Cheating in Texas Holdem
Most casual Texas holdem players don't worry about cheating and don't recognize it when they see it.
This page isn't designed to help you figure out how to cheat. We don't support cheating and think that every time a player cheats it hurts the entire poker industry, not just the players at the table where it's happening.
The idea behind this page is so you can learn all of the ways that cheating is possible while playing Texas holdem in an internet poker room or in a land based casino or room. If you know how people can cheat you can start watching for it. This helps you protect yourself over the long course of your poker career.
Some of these techniques cross over with others, but each is covered by itself so you can get a complete coverage of the topic. If you read the page straight through you may find some similar information in a couple different sections, but it needs to be this way so if you just skip to the section you're interested in it won't force you to read something else for a complete understanding.
Dealing with Cheating
We'll start off by trying to answer two questions relating to dealing with cheating at the poker table:
- What do you do if you suspect someone is cheating?
- What do you do if you're 100% sure someone is cheating?
Most of the time if you suspect someone of cheating you should keep your mouth shut. You can stop playing in the game where you suspect cheating, but making an accusation or comment without proof is a bad idea.
Players who aren't cheating can react in an extreme way if they're accused of cheating and even if you accuse someone who is cheating, they can react in an extreme and violent way as well.
The first thing to do is determine if you can still make a profit at the game even though a player or players are cheating. If you can't you need to stop playing in the game. Even if you can still be profitable you have to decide if your moral values allow you to continue playing in a game where some players are being cheated.
We don't get into the business of telling people what their moral values should be, so only you can decide what's best. Even if you decide you can't continue playing you need to decide if you want to do anything about the cheating or simply stop participating in the game.
If you're playing in a poker room you can speak to the floor person away from the table and tell them what you know. Then let them handle the situation without further involvement from you.
If you're playing in a home game or private game you should probably keep your mouth shut and leave the game. You don't know how deep cheating may run and the person who runs the game may be part of the scam. You can warn other people you know not to play in the game, but for your safety you shouldn't say or do anything until you're away from the game.
When you're playing online and expect cheating you should contact the support department with the table and game number and the identity of the player or players you think are involved. Online poker rooms have ways to track players and see how they play in certain situations and if they always play with the same other players.
One of the oldest and simplest forms of cheating is marking cards. In a Texas holdem game if you could mark the cards in some way so that you knew which cards were aces it gives you an extreme advantage over time.
One way players mark cards is by using a fingernail or other hard item to make a small dent on the cards they want to track in some way. These marks are usually toward the corners. So if you wanted to do this you'd make an indentation on the corners of each ace you see.
Dealers are usually trained to recognize these marks and take the deck or cards out of play. If this happens often the dealer is supposed to let security or the floor know so they can start watching the table to try to catch the person marking the cards.
In a private game or home game you need to watch for this. Concentrate on the aces as you see them. If someone is marking cards the aces are the only ones that offer a high enough return on investment to risk getting caught.
Another way players may try to mark cards is with a small needle or other sharp pointed item. They make a small hole toward the corner of the aces.
Players have also tried to use types of invisible ink and other mixtures in combination with special glasses or contacts that let them see marks that the other players can't see. Most casino and poker room surveillance is set up so they can see cards marked in this way. But in a home or private game it can be impossible to detect.
Aces are the most important cards in a Texas holdem game for a couple reasons. Of course they're the top valued card so they occasionally win a pot because of this, but they can also be used to make a winning kicker and if you have a pair of kings or queens and know for a fact your opponent doesn't hold an ace it's valuable. This is especially true if you have pocket kings and the flop has an ace.
Can you think of other situations where knowing which cards are aces and which ones aren't could be valuable?
Not only is this information valuable in Texas holdem, it's equally as important in any type of poker game and blackjack. When you're playing blackjack you're playing against the house, so they have a vested interest in catching you if you try marking the cards.
In some places you can and will go to jail if you try marking cards.
Marked cards are different than marking cards. The only places you need to be concerned with the possibility of marked cards are in home or private games. Marked cards have small marks on the back of the cards that show the identity of the card to players who know how to read them.
Instead of just the aces being tracked, most marked card decks have every card marked. And getting your hands on decks of these is easy. Most magic shops sell marked cards and you can buy them on Ebay and Amazon.
It's fairly easy to recognize marked cards if you know how to look for them.
