R. Paul Wilson On: Learn to Shuffle, or Get Caught Out

R. Paul Wilson On: Learn to Shuffle, or Get Caught Out

R. Paul Wilson is an expert on cons, scams and the art of deception. Former writer/presenter of “The Real Hustle”, a world-renowned magician and adviser to players and casinos on cheating and game protection.

It amazes me how many poker players, including professionals, have no idea how to properly shuffle a deck of cards. Perhaps, many have never had to do so, either because they mostly play online or play in live games with a dealer.

But in private games, unlicensed card rooms or backroom gambling joints, being able to recognise a good shuffle is essential to protecting your bankroll.

Online play is governed by software that uses increasingly sophisticated random number generators (RNGs) to provide instant shuffles for online players that keep the game moving without interruption.

As a result, online players see more hands in an hour than live players and there is no residual information available to gain an unfair advantage during online play.


What do I mean by that?

Imagine you’re sitting at the table, directly to the dealer’s right and notice that the dealer has a habit of raising his cards too high while riffling. It’s easy in this instance to look into the riffle and spot cards as they drop off the dealer’s thumbs, note where they might end up after a cut, and apply that knowledge to both cards you are dealt and community cards in the middle.

Or you’re sitting in front of the dealer and notice they riffle in a fashion that allows you to track cards through the shuffle and accurately predict where they might be dealt, or whether or not those cards will remain out of play.

Maybe you’re in a private game and know how to recognise and take advantage of a sloppy shuffle that doesn’t properly mix the deck and then cut a memorised sequence into the flop.

Not only can all of these instances happen, I’ve used them all personally (to varying effect) and professional advantage players have earned millions using these methods to beat multi-deck table games around the world.

Not that I’m advocating you should look for or abuse a weak shuffle. If you spot one, either ask for a better shuffle or find another game. Chances are, you’re not the only one who noticed.

What I do encourage is that you learn how to shuffle a deck of cards properly.

To do this, you need to learn how to perform a clean riffle of two halves of a deck, then perform a series of cuts and riffles to ensure a random outcome. Mathematician Persi Diaconis concluded that seven shuffles and cuts would guarantee a truly random order, though new research suggests five shuffles might be sufficient.

The truth is that if the deck is being passed amongst the players in any game, seven shuffles will annoy other players eager to see their next hand – and that’s where online poker has a clear advantage.

The game is much faster and players with limited live experience find it difficult to adapt to slower play. Many card rooms now employ constant shufflers that spit out random cards for each player but there’s something lacking in this “game experience” and many players dislike and distrust these machines.

How poor shuffling costs casinos billions

Not all mechanical shufflers are equal. In the rush to provide casinos with functioning devices, a few poorly conceived machines made their way onto live games.

In the bad/good old days, advantage players would quickly identify a flaw in shufflers with poor or predictable random number generators or with physical issues that might guarantee some cards would remain out of play longer than others.

This information could lead to an advantage for blackjack teams who would try to grab as much money as they could before the house realised they had a problem. One such machine was so easy to predict that a line of professional blackjack players formed at every table, waiting for their chance to clean up.

If you’ve ever played poker, blackjack or any card game at a live casino, you will have seen how dealers all follow a pre-prescribed, approved shuffling sequence to fully randomise multiple decks.

These sequences are carefully monitored and developed with great care but mistakes and a poor understanding of how cards are distributed sometimes attract expert players seeking an advantage.

These players quickly mapped seemingly effective shuffle procedures and were able  to predict how cards were distributed with lethal accuracy. Shuffle tracking is still a powerful tool that I’ll discuss in another article.

But for now, believe me when I say that poor shuffling has cost casinos billions so it’s well worth learning to protect yourself with an effective shuffle.

Spotting professional cheaters

Knowing how to shuffle will certainly help you spot a weak or exposed shuffle someday but if you run into a professional cheater, their shuffle might look perfect, but the outcome is anything but random!

A professional card mechanic learns how to emulate almost any shuffling method while seeking or maintaining valuable cards in the process. A seemingly honest shuffle can even be used to set cards into exact positions ready for the deal. Even the cut can’t protect players since there are countless ways of beating that too.

Image: ‘Riffle shuffle’ is licensed under Wikimedia Commons

The chances of facing a true expert are remote but the more money there is on the table, the better the chance someone wants to steal it. So keep an eye on how the deck is mixed and the procedure being used. Watch the other players to see if anyone has spotted something you’ve missed.

If in doubt, ask for fresh deck or a “wash” (where cards are spread faced down on the table and mixed with both hands before being gathered and squared) but be aware that there are strategies to beat such precautions.

How dealers can deceive you

Consider this: in 2008 on Italian TV, under test conditions, I introduced a brand-new sealed deck of cards in “new deck order”. I shuffled it thoroughly before dealing five hands of draw poker.

By an astonishing stroke of luck, all four of my opponents made excellent hands: a flush, a straight, a full house and even four of a kind! Unfortunately for them, I also picked up a lucky royal flush.

This was an extreme example of card control performed to prove just how much of an advantage I could create using pure sleight of hand under intense scrutiny. In addition to multiple cameras, I also had to beat four or five judges who were primed to watch closely.

Imagine how much easier it would be if the players were busy chatting, ordering drinks or bitching about their bad luck.

The best advice is to avoid unlicensed card rooms or private games where you don’t know exactly who you’re playing. But, most importantly: learn to shuffle so at the very least, you can keep your own game honest.

This is R. Paul Wilson’s first article for Casino.org. Come back for his second post covering “The Tip” – a classic poker confidence game, on June 17.