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Inside the Mind of the Cheater

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“My first cheating experience wasn’t thought out. It wasn’t planned, it just … it just happened, kind of,” explained admitted poker cheater Randy P. from Oakland, CA. “It was my regular game at a buddy’s house, and this cocky guy beside me kept winning nearly every pot. I was getting low in chips, and when he reached into the middle of the table to pull in a winning pot, I just slid my hand under his armpit and grabbed a few chips. I didn’t even think about it. To be honest, it felt good. It was a rush.” In that moment, a poker cheat was born. In the months to come after swiping those first chips, Randy would learn and hone new cheating skills, teach a partner how to join his cheating efforts, and take in huge profits along the way.

We all know that there are plenty of determined players out there trying to gain any advantage they can at the table. I have dug into this shady aspect of the game, and we were simply unnerved with some of the things that we’ve uncovered. From competitive high-priced Internet tournaments to laid back micro-limit home games, there are innumerable players out there who are using underhanded tactics to take our money unfairly. Through interviewing admitted cheaters, we’ve not only exposed some of their most common methods of cheating, but we’ve also identified and labeled the psychology behind their actions. Not only do non-cheaters look down on those who employ such tactics, we often wonder why they do it. Do not be so hasty as to assume that the cheater is primarily driven by the money, as when we explored the mind of the cheater we uncovered more complex personal motivations and mindsets.

Composition of the Cheater: The Drive

A cheater is indeed interested in the money, but the money itself is often not his primary motivation. A common trait of the cheaters we spoke to was a deep sense of competitiveness. Put bluntly, it seems that cheaters want to win so very badly that they will use any means to do so. “For me, it feels like there is no option. I absolutely NEED to win,” explained a user named HawkEye on a poker chat forum. He went on to say, “When my chips are low, I just can’t stand it. I get into a panic-type of state. At that moment, I’d do anything to get back in it to win.”

This deep psychological need to win, and thus avoid losing, is apparent in most cheaters. It seems that they hold special meaning in their chip stacks. To them, the chips in front of them do not simply represent money. Instead, those chips represent power, control, and self-worth. Losing chips means losing self-confidence. This attack on their brittle psyche causes the panic and discomfort, causing the cheating methods to become more attractive. HawkEye’s need to consistently win may be his mask, covering the uncertainty and self-doubt beneath the surface.

After the Cheat: The Justification

“I’d beat them anyway in the long run,” slyly chirped Doug from Tulsa during a recent phone interview. “This just quickens the process,” he said with a chuckle. Doug and his two partners use a technique called collusion while playing online. They seek out short-handed tables of about seven or eight players with sizable chip stacks. Together, the three share information and directions via an instant messaging service while they play this same table. Usually, the other players at the table find their bankrolls quickly depleted as they get caught in the raise and re-raise cross-fire. They hit quickly and move on, and have thus far only been identified by one of the websites that they usually play.

Doug’s brazen attitude has him believing that he is actually superior in ability to the other players. We found this sort of mental justification to be common with the cheaters we spoke with. It is clear that cheating could produce internal feelings of guilt and shame. In order to avoid this, cheaters are skilled at using internal defense mechanisms and elaborate justifications. Randy told us, “It isn’t a big deal or anything. I’m not cheating to win some huge amount or anything. The guys I play with can afford to lose the money, otherwise they wouldn’t be playing.” He also added a baseball comparison, “Hey, this happens everywhere. Pitchers doctor the balls … and corked bats. Umm, they try to steal signs from the catcher. You see.” Minimizing the cheat happens almost automatically within the mind. After the justification takes hold, the cheater starts to believe that there is nothing wrong with their behavior! Shame is replaced by pride, as the cheater is excited to be good at pulling off the cheat.

All for One, One for All!

