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True Tales From Hollywood Poker Hustler: Card Mechanic Explains Cheating In Movie Rounders

by Houston Curtis |  Published: Jun 03, 2020

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We all know it, we all love it. The 1998 film Rounders, directed by John Dahl, written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, produced by Joel Stillerman and Ted Demme, and of course, starring Matt Damon and Ed Norton, has become a staple for poker players everywhere.

How many times have you been walking through a poker room, or hanging out at your local Wednesday night home game when someone shouts one of the following lines? “Kid’s got alligator blood,” or how about “Don’t splash di pot,” “I just got comped at the noodle bar,” “Give me three stacks of high society,” or the two-word phrase that gets spun more often than a Lady Gaga tune in West Hollywood on a Saturday night, “Very a-gress-ive.”

And of course, let’s not forget the film’s famous opening line, “If you can’t spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table, then you are the sucker.”

Rounders seems to hold a very special place in the heart of today’s poker players, (myself included) and has undoubtedly become an important part of poker history. For years I have always been baffled at how often Hollywood would get it wrong when trying to portray poker on the big screen. Then, here comes a film that gets it right on so many levels. One could arguably credit Rounders alongside Chris Moneymaker’s WSOP win and the WPT’s revolutionary hole card cam as one of the most important contributors to the poker boom of the early 2000’s.

No, it wasn’t a box office sensation by any stretch of the imagination, but like many cult classics, Rounders is a film that has continuously found its way into the hearts and minds of every new poker playing generation since its inception. From McDermott’s fictional clash with Johnny Chan, to the real-life 1998 main event where Damon’s was poetically thwarted by Doyle Brunson with K-K against A-A, to poker great Daniel Negreanu demanding in a tweet that Rounders 2 be produced! It’s as if the film has become a rite of passage for all those who set out to take the game seriously.

Negreanu, is of course correct. There truly is a fever pitch in the poker community for a Rounders sequel. If such a film escapes turn-around and actually gets made, it may never hold the sentimental place in our hearts like the original, but let’s face it… we would all go see it!

One thing I’ve noticed however, is that while so many poker enthusiasts have memorized the film damn near line by line— there are at least two classic scenes chock full of beautiful dialog that every poker fan can recite. Yet, most I’ve come across have no clue as to the meaning behind the words.

The scenes I’m referring to include the insider cheating terminology that is narrated by Damon as he and Norton’s characters (Mike McD and Worm) hustle an elitist frat house poker game. The other scene with insider cheating terminology whittled throughout the dialogue occurs when Worm gets busted for dirty dealing in a room full of off-duty cops.

After today, the mystery surrounding these cheating terms will be solved. And furthermore, I have created a special video supplement that demonstrates these classic, hard-to-spot cheating moves, but will also provide some crucial, rarely-shared tips that will teach you what to look out for so you can avoid having such tactics used against you in your own game.

Sounds fun right? But before we dive into that, I would love to share a quick excerpt from my book Billion Dollar Hollywood Heist that tells of the time Matt Damon played in my private game alongside Ben Affleck and Tobey Maguire.


[Matt was every bit as nice as you’d think he would be. What impressed me most was the fact that when Ben introduced us, Matt had already been given the lowdown by Ben on everyone at the table. He said, “Oh yeah . . . you’re the Backyard Wrestling guy Ben was telling me about.”

As nice a guy as Matt was, he certainly wasn’t the poker player he portrayed on the big screen in Rounders. I took him for about fifty grand that night, to which Affleck had to write the check because Matt didn’t have enough on him to cover it. We invited him to come back any time, but truth be told, that was the only time Damon ever played in the big game. He just didn’t have the gamble in him like Ben or the rest of us. He wasn’t interested.]


Another thing that stuck in my mind the night Matt joined us for the game was the fact that the minimum buy in was $20,000 higher than that of his Rounders on-screen persona during the scene where he rolled into Teddy KGB’s place and mustered up the courage to risk his entire bankroll of 30 grand (three stacks of high society.) That being said, who do you think has a better stomach for huge losses in a poker game, Mike McD or Matt Damon?

Let’s just say, Mr. Damon wouldn’t be calling up Knish after he lost in our game and asking him if he could drive the truck! Matt was all smiles and seemed to enjoy busting the chops of his good buddy and fellow Oscar-winning cohort Affleck as Ben reluctantly wrote me a check at the end of the night to cover Matt’s loss.

When the story about my poker game originally broke in the press and was centered around the tell-all that became Molly’s Game, you saw Matt Damon’s name and picture featured on almost every headline alongside Tobey Maguire, Ben Affleck, and Leonardo DiCaprio. Even when I was interviewed by the media and told them Damon wasn’t a regular in the game, they chose to ignore that fact, among several others. I guess sometimes the media has selective hearing.

I feel as if there’s a large portion of the poker community suffering from its own form of “selective hearing” when it comes to the harsh reality of card cheating. The younger generation of poker players are great at spotting mathematical improbabilities, like those that led to busting recent poker cheat Mike Postle.

But what if we take the hand history out of the equation? Does old school sleight-of-hand card manipulation still exist in the modern poker world? You bet it does. And even though today we have everything from electronic shuffling machines to very strict shuffling procedures, fresh deck procedures along with scrambling and cut card enforcement, players still need to arm themselves with knowledge in terms of how to spot when the cards are being manipulated by a dealer who is on the take.

And stepping outside the casino, it becomes even more important for those of you playing in high-stakes home games where the deal is still being passed around the table or where the rules of how a fixed dealer runs the game aren’t as stringently enforced as they would be in a casino.