Put the deck of cards in the palm of your hand with the short end of the cards up on edge against your palm. This leaves the other short end sticking up. While watching the backs of the cards use the thumb on your other hand to run across the cards from the front of the deck to the back so you see the backs of each of the cards quickly go by. It helps to put the first finger of the same hand with the thumb you're using against the face side of the cards to hold the middle of the deck in place while the thumb manipulates the top of the cards.
You'll quickly be able to see any inconsistencies on the backs of the cards this way. Grab any deck of cards and practice a few times. When the cards flip off your thumb the backs should all look exactly the same. Some people call this a riffle test.
This is also an old method used by teams of two players who sit beside each other and switch cards before the flop. This is done the easiest when the two players are sitting on the long flat side of the poker table facing the dealer.
Each player plays with one of their arms on the table flat from elbow to hand. From the dealer's view the player on the left has their left arm on the table and the player on the right has their right arm on the table. The two arms are against each other on the table.
Each player looks at their hole cards using the opposite hand of the one on the table and exchange cards under their forearms on the table. A system is worked out before they play concerning a signal for when they don't want to exchange cards and what to do on certain hands.
This can be as simple as one player always giving the other their highest ranked card in exchange for the second player's lowest card. This alone gives the player receiving the higher cards a long term advantage because instead of getting two cards to make a two card starting hand they basically are getting the best two out of three cards.
If one player receives a good starting hand like pocket aces, kings, or queens, they don't trade cards. This can be a signal as simple as moving a hand slightly to touch the back of the other player's hand.
You might think this would be easy to detect, but if the team is good the only way to catch them is by watching them from behind and recognizing how their shoulders and upper back moves when they switch cards.
The only way to combat top level teams like this is if you see the same players playing side by side over and over. One of the best covers for this play is an older man and woman team who act like they're married and want to play beside each other.
The older age makes them look more trustworthy and the cover story of being married strikes many suckers as cute. Players will often even volunteer to switch seats so the cheating couple can sit beside each other.
Not every couple who likes to sit beside each other cheats, but you need to be wary of this situation.
If you do identify two players doing this it's basically impossible to prove as long as they don't admit it during questioning. As long as they deny they're doing it there's probably nothing you can do about it except avoid playing against them.
This one is dangerous because you can get caught holding the evidence. Some players will keep a card when they discard their cards and only throw away one card. The card that is most often kept is an ace.
This is usually done when another player has folded and the cheater can quickly place or throw their single card on the other players discard making it look like they're thrown away both of their cards.
If a player has an ace with a small card and folds it's a good opportunity to keep the ace. Then when the player receives an ace in another hand they replace the off card and have a pair of aces.
Then they look for the opportunity to replace another ace with the poor card later and start looking for another hand to make pocket aces.
This can get complicated because many poker rooms use two decks in a game, switching back and forth between the two. Often these are two different colored backs so the cheater needs to make sure they don't end up with a red and a blue back in the same hand, but even if two decks with the same color back are used they have to keep track of which deck they stole a card from because if two of the same suit aces show up things can get ugly fast.
It's difficult to catch players who steal cards unless they screw up. The best card mechanics don't make mistakes. The only thing that trips them up is if a deck of cards is suddenly replaced while they're holding a card. And even in this case they usually just throw the card on the floor under the table.
The casino will notice a missing card later when they count out the deck that's missing a card, but by that time the player is gone.
Players who steal chips are willing to work anywhere in the casino, not just at the Texas holdem tables. While you're distracted they quickly snatch the top chip off one of your stacks. This is why it's so important to always protect your chips and be aware of what's happening at the table.
Large chips are targeted the most, but even a $25 or $5 chip is fair game if the thief thinks it's easy enough to get.
Casinos have security systems and cameras, but they usually aren't watching the Texas holdem tables unless they have a specific reason. So a chip thief may be able to get by undetected for a long time.
Lying About Their Hand
One old trick used by poker cheats is announcing a higher hand at the showdown than they actually have. Often an opponent will throw their cards into the muck when they lose a hand. As soon as a hand hits the muck it's usually dead.
So if a cheat doesn't have a good hand they may say they have something better in hopes their opponent will fold. When they fold the cheater gets the pot. This usually creates ill will and bad feelings at the table, but the cheater doesn't care.
Most poker rooms have rules that the cards play no matter what the players say, but this still won't help you if you fold a winning hand.
Peeking at Cards
Many players argue that seeing the values of cards being dealt or by seeing what other players hold isn't cheating, but we decided to include it here because it can hurt you.
