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Sharps and Flats: A Complete Revelation of The Secrets of Cheating at Games of Chance and Skill
by John Nevil Maskelyne


(2 reviews, 4 customer ratings) ★★★★★

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Sharps and Flats: A Complete Revelation of The Secrets of Cheating at Games of Chance and Skill by John Nevil Maskelyne

Sharps and Flats is probably the most important early book on cheating devices and methods. Sharps being the cheaters and flats being the cheated, the mark. Maskelyne details among others, marked cards, holdouts (Kepplinger holdout), reflectors and manipulation. He describes not just cheating at the card table but also cheating with dice, cheating at Sporting houses, and at Roulette. The book is very thorough with many wonderful illustrations.

1st edition, 1894, Longmans, Green and Co., New York and London; reprinted, Gamblers Book Club, Las Vegas; 335 pages.

  1. Preface to the Second Edition
  2. Preface
  3. I.Introductory
  4. II.Common Sharpers and Their Tricks
  5. III.Marked Cards and the Manner of Their Employment
  6. IV.Reflectors
  7. V.Holdouts
  8. VI.Manipulation
  9. VII.Collusion and Conspiracy
  10. VIII.The Game of Faro
  11. IX.Prepared Cards
  12. X.Dice
  13. XI.High Ball Poker
  14. XII.Roulette and Allied Games
  15. XIII.Sporting-Houses
  16. XIV.Sharps and Flats
  17. Postscript

word count: 80209 which is equivalent to 320 standard pages of text

Reviewed by Gregg Webb (confirmed purchase)
★★★★★   Date Added: Tuesday 19 December, 2023

This book by John Nevil Maskelyne with help from at least one expert on crooked gambling is very well written. This may be the best writing in a "magic" book I've yet found. I'm talking about just the writing itself being entertaining, but I have yet to describe the material covered. My personal opinion is that he was aware of German books about cheating at gambling, and felt he could write a similar book in English and at the same time make it more complete.

A good place to start is with Monte on trains and at the race track. Then he covers some bar bets, and gambling that went on in bars, usually with several "sharps" beating an honest bystander or tourist. Odd Man Out is a game based on spinning coins. The coins used by the swindlers were beveled on the edges to make them fall a certain way. "Spinning Coins" were sold at Tannen's at one time. Now I know what Odd Man Out means.

Moving along to cards, and marked cards were covered very well. There were many ways explained. Fading and tinting were interesting ways to mark cards. A very interesting story was recounted from Houdin where a gambler bought a zillion decks of cards, marked them all, rewrapped them and then sold them to casinos. Then he could go and play at the casinos and the cards were already marked. Then, another gambler was going to do the same thing and bought a number of decks from the casino and was going to mark them, but noticed they were already marked! Eventually he figured out who did it. He blackmailed the other guy for a while, but when the marked cards ran out, the first guy left the country and left the 2nd guy holding the bag. The story was very well told.

Devices were explained next. Different kinds of shiners and bugs and hold-outs were explained in great detail, including the Kepplinger Holdout.

Then manipulations of playing cards were explained and this part was not as well explained as in Erdnase. The grips used were antiquated. An overhand shuffle was done from left to right. There was a way to "mix" cards which I would say was like a left hand and right hand action version of a Charlier Shuffle. A way to run up a hand was explained using this shuffle. Cuts and passes were explained but although interesting from a history's perspective, were not as modern as Erdnase, again. But, one thing covered that was not covered in Erdnase was Riffle-stacking.

Next was covered Faro and all the ways that it can be rigged. It seems as if the rough-and-smooth principle came from Faro. The Faro Shuffle also came from Faro. Dealing was done out of an expensive "box" or shoe or boot and due to the cards "roughed" by rubbing them with sand - actually emery cloth, either cards could be dealt as 2 "stuck" together, and allowed out of the box, to go to the discard pile, or 1 card could be dealt. Cards could be marked, or cut at an odd angle and be told by the mechanic. The whole Faro process was rigged in favor of the house.

Next, all the various ways to trim cards with different kinds of cutters, were explained. Other ways to doctor cards were also explained, including the chemical compounds used to create "slick aces" were rendered for our approval. This way, by pushing laterally on the deck, a bigger gap forms at the aces, and here is where you would cut or pass.

Moving from cards to dice, loaded dice and mis spotted dice were explained as well as electric dice, with electro-magnets in the table, what we called "juice-joints". Then manipulations were described using normal dice and dice cups and crooked dice and dice cups were explained, and in relation to many dice games. Realize that Poker or Craps were not popular in England at that time.

Next, a game I don't know, High Ball Poker, was covered which used a leather bottle and balls with numbers on them.

Then Roulette was explained and the many ways attempted to cheat at it explored.

Finally, a catalog of what are referred to as Sporting Goods (really cheating apparatus) was reproduced for the approval of the reader.

By-the-way, at the end of the cards section, Maskelyne explains a way to cheat and not get caught wherein the "sharp" memorizes as many cards as he can at the end of a hand and as the cards are gathered up. Through memory and estimation, he "follows" or tries to follow where these cards would end up after the person shuffling and the person cutting, were done. Skill at this feat was explained as if some people could get good at this way of being a sharp and not getting in trouble.

I would recommend this book on style points, and on historical points.

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss
★★★★★   Date Added: Monday 05 September, 2005

John Nevil Maskelyne was a fighter for truth, justice, and the American—uh, sorry, make that British—way from virtually the beginning of his career. As an early opponent of spiritualism, he built early fame on his duplication of the Davenport Brothers' spirit cabinet act. Maskelyne's achievements were plentiful and varied, including his work with David Devant at the Egyptian Hall, and of course, his co-authorship with Devant of Our Magic, one of the greatest conjuring texts of all time. He also wrote books on spiritualism—one early in the battle, one late—which still make for remarkably good reading. And he wrote this classic treatise on crooked gambling, the "sharps" and "flats" in the title referring to the cheaters and their uninformed victims. ... There is an elaborate segment on hold-outs, including an illustrative plate depicting an anecdote in which the famous Kepplinger hold-out was first uncovered by some of the inventor's fellow sharpers and, apparently in this case, victims. Later in the book there is a reproduction of a then-current catalog of crooked gambling devices from an American mail-order house, which includes a Kepplinger hold-out for a price of $75.00 (the complete outfit could run as much as a hundred). Today, if you could actually locate the remaining individual or two that still makes a quality Kepplinger, you would likely have to pay between twelve and fourteen hundred dollars for it. Those were the days!