This is an article that’s been brewing in the back of my mind for a very long time, encouraged in part by the Numb3rs Season 2 episode ‘Double Down’ (and several subsequent episodes), in part by movies such as ‘The Sting’, ‘Oceans 11’, and ‘Oceans 13’, in part by the Babylon-5 Season 1 episode ‘The Quality Of Mercy’ (in which Londo cheats at Poker using an extra (tentacle) limb to reach across under the table), and in part by the first two or three seasons of ‘Las Vegas’. Oh, and some of the Poker games of the crew of the Enterprise in Star Trek The Next Generation, as well – just take a look at this list of ‘poker references in Star Trek’ at Memory Alpha, the Star Trek wiki…
Specifically, I started thinking about how people could or would attempt to cheat in worlds where characters had different abilities to the norm, and what measures casinos – who obviously would want to deter such practices – would have to put in place to stop them.
Cheating in Fantasy
At first glance, there seem to be two ways of cheating in addition to the standards. The first is the use of precognition, and the second uses telekinesis of some sort. But with a little imagination, a few more start suggesting themselves.
The problem with precognition is that it always lacks in context or in detail. If a spell is so kind as to show the cheater’s hand (assuming that we’re talking about a card game such as poker), a large bet, and a triumphant win, there is no guarantee that these events happen in sequence, or all relate to the same hand of the game. This makes precognition more a “will-I-won’t-I-play-tonight” coin-toss, cast in advance, but even used in this way there are problems. The player may think they have won, only for someone else at the table to crash the party with a better hand even as the precognitive player celebrates. Or for the player to lose his winnings – and then some – in one or more subsequent hands, for that matter.
Because the GM has full control over the content of the precognition, and will never tell the whole story (he needs to leave room for player input, if nothing else), a player should never be able to rely on it 100%. Scenes should be disjointed, not a seamless narrative.
This is justifiable in a fantasy game situation because the casino would make every effort imaginable to stay on the good side of the God(des) of Luck, God(dess) of Fate, and any other such power that might be able to influence the outcome – or prevent such influences from being helpful.
This notion can be taken further – a casino might employ priests of the God(dess) of Dreams to ensure that everyone who stays at the Casino has dreams of winning, just to encourage them to play!
The ability to manipulate objects at a distance would seem to be an obvious way to cheat, but in a fantasy milieu, such spells are almost always accompanied by a visual display of some kind – a spectral hand, for example. This makes the approach generally untenable.
A more subtle approach is to employ an ability to scry to see other player’s cards. In some game systems, this requires a rather obvious physical object to use as the focus of the magic such as a crystal ball, a mirror, or something similar; this makes Scrying unsuitable as a technique for cheating. Other game systems permit scrying in any reflective surface – a refinement of the obvious approach of simply seeing the reflection of someone’s cards. This suggests an obvious technique – a team, one of whom is a fighter in brightly-polished armor and the other of which who uses that armor to scry on his opponent’s hands!
How would a casino combat scrying? They couldn’t very well ban players from wearing anything that was polished or reflective, though that is an obvious remedy. Carried through to its logical extreme, this would impart a rustic flavor to the most up-market casinos, a touch which could help distinguish the game world from the real one. The problem with such a ban is that it would require casinos to store a large quantity of very valuable magic items belonging to patrons, who would be reluctant to hand them over unless the casino assumed full responsibility for them (and had adequate (expensive) security to boot – a financial risk that could quite literally break the bank.
A better, but more difficult, approach would be to employ illusionists to overlay false ‘readings’ on any reflective surface, ensuring that scrying gave a false ‘read’. It follows that the best and most famous casinos would be found in cities/nations with strong magic schools. Since these are generally the most easily-cast illusions – the casino wouldn’t even have to make them look real, if they publicized the security measure – this would also be a relatively inexpensive solution.
It might even reach the point where the casino paid the costs of apprenticeships in the illusionary art, at least until the apprentice/casino employee had learned enough to carry out this function. Many of the apprentices would not have the skills to progress further, but this is still a win/win/win for the parties involved – the casino gets its illusionists, the trainees get secure employment with the prospects of being taken on as a full apprentice if they are good enough, and the tutor gets additional income, a patron, and assistance in locating suitable apprentices to work on his behalf.
Of course, illusions work both ways. A cheat can overlay one of his cards with an illusion of a different card, or do the same with a card in a rival’s hand (though that’s trickier to get away with). What’s more, it would be harder for a casino to combat this without disrupting the illusions that they are using to prevent scrying. The best answer to this is to use a deck of custom-created magic cards that disrupt illusions cast on them – again strengthening the affiliation between schools of magic and successful gambling dens.
This would have an additional benefit – most magic items are far more resilient than their non-magical counterparts. Modern casinos combat card-marking by swapping decks frequently, a practice that relies on having a manufacturing industry able to produce hundreds of virtually-identical decks of cards; the pseudo-medieval nature of most fantasy campaigns does not permit this, but using magic cards achieves the same benefit by making the cards harder to mark in the first place.