Some dealers are sloppy and loft the cards as they pass them out, allowing players to catch a glimpse of the card values. Other dealers give a glimpse of cards when they peel the top card off the deck to pass it out.
If you or another player occasionally see a card this way it's usually best just to let it go and move on. If it really bothers you take a minute away from the table to quietly mention it to the dealer. Don't make a big deal out of it and move on.
But what about when you see your opponent's hand because they're sloppy; is it ok to use this information?
Most players use this information because it's every player's responsibility to protect their own cards. If a player flashes their cards so other players can see them there's no reason to ignore this.
But some players go out of their way to try to see your cards. They do things to distract you or try to get you to do things that can give them a quick glance at what you hold.
Collusion fits under many headings on this page. Basically any time two or more players work together to cheat the game and / or other players it's collusion.
Good teams of players can take a great deal of money from a Texas holdem game over time. Any profit taken from a game by cheaters is less profit that you can get from the same game, even if you still beat the game.
It's often quite difficult to detect cheaters when they work as a team. This is especially true of the best teams. A top level team of Texas holdem cheaters can work together for years. The only thing that often trips them up is they end up being seen at the same table too often and other players start becoming suspicious.
But you can find thousands of places to play Texas holdem so if a team is willing to move around a lot they can play in different games all of the time, making it harder to recognize them because they aren't playing against the same players often.
You often see signs of collusion in home games, but it's not often very well organized. I used to play in a local poker tournament run by a family. Many of the family's relatives played in the tournament and often they'd soft play each other. When they were in a pot together they often checked it down and didn't seem to get the most money out of winning hands.
They also would try to dump their chips to other family members if they got short stacked. This was a rather transparent situation and most of them weren't very good players. In addition, it's difficult to see how soft playing their family members was beneficial to anyone. Chip dumping is another matter, but it often wasn't enough to make a difference.
But what did happen is most of the outside players quit playing in the game. Texas holdem players don't want to feel like someone is trying to cheat them so it pretty much killed the game.
You need to understand there's a difference between teams of players colluding and teams of players working from the same bankroll or for a team runner who each are playing to win. These types of teams don't cheat; they simply work together from a financial standpoint. They might even split their profits equally, but they don't try to collude to change the outcome of the games or cheat in any way.
You can study more about team play of this sort in many advanced blackjack books because there are many blackjack teams that count cards and try to win large sums from the casinos.
One way players collude is by letting their other team members know what they hold. If two or more players all know what each other holds it helps them avoid playing big pots against each other and also assists them in computing pot odds and making the most profitable playing decisions.
If you have a pair of queens and know that two other players, who you are working with, each have an ace, it makes it more likely that your hand is good. Instead of the possibility of four aces being in other opponent's hands the odds are cut in half. Only two aces remain making your hand more valuable.
Signals can be tricky but systems have been designed that quickly show card values in ways that can be hard to detect.
Here's a simple system that a team could use. Remember that you only need 13 signals to cover all of the ranks. And the truth is you only really need five signals to change the outcome of the game over time.
If you simply track the aces, kings, queens, jacks, and tens you can use the five fingers on each hand. Hold your cards with one hand and leave the other on the table. If you have no high cards you leave your hand in a fist. You assign one card value to each finger and place your fingers out to designate which cards you hold.
A system to track all 13 cards can be done using your knuckles on one hand.
If you see what may be signals used by two or more players try to determine if you can break the code. If you can figure out what the signals mean you can turn the table on the cheaters. It can be difficult to prove your opponents are using signals but if you start taking their money by reading what they have it's better than forcing them to stop.
If you're interested in signals use you can learn more about it from studying top level blackjack team play. Blackjack teams have to be able to relay the count easily to new players at the table and they're almost always on camera from surveillance so they develop some of the best systems to use under close scrutiny.
A string bet is what you tend to see in the movies when a player raises the pot. They say I call and I raise. This is a string bet and illegal in most poker rooms. Many players don't seem to understand why this is such a bad thing.
Good players can say I call to read the reaction of their opponent and then say I raise or just let it go depending on how the opponent reacts.
If you're playing where string bets are allowed make sure you don't show any reaction when a player says they call, or give the opposite reaction to what you really want. If you want them to call and not raise act disappointed when they call and if you want them to raise act happy when they call.
Shorting the Pot
Old time players who tried to get an advantage by any means necessary were often called angle shooters. One of the old angle shooter tactics is trying to short the pot when making a call or raise.
If the call costs $25 the player throws four $5 chips into the pot instead of five.
