Living Legends: To Catch a Cheat

If you have fast hands, you can cheat at cards. But you’d better be careful—you never know who’s watching. It may be Norman Beck.

Every time I’ve visited Norman Beck, I’ve left feeling a little dizzy. The fog doesn’t lift for a couple of hours. Once, when I was sitting across from him in his office, Beck pulled a baseball bat out of a lunch sack. Another time he took a deck of cards, shuffled them, and proceeded to spell out my birthday, card by card, on the desk between us. We’d never talked about my birthday. When I realized what he had done, I felt as though I had been punched in the stomach. If I slump after such a trick, Beck will grin and say with a slightly nasal and evangelical flourish, “It’s scary. There’s no way I could have known that.”

Beck is a magician. His love is close-up magic, which is what the name implies—manipulations of objects, usually cards, done at close proximity to the audience. Close-up magic requires good hands, something magicians and gamblers alike call “good chops.” One recent morning, Beck had a TV set sitting on his desk when I arrived.

I went to visit because I was curious about a case he’d been asked to investigate. One of the governing bodies of tournament bridge had been alerted to a suspected cheater. Beck was sent a videotape to analyze. If he saw evidence of cheating, they wanted him to testify at a formal hearing. Steve Forte, one of the most respected consultants in the gaming industry, later told me, “That tape ended up in the hands of the most qualified person in the world to determine whether the guy was cheating. The cheat didn’t know it, but he was playing one-on-one with Michael Jordan.” Beck agreed to recreate his testimony for me.
 
Beck’s office is a case study in itself. Hanging on the walls are framed posters from the United States Playing Card Company. The bookcase is filled with oddities: The Expert at the Card Table: A Treatise on the Science and Art of Manipulating Cards, Secrets of the Card Sharps, and a re-issue of Cheating at Bridge. There are suspense novels, psychology books, magic books, and 80-year-old catalogs for gambling equipment. For Beck, they constitute dictionaries and style manuals; he works at a company that underwrites prizes in all sorts of contests.
 
Every contest inspires a con artist. It’s Beck’s job to see that they fail.
 
“This guy here is our guy,” Beck said immediately after turning on the tape. He was pointing at a man shuffling cards at a bridge table. The video is grainy and short. There is no audio. “It’s better without it,” Beck said. Eventually, all of the men at the table shuffle cards. None look at each other, but there is small talk and polite laughter. Card tables extend into the distance. “See that guy on his left, the guy standing up?” Beck asked me. “He’s easily one of the top bridge players in the world. He has no idea of what’s happening.”

Neither did I. “Is it as clear cut as a car going through a red light?” I asked.

“It’s that clear.”

As soon as the tape ended, Beck turned off the TV and picked up new a pack of cards and peeled off the cellophane. The late Dai Vernon, considered one of the greatest close-up magicians ever, believed that he could tell how good a magician was by the way he took the deck out of the box. Beck takes it out like he was removing a splinter. “The jury didn’t see anything the first time it viewed the tape either,” Beck said. “It was my job to show them that something funny was going on. I was nervous. I hadn’t been on the witness stand in 13 years.”

In addition to everything else, Beck was a cop for five years. “There were people in that hearing who I respect. I also have a lot of passion for bridge. To look across the table at someone and say, ’You’re a cheater.’ Well…” Beck paused; his hands fell to the table. “It’s funny,” he said. “It never really bothered me as a cop to call someone a rapist or a murderer. But a cheater? I knew what the ramifications would be if he got caught. I can’t imagine losing my playing privileges. I love bridge.” Beck is a life master several times over.

There is something about a cheater. My wife and I once played a game of spades with a couple of friends on the train from New York to Washington, D.C. Just before we pulled into Union Station, the woman made an odd play. “You said you were out of hearts,” I told her. She tossed her cards onto the table and reached for her things. We stared at her. “I know,” she laughed. “I’ve been cheating. Ever since we started.” Thus commenced a series of lasts: the last time we played cards with them, the last time we traveled together, the last time they stayed at our house. A person who’d cheat you when you’re playing for matchsticks might steal your bath towels. We don’t see them much anymore but when we do, my wife and I invariably say to each other, “Remember when…?”

Beck’s testimony was given in a hotel boardroom at four tables arranged in a horseshoe, with the ruling body’s committee chairman seated in the center. The suspected cheater sat off to the side and was represented by an attorney.
  
