R. Paul Wilson On: “The Tip” – A Classic Poker Confidence Game
“The class of swindlers engaged in this line…are much more dangerous, for in addition to robbing their victims of their money, they deprive them of their reputation and good name.”
H. K. James – The Destruction of Mephisto’s Greatest Web (1914)
“The Tip” and its variations is a powerful confidence game designed to rope a mark into a situation where they are willing to risk a large amount of money and when they lose, are forced to keep quiet for fear of being exposed as a cheater themselves.
The mark: a sucker, a fish, a victim.
Here’s how “The Tip” scam works:
The Set Up
The job of a “roper” is to meet with, socialise and spot potential victims; people with money and the right personality to accept a potentially crooked proposition. Professional ropers mix with wealthy people in all walks of life and quickly identify a potential fish who they introduce to their fellow con artists.
Once everyone becomes familiar, the mark is given the story to see if they bite.
The con artist: an expert deceiver playing the role of a friendly but dishonest poker player.
There’s a poker game being set up with a ridiculously wealthy player who regularly loses large amounts of money without blinking. And as it happens, that game is happening this weekend in this hotel.
The con artist wants to fill the table with “friends” so he can guarantee winning a large sum and is willing to stake the other players so only his money is on the line. All the sucker has to do is play the con artist’s money and they will all split the winnings at the end.
To make sure they win, the con artist tells the mark he will pass off all of his chips to one of his partners. Then he’ll sit out of the game where he can see what the big player has in his hand and signal what he has to the others!
Suddenly it’s a game they can’t lose. Since the only money being risked belongs to the con artist (and the mark is morally flexible) the mark quickly agrees to play.
Sure enough, the big player is careless with his money and seems willing to bet on anything.
The con artist loses all his chips to the mark and sits out of the game, behind the big player. Over the next hour, thanks to the con artist’s signals; the big player loses everything to the mark and quickly runs out of cash.
Remember, at this point the mark has none of his own money on the table and once the big player’s losses are split with his “partners” is guaranteed to win thousands from the affair. This is just the beginning and everything that has happened up until now is designed to firmly “hook” the mark for the next phase of the scam.
The big player is out of cash but offers to go to the hotel safe for more. The con artists tells the big player that he trusts him for the money but the big player insists on showing the money and goes to get the cash.
Consider for a moment how important this is.
The gang are about to squeeze the mark for his own money but before they do so, they clearly establish that the money has to be in the room before it can be played. That means when the mark really “bites” he already knows he has to show his own money first.
When the big player returns, the game continues. After a few rounds, with the con artist signalling dud hands to the mark, a cold deck is secretly introduced to the game.
The deck in play is now stacked to produce a known outcome.
“The Tip” scam is brilliantly described by H.K. James in his 1914 book with a description of the exact hands they used to fleece a sucker. While this was for draw poker, the principle works just as well for modern games but the version given in The Destruction of Mephisto’s Greatest Web has a touch of genius.
Once the stacked deck is dealt between the big player and the mark, the con artist signals “no pair” to the mark. As it happens, the mark has no pair but has an ace high so figures that before the draw, he already has the big player beat.
Both players draw one card and the deck is pre-set so that no matter how many cards the sucker takes, the big player would take the same and guarantee beating the sucker.
After the draw, the con artist peeks the big player’s hand and signals “no pair”.
The mark is in the same position but with his ace high, raises with everything he’s got.
Sure enough, the reckless big player wants to go all the way and offers to bet even more; in other words, if the mark is willing, the big player is offering to bet a lot more money than the mark has on the table.
And here comes the first sting.
The mark is convinced he has a winning hand because every signal he’s received from the con artist so far has been accurate and all he has to do is “dig down into his jeans” for more money to guarantee an enormous pot.
Everything that has lead to this moment has been about creating this certainty; to encourage the mark to “pop” at the opportunity.
This is where the player pulls everything he has onto the table and if he doesn’t have enough money on his person (which he usually has) he can send for it. However, the money gets to the table, the mark is convinced he has the winning hand but remember: he’s betting no pair with an ace high!
That might seem insane, but this poor guy has been the target of hours of powerful psychological manipulation to reach this moment. Right now, there’s nothing and no one who could convince him not to bet every penny he has on that POS hand!
With tens of thousands of his own money plus all of his partners’ money in the pot, the mark spreads his hand to reveal an ace high.
The big player laughs and spreads an almost identical hand: ace high with no pair.
But there’s a twist in our example: four of the cards in each hand are the same value with one important difference. Where the mark has a six, the big player has an eight!
SUCKER: Ace of spades, king of spades, jack of spades, ten of clubs, six of spades.
BIG PLAYER: Ace of clubs, king of hearts, Jack of diamonds, ten of spades, eight of spades.
That eight makes the big player’s hand slightly stronger, so he takes the pot!
The Blow Off
The big player makes his excuses and exits the game, taking everyone’s money with him. The mark is suddenly alone with his “partners” after losing all their money alongside his own cash.
In fact, he lost a lot more money than they did so his “friends” pretend to be sympathetic, blame it all on bad luck and promise to set up another game sometime soon.
Later, the con artists split their winnings and begin searching for another mark, confident that the last sucker isn’t going to report anything or admit to trying to cheat someone in a rigged game.
Remember: the mark was taking part in a crooked effort to steal from the big player so is highly motivated not to confess this to anyone. This is at the heart of many con games – an inbuilt reason not to discuss what happened whether for shame of being a victim or fear of being exposed as a crook.
As H.K. James observed in his 1914 book, “owing to this fact there is no protection given others”. In fact, scammers operating this type of scam have accidentally targeted friends or relatives of past set-ups without getting caught because their past victims never said a word to anyone…
The Modern Take
This exact scam is easier to play today, thanks to games with community cards where an AQ can get beaten by an A5 thanks to a lucky 5 on the river. In fact, without the draw, stacking the deck is lot easier for modern games.
And remember that moment where the big player insisted on showing his money before returning to the game?
Today, that money is transferred electronically so players with access to large bank accounts make excellent targets for modern day “Tip” games.
The “Tip” itself changes from game to game. Sometimes it’s a tell or (supposedly) marked cards but it’s always about making the victim believe he has a sure thing.
This is R. Paul Wilson’s second article for Casino.org. Read his first post on why you should learn to shuffle, and return on July 1 for his third article on card counting basics.