Of course, there are always the traditional approaches: high levels of manual dexterity, ‘trick’ shuffles, card-counting, and so on. Some of these might not have been thought of in a fantasy environment, or probability might not work exactly the same ‘in-game’ as it does in real life, but as a general rule, they would still be expected to work. The techniques to combat these would be equally traditional, and most revolve around a dealer provided by the casino.
‘Anything goes’ games
Of course, any private game run outside the scope and protection of a well-heeled casino would not be able to counter these measures so easily – which can be the basis for a fun adventure, in which the PCs sit in on a ‘friendly’ game in which everyone else is cheating by means of a different method!
Cheating in Sci-Fi
As technology and analytic sophistication improve, statistical analysis becomes an increasing element of both cheating (and advantage playing) and of the detection of cheating. It is generally considered cheating for someone to have computer assistance, for example, but this becomes difficult to enforce when mobile telephones which can also run software apps become ubiquitous, and almost impossible if cybernetic enhancements are commonplace.
To combat this, casinos would employ computer-based statistical analysis to detect cheating. The house has the advantage of being able to see everyone’s cards through hidden cameras, so they can always determine the optimum approach, assuming ignorance on the part of the players. A player may legitimately make a mistake and ignore what is apparently the optimum move, once or twice without suspicion, especially if they are clearly not a professional player. A professional may even get away with it occasionally if they can ‘read’ another player well enough – though this becomes more problematic when the other players are also professionals who have eliminated as many ‘tells’ as possible. The more times it occurs that a player wins by virtue of an apparent mistake, the more suspicious that player’s behavior becomes.
Adding to this are other methods of profiling players, both legitimate (facial recognition to identify known and suspected cheats) and illegitimate, and the capabilities of non-human species.
Consider a race with multiple eyes on stalks which weave back-and-forth like cat’s tails by instinct, alert to any potential danger or threat – how hard would it be to prevent such a player from getting a glimpse of his neighbor’s cards? Or a race with a marsupial’s natural pouch in which marked cards or cold decks can be located, but which is normally used to protect the young for whom exposure to the outside world can be dangerous – searching one of those would be the equivalent of a body-cavity search, which would have to be deemed unacceptable as a business practice (if not outright illegal). A race with very accurate thermal senses or very sharp hearing or even canine olfactory abilities might be able to measure the nervousness of another player – hardly definitive, but a definite advantage. Heck, even a race from a low-gravity environment with an extra meter (very roughly 3¼’) of height would find it much easier to see other player’s cards!
There are really very few things that can be done to combat the use of such player advantages. One possibility would be the use of ‘isolation walls’ between players so that they could not see each other, but the ability to ‘read’ an opponent is a huge part of the difference between live play and online play, so this would probably not be especially welcomed. It would also impact the audience’s vicarious attraction to the game, which is a big part of the atmosphere of high-stakes tournaments, so once again, the solution is left wanting.
Ultimately, I expect casinos would simply tell players to learn to live with it – each player has a different mix of abilities and skills that they can use to their advantage as they see fit.
The alternative would be to embrace one alternative solution that comes to mind – but I’m going to save discussion of that alternative for the end of the article.
One particular mode of cheating that needs mentioning at this point is the issue of telepathy. Unlike a fantasy campaign, with it’s special-effects-friendly magic spells, psionics is usually an invisible ability in most sci-fi and superhero games.
There are two primary defenses that could be employed against this method of cheating. The first would be a technological defense – some sort of “jammer” that each patron could wear or carry, which would broadcast mental “static” to any telepath present. The alternative would be taken from the old moral, “to catch a thief” – staff telepaths who would wander around “looking” for people using telepathic means to cheat.
I can see the latter being especially appropriate to a Babylon-5 universe (or any similar game) where there is an aggressive recruitment campaign by the Psi-Corps. For the former to work, there needs to be, One, general acceptance that psionic talents are real, backed by experimental proof, and Two, formal and detailed studies into exactly how it works. The second can’t exist without the first, and the second is required in order to provide a theoretical foundation for developing the gadget in the first place.
Cheating in Superhero Campaigns
A world with Superheroes would have to be a Casino Manager’s worst nightmare. Not only would it bring all the modes of cheating from both sci-fi and fantasy environments – and some of the limiting factors that constrain these would or could be reduced or even obviated completely – but there would be more besides.
Superhero TK doesn’t have to be visible, and often isn’t. That means that players don’t have to ‘reach’ for cold decks or extra cards, or even to take surreptitious glimpses at the deck.
The one saving grace for Casinos where this ability is concerned is that psionics rarely occur alone – a telekinetic usually has at least some telepathic ability, however poor and untrained it is. So developing and then turning up the Jammers might be sufficient.
This brings us back to Londo Mullari and his “extra limb”. When a big toe can stretch and curl around the table to surreptitiously reveal the top card on the deck, casinos have a problem – though a card “shoe” would mitigate this.