“What were you thinking when you walked in there?” I asked.

“I looked at him and thought, ’I’m your worst nightmare.’”

By way of warm-up, Beck fanned the fresh deck of cards with a twist of his thumb. “I’m going to show you four things,” he said, turning the cards toward me. “There are four things on that tape.” The cards were in perfect, new deck order. Beck shuffled and cut the cards. He fanned them again. The cards were still in new deck order. Beck had somehow reversed the shuffle. In a single move. Grinning at my confusion, he shuffled again.

“On the videotape, the man looks at the cards. A direct break in protocol,” Beck said. “Let’s see how much information I can get in one take.” Beck looked through the deck for, at most, 30 seconds. Then he dealt the cards into four bridge hands.

“The way the cards lay right now, even the best players in the world would have no chance against me,” he said. “You and I have all the aces, kings, queens, and jacks except two.” Beck turned the cards over. We had every face card but the queen of hearts and the king of clubs. To reinforce the point, Beck repeated the procedure, only this time when he turned over the cards he had every spade. All of them.
 
“How hard was that?” I asked.

“It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve worked on,” Beck said. “There’s a lot of stuff involved. He does that on the tape. He glances at the cards. If I can go through the deck that fast and get them all, I don’t think it would take a lot of practice to get four or eight cards. Even that would be a huge advantage.”

There are basically two types of card shuffles: the riffle shuffle, which most of us use, and the overhand shuffle, which involves taking cards from one hand and tossing them into the other, steadily mixing the cards together. Beck demonstrated both with assembly-line speed. “What happened on the tape was a partial shuffle,” Beck explained. “When the man shuffles, the ace of diamonds stays on the bottom of the deck. Every time. He inadvertently flashed it to the camera. The man isn’t shuffling the bottom of the deck. A gambler calls that ’holding back a slug.’

“Here,” Beck said. “You shuffle.” He handed me the cards.

The deck was heavy and stiff. Casino cards. I could barely bend them. I’m more accustomed to cards limbered by sand and sunscreen.

“How many cards is he holding back?” I asked.

“I can’t know how many. I do know that he was giving his partner the ace.” After I fumbled for a few minutes, Beck took back the cards. “I don’t think his partner knew,” he said.

As explained to me by Beck and others, a cheater has to be so natural that he no longer worries about technique. He has to be more natural than even a magician, who can use words and misdirection to distract an audience while he performs a sleight of hand. “On the third shuffle,” Beck continued, “the man loses his break, his hold on the slug. He hesitates.” On the tape the hesitation lasts maybe three seconds. “In terms of the activity, three seconds is an eternity,” Beck said. “It’d be like someone breaking a string while they’re playing a guitar and then stopping to put it back on.”

During his testimony, Beck was questioned by a juror. They were free to interrupt. By that point everyone was leaning forward. “Let’s say,” the juror pressed, “that what I see on the tape isn’t conclusive. That the man has an idiosyncratic way of handling the cards. A lot of people maybe do that. Maybe he’s just got a flaw in his shuffle.”

Beck was firm in response. “I’m in a business,” he told the juror, “that deals with odds, math, and statistics. The odds of shuffling—16 times—always keeping the ace of spades on the bottom of the deck are 1 to 52 to the 16th power. That’s a number so big I can’t pronounce it.” Beck pointed at the suspected cheater. “I hate to sit and tell him that he’s a cheater. But that’s what he is. Nobody would look at the cards and then not shuffle the bottom of the deck.” Not if they were playing straight.

When Beck replayed the surveillance tape for me, everything appeared to be moving in slow motion. The ace of diamonds stayed on bottom no matter which way the cards were shuffled. The man lost his place and looked at the cards to regain it. I saw it all. Clear as a car running a red light. The jury saw it, too, the second time around. They voted unanimously to suspend the man’s tournament privileges. Worse than that: They branded him a cheater. He’s appealing.

Near the end of the hearing, the cheater’s attorney, in a weak attempt at a cross-examination, questioned Beck about cutting the cards. Neither the cheater nor his opponents ever asked to cut the cards on the tape. It’s not mandatory in tournament bridge. Beck’s still unhappy with his response. “I didn’t say, but I should have,” he shrugged. “’Ma’am, if his opponent had cut those cards, we wouldn’t be here now, would we?’”

 

Photo by James Bland

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