Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Antique Baccarat Dealing Shoe from Casino Monte Carlo

In recent years I've acquired several dealing shoes for the purpose of studying their design features and measurements. I am most interested in contemporary casino shoes, since those are the type of shoes I make. However, while collecting these objects I often found it impossible to resist buying some antique dealing shoes I've come across. There is an unwritten rule that if you own at least three of one type of object you are officially a collector. I try to resist developing a passion for collecting, for a number of reasons, but at this point it would be really difficult for me to deny that I own a collection of antique dealing shoes. Perhaps one day a real collector will have an interest in acquiring my entire collection, but until then I can take pictures of my shoes and post them on my blog.

To the best of my knowledge this is the oldest dealing shoe that I own. It is over a hundred years old and was brought to the US around 1932 by the grandfather of the person that sold this shoe to the antique dealer that sold it to me. But before this shoe crossed the Atlantic it was used at the famous casino in Monte Carlo. At least that's the story that came with the shoe. I have no way of knowing how accurate the story is, but since the shoe was sold to me for a mere $40 I would have a hard time seeing a point why anyone would bother making up an elaborate story just to jack up the price a few bucks. If there are any inaccuracies in the provenance of this shoe they are probably just honest mistakes.

antique casino dealing shoe
The first thing I did when I purchased this shoe was to remove the metal ramp, to see if any clues were hiding on the inside. I didn't find the maker's name, or anything that would indicate a date, anywhere, but I did find a spot where a label had once been affixed. The glue is still there and parts of the torn-off label are still stuck to the dry glue. Why someone tore the label off is anyone's guess.

vintage baccarat dealing shoe
Some of the letters are still partially visible, but unfortunately not enough of them remain to allow me to reconstruct what had once been printed on the label. The only detail that I think I figured out was the first word in the last row. There is a capital letter R visible that is followed by that appears to be the remains of a capital "U" (missing the bottom and most of its right side, and possibly confused by a capital I). After the U there is a horizontal line that looks like it might be what remains of a capital E. So, the word might be RUE, which is French for street. Whatever might have been written in front of the R has been torn off, but if that word is in fact RUE there would have been a number in front of it, followed by a space.

It would make a lot of sense for that word in the particular spot to have read RUE, because that's where RUE would have been written if the last line on the label was an address in France. And that's one of the main things I was interested to know. If the shoe was made in France it would support the story that it came from Monte Carlo.

Although I will probably never be able to trace this shoe back to its original source, there are still a few things that I can tell for certain about this shoe.

The wood is definitely about 100 years old. I have been collecting vintage guitars for many years and by now I've developed a very good sense of what old lacquered wood looks like. The patina is real and the crackles in the lacquer are genuine, and only a century passing by could have left that particular time stamp on this object.

Another detail that I can tell for sure is the interior width of the shoe. This says a lot, because playing cards did not have standardized measurements one hundred years ago. If you load a standard poker size deck inside this shoe there is too much space on the sides. That's because this shoe was made for slightly longer cards. The pack of cards that I used in this photo was a 19th century pack made by De La Rue & Co, of London. To be honest, this was a bit surprising because in France, during the 19th century, mostly French playing cards were used; and there was no shortage of makers of playing cards in France. 19th century French playing cards are smaller than the packs we use nowadays, so this shoe was definitely not made for them. Could this detail support the story, that the shoe was used in Monaco, and not in France?

The last detail that's worth noting is the absence of a plate that used to be attached to the right side of the shoe. All that remains are four small holes where the screws once were holding a plate attached to the shell. The missing plate is of course the plate with inscribed drawing rules. This means that the shoe was made for the game of baccarat. But baccarat is not just one game, it is actually a family of games, much like poker is. There are three baccarat variations (in French), baccara en banque, baccara chemin de fer, and baccara punto banco (which is the baccarat variation mostly played today and is now called simply baccarat).

We know that chemin de fer is played with a six-deck shoe. My shoe is a two deck shoe, which seems to eliminate the possibility that it was made for chemin de fer. I do not know if there might once have been an early variation of chemin de fer that used a two deck shoe. If there was I've never heard of it.

The game punto banco, or what we now call baccarat, is also played with six decks. Plus, that was not the most popular baccarat variation in Europe, a hundred years ago. What remains is to consider the possibility that the shoe was made for the game baccara en banque.

Baccara en banque is probably completely extinct today. However, detective Eugène Villiod describes the game in his famous book The Stealing Machine. In his book he says that the game was played with two decks and dealt from the marble block, instead of a shoe.

We must remember that dealing shoes were in their infancy at that time and that games were also still being developed. Plus, Eugène Villiod talks strictly about gambling establishments in Paris, so things were probably not the same in Monte Carlo. Is it possible that baccara en banque was dealt from a two deck shoe in the early years of the casino in Monte Carlo? I guess it's possible. I actually tried to find out, by contacting the casino, but my research produced no results. That casino is now managed by much younger people that don't necessarily care about what went on a hundred years ago.

Although I was unable to check the provenance of this shoe, nothing I found can completely discard the possibility that the shoe was once used in Monte Carlo. I will keep checking, whenever opportunities present themselves. But in the meantime the shoe sits on my shelf and continues to age.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Vintage French Poker Dice

Here's a somewhat unusual set of vintage poker dice. What makes this set of dice unusual is the presence of the joker along with the four suits on the aces. Normally, poker dice come in a set of five, without a joker and all five aces bearing the same suit, usually spades or clubs. Naturally, the joker is used as a wild card and changes the odds, which in turn changes the rank structure. This probably makes the game more exciting for gamblers. I would imagine this set of dice was probably originally sold with an instruction leaflet, but unfortunately I was unable to confirm that.

