Auction of the Week: Potter & Potter Gambling Memorabilia, May 19, 2018
Our featured auction this week is Potter & Potter's Gambling Memorabilia sale, which takes place in Chicago on May 19. From crooked casino equipment to palm-sized pistols, here are ten of our favorite lots which tell the high-stakes story of professional gambling in the Old West...
Why Gamblers Win by John Phillip Quinn
Estimate: $300 - $400
This rare booklet was originally published in 1913, and describes the crooked nature and cheating involved in games of chance such as dice, Three Card Monte, Faro, The O'Leary Belt, the upright roulette wheel and Bee Hive.
The booklet was written by John Phillip Quinn, who produced several books on the dangers of gambling in the late 19th and early 20th century, and who described himself on the cover as "an old gambler who has give [sic] up the game and now devotes his life to telling others why they must lose".
Will & Finck Nickel Plated Gaffed Faro Dealing Box
Estimate: $1,600 - $3,000
This late 19th century dealing box was used in the card game Faro, which was highly popular across the U.S throughout the 19th century. Faro was played in saloons and casinos, and was rife with cheating from both the house and professional gamblers alike.
Locked dealing boxes were introduced to ensure dealers could not manipulate the cards as they dealt them. However, many of these boxes were "gaffed", meaning they were specifically built to allow the dealer to cheat by dealing two cards at once, or to deal the second card in the pack to unsuspecting players.
This nickel-plated "gaffed" box was made in San Francisco circa 1890 by Will & Finck, a company which produced cutlery, knives and a range of gaming equipment, both crooked and honest.
Jumbo Gambling Wheel
Estimate: $4,000 - $6,000
This colourful, oversized upright gambling wheel is dated circa 1890, and is believed to have been made by H. C. Evans & Company of Chicago.
The company was a leading manufacturer of casino supplies, and produced both honest and crooked equipment for more than half a century until closing in 1955.
This wheel, decorated with horseheads, American flags, horseshoes, birds and women’s heads, was reportedly produced for a casino in Havasu, Arizona – but was sold on when the establishment remained unopened.
Diana Card Layout
Estimate: $5,000 - $7,000
'Diana' was a short-lived card game which appeared in American casinos and saloons in the late 19th century. The game itself was a variation on Faro, using two decks of cards instead of one, and was played on a colourful layout to attract players.
However, the odds were so heavily stacked in the house's favour that it quickly fell out of favour with gamblers, who knew a con when they saw one, and the game soon disappeared.
Due to its short lifespan this original hand-painted Diana layout, produced circa 1890, is one of the very few surviving examples.
Will & Finck Ivory Handle Brass Card Trimmer in Original Packing Crate
Estimate: $3,000 - $4,000
Card trimmers such as these were regularly used by professional Faro dealers who travelled from town to town.
They were primarily used to trim the damaged edges from cards which would not pass through a dealing box – but they could also be used to "gaff" a deck, by trimming card edges at different angles.
By cutting cards in subtle ways, dealers could create decks that were stacked in their favour. These included "Belly Strippers" – card tapered on each edge with a slight protrusion in the centre, so that they could be stripped out of a deck by touch alone – and "short cards", trimmed shorter than the rest so they could be located with trained fingertips when dealing.
This small ivory handle brass card trimmer was made by Will & Finck circa 1890, and is a rare example offered inside its original wooden shipping crate.
Will & Finck Corner Rounder
Estimate: $1,800 - $3,000
In addition to a card trimmer, a corner rounder was another vital tool of the trade for professional card dealers in the Old West.
Once cards had been trimmed, it was important to re-round the corners as they had originally appeared in the deck. This technique could be used to smarten up old cards with scuffed edges – or disguise subtle trims to marked cards.
Cards could also be marked using this device alone, by creating a rounded corner with a slight point on one side. This shaping would be almost imperceptible to the naked eye, but could easily be found in a deck by trained fingers.
This brass and steel corner rounder was manufactured by Will & Finck circa 1890.
Estimate: $4,000 - $6,000
This remarkable custom-made 'String Game' dates from the 1890s, and is believed to have been used in a travelling fair or carnival.
The game features a bunch of 52 strings, with each one attached to one of the playing cards mounted on wooden blocks housed on the board.
Although the unique game was previously unknown to experts, it's thought that players would pull one of the strings at random and receive a prize depending on the value of the card it lifted up.
Operators could have (and almost certainly would have) easily rigged the game by simply not attaching strings to the high value cards.
Will & Finck Brass Sleeve Holdout
Estimate: $3,000 - $5,000
This device is known as a 'holdout', and was commonly used by card cheats throughout the 19th and early 20th century.
The purpose of a holdout was to remove a single card from the game, and keep it back for later use by hiding it up your sleeve.
The cheat would know which card was out of play, and that no other player could be dealt it; they could also use it as an extra card in each round, to give themselves a better hand if necessary.
This particular Jacob’s Ladder-style brass sleeve holdout was made in the 1880s by Will & Finck, and is mounted on an antique porcelain display hand. Professional gamblers and card sharps reportedly favoured holdouts made by Will & Finck, as they were compact in size and operated smoothly and discreetly.
Gamblers Palm Pistol with Pearl Grips
Estimate: $2,000 - $4,000
This tiny palm pistol was known as 'The Protector', and was produced by the Chicago Fire Arms Co. circa 1893.
These small single-shot pistols would sit in the palm of your hand with the barrel protruding between your fingers, and were triggered by clenching your fist and squeezing the entire mechanism.
They were easy to conceal, worked perfectly at close quarters, and contained the perfect element of surprise.
They were primarily designed for women as a form of self-defence, but became popular with professional gamblers and card cheats who often found themselves in tight situations, and in need of a secret weapon.
The pistol features pearl grips and a floral engraved barrel, remains in its original box, and comes complete with box of 50 cartridges.
Faro Exposed; or The Gambler and his Prey. Being a Complete Explanation of the Famous Game, its Origin and Development, and how its Skins are Worked.
Estimate: $20,000 - $30,000
This incredibly rare book features the history of Faro, perhaps the most popular card game in the Old West, and explains its origin, rules, and its utterly crooked nature.
Because the nature of the game offered exceptionally good odds to players, dealers regularly used sleight-of-hand and gaffed equipment to give themselves an advantage – and professional gamblers followed suit, to even things up again – meaning almost everyone who played it regularly was cheating in some way.
The book sums up the nature of Faro thusly:
"There is not in the United States to-day one single faro-banker who is willing and content to confine himself to the strict percentage of an honest game.
"They practice every trick, cheat, fraud, device, contrivance, skin and scheme known to the 'trade,' save and except that which they themselves do not know. Nothing but the fear of detection will prevent them from taking every possible advantage of their customers."
It's believed that just three copies of this rare book remain in existence, and only the current copy on offer is still in private hands.
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