Sam, George, and Rocky needed money. It had been a couple of months since their last big “business deal” – what most people would label a scam – and they were low on funds. It was time for another cash infusion.
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Sam has a standard routine. He hangs out at the local racetrack, looking for a new “customer.” He listens to the bettors excoriating the jockeys and horses – Sam was a great listener. He knows there is always someone who gets discouraged at their luck betting the horses. He commiserates and befriends them.
And, once in a while, Sam determines that the person is, as the saying goes, well-fixed. If the mark is itching for more, hopefully more lucrative, action, Sam tells them about a poker game he knows about, and that he can get them into it. The time and place is set – the hook is baited.
During the game, the deal rotates around the table, with Sam, George, and Rocky all playing against the mark. Sam sits to the left of the mark, with Rocky to Sam’s left. Rocky is an excellent card mechanic – he can manipulate the deck at will. Their scheme is to let the mark slowly win throughout the session. If the mark is losing, Rocky makes sure he recoups his losses. Then Rocky deals the fatal blow, which is enough to ensure a tidy profit for the evening.
The game they prefer is five-card draw. For Rocky’s final deal, he arranges for the mark to be dealt four aces, plus any random card. Sam is dealt, say, the five, six, seven, and eight of clubs, with a fifth card that is not a club. Rocky makes sure that the top two cards on the remaining pile are the four and nine of clubs. Bets are made, George and Rocky fold before the draw, leaving Sam and the mark heads up.
The mark draws first, and naturally he either stands pat or draws only one card, leaving him with four of a kind. In either case, the next card would make Sam a straight flush. Rocky doesn’t deal a straight flush or even just a flush to Sam directly – Sam having to draw makes it seem like simple luck. Usually all the money goes into the pot, and the mark is felted. Sam, George, and Rocky call it the Cincinnati Cooler since they first used it in a seedy hotel on banks of the Ohio River.
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So on this day, Sam went to the racetrack and found a well-dressed man who was obviously not having much luck. Sam surreptitiously looked at the worthless tickets the man had thrown away – they were fifty times the usual amount Sam would bet.
Sam had found his mark. He struck up a conversation, bemoaned his own bad luck that day, and soon was best buddies with a Mr. Aloysius Johns. By the end of the last race, Johns agreed to meet at the Hotel Belvedere for a night of poker with Sam and his friends. The Belvedere was a better establishment than that old hotel in Cincinnati, but not by much.
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The evening seemed to go according to script, with Johns up a little over the course of four hours – Rocky didn’t even have to work his magic to put the mark ahead. In the last half-hour they raised the betting limits. Finally, it was Rocky’s turn to deal, and time for the Cincinnati Cooler. Sam, George, and Rocky exchanged knowing glances. The cards were dealt. Sam looked at his cards and allowed himself an internal smirk.
George bet, Johns raised, Sam re-raised, and Rocky folded. George acted perplexed, and said “maybe my hand ain’t so good after all,” and folded. Johns and Sam traded another two re-raises, and Sam finally just called. The pot was by far the biggest of the night. Rocky looked at Johns, waiting for him to announce how many cards he wanted, if any.
Johns pondered for a moment, and said “I’ll take two.” Rocky, almost in shock, dealt Johns what he already knew to be the four and nine of clubs.
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Mr. Aloysius Johns liked action, the feeling of laying it out there, and the thrill of a big win. Of course that can lead to losses, which was to be expected. But he didn’t like to be cheated. Johns had been in many private card games, and knew the signs that the game wasn’t on the up-and-up. This night he carefully eyed Sam, George, and Rocky, but there had been no signs of any shenanigans.
Then came a hand that was almost too good to be true: four aces and the deuce of spades. At first he felt exhilaration – this could be the hand to make the night’s labors truly worthwhile. But then the alarm bells went off in his head. He felt that this was quite likely a set-up.
Johns had seen something like this once before. The scammers would not be so blatant as to deal Sam a pat hand. They would have Sam have to draw to beat him, and would count on Johns standing pat himself, or at most drawing only a single card to disguise the strength of his hand. So he called for two cards instead, discarding an ace and his lone deuce. If Johns was wrong about there being a scam, he still had three of a kind, with a possible draw to a full house.
He looked at his draw cards and saw that they were two clubs, five cards apart – just what would be expected if he was in fact being set up. He allowed himself an internal smirk.
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Sam, seeing the two cards he needed slide over to Johns, was nonplussed. They had not counted on this turn of events, and their scheme had backfired. In a daze, he discarded his fifth card, and asked for a single card for his draw. He barely looked at it – it was not one of the six remaining clubs in the deck. If only they had covered the unlikely possibility that they would need the third card on the pile to be yet another club – but they hadn’t.
Johns bet. Sam paused, not knowing what to do – Johns still had three of a kind. Sam looked at his cards again. The last card was a heart, with four pips – wait, four pips. An internal giggle welled up inside him, which he did his best to squelch. In the calmest voice he could manage, he said “all-in” and tossed the rest of his chips into the pot.
Authors note: Full disclosure, the basic premise of the story comes from a one-man radio play broadcast in 1948 called “It’s All in the Deal.” The voice actor was the legendary Paul Frees, known as a man of 1000 voices, including Boris Badenov on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. He also played a reporter in the 1953 version of The War of the Worlds. The authoritative version of his voice reminds many of Orson Welles. I reworked many of the details, and the final twist is mine (which inspired me to submit this here). And, yes, neither Johns nor the scammers thought far enough ahead to consider what the third card on the pile might mean, although I’m sure that aspect of the scam was not forgotten in the future.