Vintage French Poker Dice
These dice were made in France, but I am not sure what the name of the manufacturer was or when the dice were made. The cardboard box opens like a matchbox and bottom of the drawer has a hand written inscription that reads, "M. BelPière 12 Rue Tournefort Paris V", meaning, "Mr. BelPière, 12 Tournefort Street, Paris, 5th arrondissement (administrative district)." But, was Mr. BelPière the maker, or did this set of dice just belong to him? I do not know. I also do not know why the letter "p" in BelPière is capitalized.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Closer Look at a Casino-Grade Dealing Shoe

At this point in my life I can confidently say that I have more shoes than most women. I actually even have my own personal shoe closet. But my shoes aren't the kind you wear on your feet. I am talking about casino dealing shoes, mainly used for games such as blackjack and baccarat.

It would be hard to me to argue that I am not a collector of casino dealing shoes. But the truth is, I really am not a collector. I ended up with all these shoes simply because I've been researching various shoe designs, measurements and security features. And I keep all these shoes around just so I can always have them on hand, in case I need to look at something.

If I were a woman with an overflowing shoe closet I could show off some of my shoes simply by wearing them. But I can't do that with casino shoes. So, that's a good reason to get a new blog thread started and show some of the more interesting dealing shoes I've managed to acquire over time.

I don't really know how many dealing shoes I own, but let me put it this way: I hope I don't have to move any time soon. This said, let me at least take pictures of some of them and publish some blog posts, in case I ever need to reduce my collection in a rush.

Here is a photo of a blackjack dealing shoe with a sliding gate. This shoe came from a casino that is now out of biz.

blackjack casino dealing shoe
The first thing that you should notice is that the front of this shoe is completely closed off. That's the sliding gate, which is a security feature that protects the games against the use of marked cards and against possible (and unlikely) attempts at second dealing.

The fourth main objective of any casino is to protect their games (the first, second and third objectives are, of course, to make money). This said, I am always surprised when to see that most casinos still use dealing shoes that are lacking many of the security features that have already been invented decades ago. The main security feature that is lacking in most industry-standard casino shoes is a way to protect the top card of the shoe (the most important card of the shoe) against the use of marked cards (the most commonly used casino scam). In other words, most industry-standard casino shoes (and even the more expensive automatic card shufflers) are designed so that the back of the top card is always partially exposed. This shoe has a sliding gate that prevents top card exposure.

To deal the top card, the dealer must first lift the sliding gate, then strike the top card and dealt it to one of the suckers. The action of lifting the sliding gate really doesn't require any extra time or effort, since it is done as the hand reaches for the card. The following two photos show the dealing action.

casino dealer shoe
blackjack dealing shoe
At first glance one might think that the lifting of the sliding gate exposes a large portion of the top card. It most certainly does so, however, that's the card that's about to be dealt, anyway. The important thing is that none of the second card gets exposed as the top card is being dealt, as seen on the second photo.

In most cases the card is dealt face up, so the fact that it's back was exposed one split second before it was dealt, is irrelevant. In other words, what good would it do to identify the card through some kind of a marking system if the card will be dealt face up for anyone to see, anyway? The only exception is the hole card in American blackjack games. However, even in that case it is irrelevant that the card's back is exposed before the deal, since the card slides across the table, in plain view of the players, as it's being dealt, and before it's tucked under the dealer's up card.

One might argue that the a marked card is more difficult to read in motion, and that the brief exposure of the card's back, prior to the deal, might enable an expert cheat to quickly read its back and identify the value of the card. After all, professional casino cheats don't mark all the cards for all their values, instead they just mark all the ten-value cards (in blackjack) which is all they need to beat the game. So, all that a casino cheat needs to do is to know if the dealer's hole card is a ten or not.

Although that's all true, and although I would be wrong in saying that it would be impossible to quickly identify the top card during the split second while the sliding gate is open, some other facts also remain true. First, the hole card is still slid in plain view across the table (as just discussed), and second, when conventional dealing shoes are used the top card is partially exposed for a much longer period of time than is the case with this shoe. So, basically, it is still much easier to read any top card with conventional dealing shoes than it is with this one.

One reason why acquired this shoe was to study the mechanics of the sliding gate and figure out if it would be possible to design a two shoe with a sliding gate. I've come to the conclusion that it would be impossible.

First of all, the sliding gate makes it impossible to identify the top card in advance. In the case of a two shoe the identification of the top card is either done by peeking (in the case of a prism shoe) or by marked cards (in the case of a rough-and-smooth shoe). Neither one of those options are possible if the shoe is fitted with a sliding gate. The other problem is that second dealing is not really possible, due to the fact that the top card is almost fully exposed as the dealer lifts the sliding gate. So, if you see that the casino is using this kind of shoe, you can rest assured that the dealer is not dealing seconds on you.

This is not to say that this kind of dealing shoe can't be gaffed. I can actually think of several ways to gaff this shoe, but in all honesty this shoe design would not be my first choice to make a gaffed shoe. The only exception would be to make a camera-ready gaffed shoe with a sliding gate, which is a shoe that enables the operator to see through the front and read the top card that's been marked with camera-ready ink. So, if you're a casino operator and if you ever come across these kinds of shoes, make sure the front is truly opaque, before you put these shoes on the floor.