Professional poker rooms in casinos and reputable rooms don't let players throw their chips in the pot. The players are required to place the chips in front of them but not in the pot and the dealers count the chips and adds them to the pot.
But in many home and private games players frequently throw their chips directly into the pot. This can cost you a great deal of money over time so you need to be aware of it. It's hard to prove a player is shorting the pot so it's often best to just avoid games where it's possible.
If a player can short the pot once an hour for $5 or more they basically make that much more money per hour they play. Of course some of the pots they short they end up winning, but on the ones where they lose, they lose one less chip of whatever denomination they're able to short the pot.
Online teams are one of the scariest cheating possibilities facing high limit online Texas holdem players because they're very hard to detect. They also can cost you a great deal of money in just a short amount of time.
A team of online cheaters will all play at the same table and share details about their hand with the other team members by phone, Skype, or some other messenger system. A team as small as two players can help each other quite a bit, but a team of four or five players can really alter the outcome of a game.
If a team of four players were working a table with eight total players they create a huge advantage against the other four players. The four honest players each know the value of two cards, their own, before the flop and the four cheaters each know the value if eight cards before the flop. This advantage creates even more valuable situations as the hand progresses.
If four break even players could use this type of collusion to win an extra two bets an hour at a $100 / $200 table they'd each make $100 an hour. And the advantage is much larger than two bets per hour for four players. A two player team can probably alter at least one or two bets per hour by colluding.
The only way is to track your play as closely as possible against all of your opponents and start trying to build statistical models of your opponent's play. The problem with this is you need such a large set of data that it becomes difficult to gather enough to prove anything.
If you start suspecting online teams are cheating let the security team know through the support department where you play. Catching cheating teams is even more difficult online because they might be able to create a number of accounts so the players can play under a set of names instead of just one per player.
Most lower and medium level Texas holdem players don't have to worry too much about online cheating teams. If you're going to form a team and cheat the odds are you'll want to target as much money as possible.
But you also need to be aware that some countries have people who are so poor that if they could scam as little as $5 or $10 a day it can change the quality of their life. And no one is watching the low limit tables for this type of cheating. You can probably still beat the lower levels even if two or three of your opponents are cheating, but you can still be aware that it might be happening.
Should you avoid playing Texas holdem online because of the possibility of being cheated?
This isn't a wide enough problem that you shouldn't play online because of it, but you do need to watch for it if you play at higher levels. The best way to see if something fishy may be going on is by closely tracking all of your play both off line and online. If you aren't making as much playing online as playing at a land based poker room you need to try to determine why.
A change in your win rate isn't always related to being cheated but it can be. Most of the top players can earn a little more per hour playing online than in live play because they play more hands per hour online and can play at more than one table at a time.
The tradeoff is it's harder to read your opponents and get a feel for an opponent like you can while playing live so your win rate per hand may be lower, but this is made up for with the extra hands.
If you win $50 an hour playing live Texas holdem while playing 50 hands per hour your average win per hand is $1. When you play online your win per hand might go down to 50 cents, but you play twice as many hands per hour and play two tables at a time. So your hourly win rate while playing online is actually twice what your live rate is, but it's still half the amount per hand.
This makes it look like you make more money playing online, and in a sense you do, but only because you play so many more hands in the same amount of time while playing online.
You have to be able to track all of these things so you can get a true picture of what's happening in your play. Only by doing this can you get a real picture of the possibility that you're being cheated.
Another complication is if you're playing two tables at a time online would you be more profitable if you were only playing a single table? You might find that you can win more per table by only playing one table instead of two, but you can still make more by playing two tables at a time.
Don't get overwhelmed by all of the possibilities, but be aware of them before you start accusing other players of cheating.
In the last section we talked about how the people in some countries can change their quality of life by earning a few dollars a day. By trying to develop and use software programs, called robots, to play Texas holdem online some players try to earn a few dollars per hour at the lower limits.
The idea is they have many accounts at the same and different poker rooms and use a robot to play that's been programmed to play in a way that it can earn a small but consistent profit over time.
Programming a robot to be able to handle everything it needs to be able to do is a challenge and also the reason they don't operate at the middle and high limits. Better players will quickly figure out how to beat a robot. But it's not impossible to create one that wins at low limits.
Here's an example:
If you could program a robot to do the following functions after you logged in and bought into the table it would have a chance to be profitable.
- Buy back in when the chip stack went below 50% of the original buy in.
- Move all in with pocket aces, king, and queens.
- Fold all other hands.
