we site, on the Collection of Playing Cards page.