A great place to start learning what to look out for is to go back to Rounders to grasp a better true understanding of what the cheating terminology referenced in the movie really meant, and what to look out for in terms of spotting it.

In the scene where Damon and Norton take on the frat boys, there are two sections. Section one, lists a series of collusion techniques including: Signaling, Trapping, and Chip Placing.

It is the second section that I want to give a primary focus on in today’s column. The second section of the scene lists a series of cheating techniques that include the following: Discard Culls, Pickup Culls, Overhand Run Ups, and The Double Duke.

Discard and Pickup Culls: This is a sleight-of-hand method mechanics use to locate desired cards that will later be stacked into a hand giving him or someone on his team an advantage. The mechanic learns how to spot cards as they are being discarded into the muck and as they’re being picked up to be dealt in the next hand. He then manipulates the culled cards during what seems like a normal act of gathering and shuffling.

The Discard Cull: In home games this move would often be accomplished during a dealer’s choice game, where the deal is being passed around the table. Many home games have a loose, social atmosphere where drinking and joking are enough of a distraction for a player who has already folded to literally rummage through the discards as they’re being tossed into the muck. The discard cull would usually happen when the cheater drops out of the hand prior to his deal. Then, once the cards are fully scooped up and in his full control, he knows exactly where the culled cards are located and can now manipulate them to the bottom of the deck or in a stacking procedure that will give him or his partner the winning hand.

The Pickup Cull: Pickup Culls occur during the act of clearing the table after a showdown. Pickup Culling is often considered more deceptive than Discard Culls since there is no rabbit hunting involved. A masterful mechanic can cull cards while making it seem as if he’s simply scooping up the muck. Remember, just having the simple knowledge of a few cards and where they are placed already gives the cheat an edge. Anything beyond that, simply increases that edge and ultimately transforms from having an advantage, to flat out controlling the outcome of a hand based on the cards that were culled, then stacked and dealt back into play.

The Overhand Run Up: At one time, this move was probably one of the most-used forms of cheating and is one of the moves used for stacking the deck in ones favor. In the video, I demonstrate this method which looks like an ordinary overhand shuffle. While overhand shuffles have been eliminated from casino card rooms, they are still very popular among most all home games. The basic principle: Let’s say a pair of Aces is culled to the top of the deck. The cheat would then see mingling begin shuffling the deck in an overhand fashion. But in reality, the cheat is “running up cards” to place the proper number of cards in between each ace so he can then deal the cards sending the aces to whomever he wants.

I demonstrated this old sleight-of-hand maneuver on this week’s supplemental video in the link below. One way to avoid having to deal with an overhand run up is to begin implementing casino-style dealing procedures in your game. It won’t stop a master cheat from doing the same thing during a riffle shuffle, but it will stop many cheats who only know how to stack cards using an overhand run up.

The Double Duke: Sometimes a cheat will wait all night to execute one move, and one move only. The famed, Double Duke! A Double Duke is simply the act of dealing the mark a huge hand that will ultimately get beat by a slightly bigger hand which would be dealt to the cheats partner. There are several ways a cheat can prepare the deck for a Double Duke, including the use of culling and doing overhand run ups! Ever wonder if that time you lost your entire stack at the end of the night to a set over set was more than just a bad beat? If you ever have such suspicions, keep an eye on who dealt the hand and who won the big pot. This might prove valuable information that gets you one step closer to finding out if you’re are up against two or more cheaters who are working together.

As someone who used to work on the darker side of the card manipulation equation, one thing I tell my students and clients is this: A masterful cheat can manipulate a deck so effortlessly that even another master cheat would have trouble seeing the manipulation happen right before his eyes. Therefore, it’s always good to know as much as possible about who and where you are playing, especially when not playing in a licensed casino. The last thing you want is for Worm to show up and clean you out of all your hard-earned cash!

Be sure to watch the supplement video below for a visual demonstration of some of the things we’ve covered today, including the two scenes from Rounders.

The best way to protect yourself from getting cheated in a poker game is to learn how to execute the moves that a master mechanic would be using in the first place. If your game is your livelihood, you might want to consider familiarizing yourself with a deeper understanding of these methods by checking out some of my free tutorials at KardSharp.com or subscribing to my YouTube channel.

Houston Curtis Houston Curtis, founder of KardSharp.com and author of Billion Dollar Hollywood Heist has lived a successful double life as both a producer and card mechanic for nearly 30 years. His credits include executive producing gambling related TV shows such as The Ultimate Blackjack Tour on CBS, The Aruba Poker Classic on GSN and pioneering the poker instructional DVD genre with titles featuring poker champion Phil Hellmuth.

Barred for life from Las Vegas Golden Nugget for “excessive winning” at blackjack, Houston is one of the world’s most successful card mechanics and sleight-of-hand artists of the modern era. Curtis, who rarely plays in tournaments, won a 2004 Legends of Poker no-limit hold’em championship event besting Scotty Nguyen heads-up at the final table before going on to co-found the elite Hollywood poker ring that inspired Aaron Sorkin’s Academy Award-nominated film Molly’s Game.

Curtis resides in Phoenix, Arizona where in addition to running a production company and independent record label, he is also a private gaming/casino protection consultant to clients across the globe seeking insight into master level card cheating tactics via advanced sleight-of-hand technique. To reach Houston for a speaking engagement, consulting or production services send email to stacked@Kardsharp.com.

All views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Card Player.