- In the big blind check in a un raised pot and check until facing a bet. When facing a bet fold.
- Leave the table after a set amount of playing time or after a set amount of win or loss. For example, leave the table if it gets down $20 or if it gets up $50 for the session.
- Leave the table if the number of players falls below six.
We can't be sure that a robot programmed to do this would show a long term profit, but at the micro limit no limit Texas holdem tables we imagine it could squeak out a small hourly profit.
Here's the magic of how this works when you find a program that actually shows a small profit. If you can make $1 per hour with a program you use 10 of them at a time at different tables and in different poker rooms and you make $10 an hour. This doesn't seem like much to many people, but remember the conversation about the players in the poor countries? If some of them could make $10 an hour they'd live like kings.
Most online poker rooms have specific rules against using robots or software, but there's usually a way around these. And since these software programs focus on lower limits they can go a long time without being detected.
The question you need to answer is if you think using a robot is cheating? It's fine either way, but if you think it's cheating what are you going to do about it and how can you prove an online player is a robot?
Some players say opponents who never chat are robots or players that act a certain way are robots, but some real players don't chat and do weird things.
At the end of the day most online Texas holdem players don't worry about robots. The bots aren't very good and usually only play at the smallest limits so you don't need to be too worried about them.
Tournament Chip Dumping
This one has received some coverage in the news over the years but we don't know how much it really happens in real Texas holdem tournaments. Chip dumping is when one player purposely loses their chips to another player in a tournament to give the player receiving the chips a better chance to win the tournament.
The idea of paying a player to buy in and then dump their chips to you sounds possible in theory, but what happens in a field of 100, or 500, or over 1,000 entrants?
You might never reach the same table so how can you dump chips? In a large tournament if you are at the same table early how much will an extra buy in really help in the long run? If you get 10,000 in chips at the start of the tournament and another player dumps 10,000 more to you early, if the tournament has 1,000 players the extra amount only amounts to one tenth of one percent of the chips in play. You can construct a way this can make a difference, but it isn't likely to make a huge difference.
In a smaller tournament field it's possible this could work, but there's still no guarantee. The closest thing that might work is if two or more players agreed to split all of their tournament winnings and if they did end up at the same table agree on who gets the chips dumped to them.
Tournament Fake Chips
Another possibility for tournament play is a player counterfeiting the tournament chips and adding them to their stack. Texas holdem tournaments usually use special chips that are different than the ones the ring games and other casino games use.
Many times these chips are more simply constructed than regular casino chips so they're easier to make copies of. You can find a few records of this happening, but it doesn't appear as if it happens often.
Poker tournament organizers can easily track the number of chips in play and learn if extra chips have been introduced, so if this ever becomes a widespread problem it can be easily combated.
Hidden cameras, one way mirrors, and other cool sounding ways to cheat opponents by seeing their cards are for the most part things imagined by Hollywood and the movie industry. But this doesn't mean they can't happen in a private game.
The odds are you won't ever have to worry about hidden cameras, but even if they're being used you can do things that make them not work. You're much more likely to be cheated by someone using marked cards than hidden cameras.
The easiest way to make sure hidden cameras aren't effective is to place your chips directly in front of you against the rail of the table. Then accept your cards between both of your hands in front of your chips. Lean your head down toward the table and lift the corner of your cards just enough to see what they are and quickly lay them back down flat. Place a chip or something on top of them and don't pick them up again until you use them to win the hand or fold them.
Using this method a camera mounted in the rail won't work and nothing from behind you or overhead can work either.
It's possible for a camera to be mounted under a table in front of the dealer so the cards the dealer passes out are recorded and seen, but this isn't a likely scenario. If this is possible and you suspect you're being cheated you need to find somewhere else to play.
Many of the cheating techniques covered on this page are difficult or impossible to detect in a private or home game if the cheater is good at what they're doing. You need to be careful playing in these types of games. It's easy for a cheater too take advantage of you.
If you're just a casual player and are playing for a small amount you don't have to worry about it too much, but when you start playing for serious money the odds go up that someone will try to cheat.
It's usually impossible to get stories like this confirmed, but we've read about professional Texas holdem players who figured out they were being cheated and still played in the games because they were able to still turn a profit because once they knew they were being cheated they used it against the cheaters.
But you need to understand a few things if you ever find yourself in this situation. What stops a player or team of players who're willing to cheat from simply robbing you? Don't make the assumption that someone will pay you or honor their losses or simply won't rob you at gunpoint if they're willing to cheat.