Poker is usually an individual endeavor. With hours and hours quietly spent at the table, poker players often report feeling lonely, sheltered, and bored. Poker cheaters rarely work alone. They often have partners, and these partnerships have spent a large amount of time together perfecting their craft. Doug’s small band of online colluders has even nicknamed themselves “the Brokers,” saying their job is to make others go broke. “At the end of the night we joke about some of the plays and wins,” he said. “I’ll call up my one buddies and we talk about how we are going to spend the money we won. It’s fun.”

Teamwork and camaraderie are a natural side-effect of cheaters. Their common goal allows for a special bond, much like that of sports teams. This produces a special level of comfort, which helps the cheaters keep their shady habits. This team attitude extends even farther, as HawkEye told us of legions of cheaters who’ve found each other on various online forums. “There are guys on there comparing notes, cutting deals to work together, and just hanging out chatting,” he explained. These types of gathering places help the individual cheater normalize his cheating efforts. He is only one of many doing this, so he feels like he is a part of something bigger.

Crash and Burn

One admitted ex-cheater (who wished to remain anonymous) spoke of the dangerous outcomes that cheating can bring. When he was caught second dealing during a game in college, the ramifications were far-reaching. His friends and fraternity brothers began to exclude and shun him. His once suppressed feelings of guilt and shame soon rose to the surface and overwhelmed him. After some serious soul-searching, he swore off cheating in poker forever. He found it so difficult not to fall into his old cheating habits that he forced himself to give-up playing poker for the rest of his college years. Remorse is felt by cheaters, after they have run their course. When the cheat comes to an end, the cheater must work through some lingering psychological baggage.

Overview: The Cheater

Cheaters generally do not feel bad or guilty about the tactics that they employ. They are unified in their efforts, and they often feel absolutely justified in what they are doing. Generally, the cheat is indeed a skilled player and insightful when it comes to poker. They use those poker skills with the inherent advantages that comes along with cheating to reach a consistently profitable level. Mostly, they desire the win and go to any length to get it. Spotting a cheat involves getting inside of their mind and understanding their motivation. The next time you play poker, remember to get inside the mind of the cheater in order to protect yourself!

Playing Smarter: Watch for the common cheats

Signaling: Partners pass information to each other about their hands. In live games, it can be done via hand movements, chip placement, eye contact, or body movements. With online play it is done even easier via IM, chat rooms, or via telephone.

Whip-Sawing: Partners sit at the opposite end of the table. Their goal is to raise and re-raise when one has a premium hand, extracting the most chips from those caught in the middle.

Dumping: Deliberately losing a sizable pot to a partner in order to replenish his bankroll. Since they are playing together (often split profits at end of night), it does not matter who holds the chips at a given time.

Holding-Out: Only possible in live games, this is the old “Ace up the Sleeve” trick. A player keeps a card hidden (holding it out) to put back into play when it benefits them.

Card Marking: From dobbing a shiny liquid on a card’s back, to scratching and bending a corner of a card, some live game players are amazingly skilled at having the important cards easily identifiable.

Bottom and Second Dealing: Home games where players take turns dealing are especially susceptible to cheating dealers. Skilled “mechanics” are able to deal the cards to benefit themselves or a partner.

Chip Cupping: Using fast hands and distractions, chip cuppers can swipe chips from their neighbor’s stack or have the pot shorted.

Peeping: This involves seeing or knowing what your opposition is holding. In casinos and home games, railbirds (people watching the action) can angle themselves to see other player’s hold cards and tip their partner. Some peepers do the work themselves, placing a shiny object like a metal ashtray or lighter on the table to catch a mirrored glimpse of the cards.

In addition to being a poker enthusiast, gambling columnist, and lecturer, John is a National Certified Counselor (NCC) and practices in his home state of Pennsylvania. He has a Master of Arts degree in Counseling from West Virginia University, and a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology with a minor in Sociology from Lock Haven University. You can arrange for interviews or speaking engagements with “the Poker Counselor” at carlisle14@hotmail.com.

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