Superhero precognition is usually more controllable and more reliable than the fantasy variety. If this is a psionic ability, then the measures mentioned under Telekinesis might be effective, but if the character reads the future by sensing the shape of the timeline, the power might be completely non-psionic. However, the latter approach would probably require a greater measure of skill in interpreting the results since there is no direct link between outcome and perception, so this would probably be considered the equivalent of being a professional player, and tolerated.
Can a sufficiently-skillful player teleport cards out of a card shoe at the same time as they teleport in a cold deck? If someone were to propose this to me in a game I was running, I would be extraordinarily skeptical, requiring many long hours of practice. Can it be done with no-one noticing (including security cameras)? That’s even more problematic. Casinos could combat this further by installing simple but highly-accurate pressure sensors under each card shoe – sufficient to detect the difference in weight of a single card. If the reduction is accompanied by the dealer extracting a card from the shoe, it can be ignored; if not, the alarm sounds. The casino might not know who was cheating, but they would know that someone was – and could declare the hand null and void, bring in a fresh show, and so on, just as they would if they detected someone marking the cards without knowing who.
Super-luck & Mind control
There are many other approaches to cheating that can be considered for a superhero campaign, but most of them also exist in either fantasy or sci-fi settings.
One step up from mere precognition is the ability to actually alter the outcome. The simplest method is simply to influence another character’s decision-making process – but that’s generally psionics again, or some form of hypnotism (which in turn requires some form of communication with the victim that would either be obvious or be psionic in nature), so the same measures work.
The more unusual method is to be able to fiddle with probability itself, during the shuffling process for example. Not even automated card-shuffling machines would be able to resist this power, and the only way to counter it is to employ someone to give the patrons bad luck – an unacceptable choice.
In fact, the only solution to this method of cheating is to have the randomizing agent somewhere else completely. And that brings us to the final anti-cheating technique, the one that I alluded to earlier:
Almost all of these problems go away if you replace the casino with a server farm. If there are no physical cards to manipulate, if players don’t know who they are up against except as a screen name (let alone where they are and who they are), most of the old methods of cheating simply won’t work.
Even unusual methods like reading or manipulating the shape of the future become more difficult, and more easily detected, simple because the game relies on numbers that appear random – but are actually pseudo-random in nature, and hence can be replicated on a backup system in a remote third location. If the two machines agree, there’s no problem – but if they disagree, then one of them has been manipulated.
Is online gambling a complete cure? Not at all – there are some very clever people out there who have devised ways of beating the system (I don’t want to encourage this sort of behavior, so I’m not going to tell you what they are). But if I could find out about them, anyone else who really wants to can do so as well.
Suffice it to say that the proprietors of online casinos know all about them, too, and have watchdog routines in place to curb them – or (in some cases) have decided that it is not worth trying to do so and amended the terms and conditions of their games to permit such behavior.
Know the game
As the long list of media at the start of this article attest, gambling is a common human activity. Being able to simulate it in your games is something that will and should be necessary from time to time.
The environment is a factor that needs to be taken into account if you are to do this with any real success. There have been enough movies and TV shows that this is easy for a bricks-and-mortar casino, but its not so easy when you’re talking about online gaming. You might imagine that you know what it is like, but your imagination – in general – won’t capture the real essence of what a genuine game online is like, any more than a few friendly games will prepare you to participate in a genuine tournament.
Your emotional state, the fact that the stakes are real, the fact that someone else – with a different thought process to your own – has an equal impact on the outcome, these all combine to alter your mindset in the genuine event.
It follows that the best prep for simulating online poker in one of your games is to actually play a few
competitive games at pokersoft sites, and take careful note of how the actual experience differs from your imaginary one.
A few words of warning: to get the psychological impact right, there need to be real stakes, and that means a real game. Expect to lose (unless you make an ongoing hobby of it) and budget accordingly – don’t throw good money after bad in an attempt to recoup a loss. That means considering any money spent on a gambling site to have been spent – if you’re lucky, you might get some or all or even more back from a source that just happens to be the same, but that should be considered a separate transaction.
Secondly, Gambling addiction is real, and can be a real problem. Johnn raised this point a couple of weeks ago in his article, ‘Who Got Poker In My RPG?’ and I would like to second his advice on the subject. You may play online poker with real money to learn how to simulate it in your RPG, but DON’T play for real money in your RPG. In fact, think twice before playing for anything of value, even M&Ms. One GM I know once suggested that RPG gambling should be played for XP – I don’t agree, and even consider the suggestion dangerous.
Above all, have fun! There’s nothing like playing a game with no pressure to win – be it an RPG or online gambling. In fact, thinking of the stakes as “money already spent” should allow you to bring the same detachment to the online game as you do to an RPG session – so enjoy it.
Oh, and if you cheat, on your own head be it – it’s one thing to talk about villains and underhanded types doing so in a game, we neither support no condone doing so in real life.