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Jeff Wessmiller believes cheating at poker is wrong. Really, he does. But if you want to learn how to cheat, well, he’s your guy.
Poker’s the rage. Thanks to exposure on the various ESPNs, the nation’s top high-stakes poker players are now as famous as our top prizefighters. Ben Affleck, post-J.Lo and Gigli, got what might turn out to be a career-saving boost of cool when he won the 2004 California State Poker Championship. Cards and chips were the go-to stocking stuffers last Christmas. Texas hold ’em is to the college campus of the ’00s what the hula hoop was in the ’50s, and apathy was in the ’90s.
Again, poker’s the rage.
“I don’t think there’s a male on campus who hasn’t tried his hand at poker,” says Wessmiller, an Annandale native, of student activities at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), where he’s a junior. “I can find a game [with a pot size of] from $5 to $600 any night of the week.”
Wessmiller might soon have trouble getting classmates to give him a seat at their card tables. To exploit the poker boom, he’s just released a DVD titled Weapons of the Card Shark through a Colorado production company.
Ostensibly, the DVD serves as a primer on cheating that poker players can use to spot trickery before, as Kenny Rogers might say, the dealing’s done. Wessmiller, with the attention to detail and monotone voice usually found on PBS cooking shows, goes over dozens of sleight-of-hand maneuvers passed down through generations of sharks—bottom-dealing, false deck cuts, and switching cards, or “mucking,” to name a few. And he instructs viewers on the “tells,” or clues, that can be used to, well, tell when somebody is playing a hand other than the one he was, or should have been, dealt. The lesson ends with his play-by-play of a mock poker game between Wessmiller and what he says were semi-unwitting victims—“They knew I was going to cheat, but they didn’t know how,” he says—to demonstrate how the moves can be put to use.
He insists the tutelage featured in Weapons really can help recreational poker players safeguard themselves, and he thinks anti-cheating public-service announcements should air during poker broadcasts. Yet sitting in a booth in a Falls Church IHOP, Wessmiller admits the intelligence dispensed on the DVD is far more likely to be soaked up by no-goodniks than goodniks. And retailers appear to be targeting wannabe dirty dealers: A U.K. shop, for example, is marketing the DVD as “THE definitive guide to cheating at cards!”
“I tried to make something that anybody who loves cards would find interesting, and I think I’ve done that,” says Wessmiller, fiddling with a deck of cards he’s removed from a silver case. “Cheating is immoral, and in a real poker game, I have never cheated and never will. But now I get more e-mails from guys saying, ‘Hey, I learned this move from you, and I’m going to use it to cheat! Thanks!’ The only response I give them is: ‘Don’t get killed.’”
Eric James, whose Boulder-based company, Expert Magic, released the DVD, says that, even though the production “piques interest for those on the dark side” of the poker boom, he feels no remorse.
“I have no problem with this simply because the amount of skill required takes years to perfect,” says James, “and anyone who is willing to put in that kind of time would have done it with or without this video.”
Wessmiller got into cards through magic, which he took up in grade school. And he’s still got plenty of tricks up his sleeve. After demonstrating the bottom deal at the IHOP table—“You can’t tell by looking,” he says. “You’ve got to listen. A bottom deal sounds differently”—Wessmiller picks up a coffee spoon and appears to bend it, Uri Geller–style, with what to the untrained eye sure looks like a light rub of his finger. During the bending process, he recalls the days when he entertained patrons, though not the staff, in this very pancake house with this very act.
“I was doing tricks with cards and spoons, and a crowd was watching me and loving it,” he says with a big laugh. “But a waiter, he saw me bending another spoon and kicked me out. ‘You have to pay for that!’ Oh, good times.”
Wessmiller got his first book on cheating, The Expert at the Card Table, when he was 13. The book, which was written in 1902 by S.W. Erdnase (and originally titled Artifice, Ruse and Subterfuge at the Card Table), remains his most beloved possession. He’s memorized huge portions of Expert verbatim and casually drops Erdnase couplets—such as “The player who believes he cannot be deceived is in great danger. The knowledge that no one is safe is his best protection”—into his conversations about cards.
But Wessmiller, who counts getting a high-school diploma while doing little schoolwork as his greatest trick yet (“I was known as ‘the James Bond of bullshit’ at school,” he says), put magic and cards at the bottom of the deck after he fell in love with another pseudo sport that had achieved rage status: pro wrestling. As a 10th-grader, he operated his own wrestling federation, the Intense Backyard Wrestling Federation, out of the basement and back yard of his parents’ house. He filmed matches and interviews with costumed characters he had created for himself or for similarly bent classmates and uploaded them on the Internet. His schtick was clever enough to get a few brushes with celebrity, including a 2001 profile on French TV and two previous writeups in this newspaper (Cheap Seats, 2/2/01, 11/30/01).
At the time, Wessmiller was sure he’d grow up to be a pro wrestler. He even applied to the state of Virginia for his wrestler’s license on his 18th birthday, the first day he could legally do so. (Yes, Virginia, you really do need a license to wrestle in the Commonwealth.)
And in his freshman year at VCU, the lanky 160-pounder drove outrageous distances just to get a match—western North Carolina and Hagerstown were regular destinations. But his wrestling dreams took a big fall during a match in Hagerstown when Wessmiller, dressed as a lumberjack, got kicked in the head by a talentless opponent. When he recovered from what was diagnosed as a serious concussion, Wessmiller realized that he wasn’t having as much fun as a pro as he had had in the back yard. “Every wrestler’s gotta have a finishing move,” he says. “Mine was getting pinned.”
So he gave up wrestling. The fact that the insurance co-payments for his rasslin’-related doctor visits added up to more than his ring wages eased the pain of quitting.
Immersion in cards also helped. Wessmiller, now 21, confesses that his motivation to become an authority on card cheating isn’t that different from what made him put on a mask and dive off his back porch as a backyard wrestler: He would like to be famous.
“My dad was wondering what I’m going to do with myself, and I told him, ‘Whatever I do, I’m going to be famous!’” Wessmiller recalls. “And he goes, ‘Yeah, I know.’ I said, ‘You know? You’re my father! You’re supposed to doubt me!’ And he says, ‘I used to doubt you. Until camera crews started showing up in our back yard.’”
James is convinced that Wessmiller can become a star in this pokercentric era, and calls his cheating skills “plain-out insane” for a college kid. And Ron Giovannucci, a retired police sergeant who teaches criminal justice at West Potomac High School, believes Wessmiller will make the right choices on his path to stardom. Giovannucci brings Wessmiller, a former pupil, to his class a few times a year to let him show off his cheating moves.
“We have cameras focused on his hands and big-screen televisions in the classroom, and he still switched a whole deck of cards into a game without anybody noticing,” says Giovannucci. “The kids love him. When he was my student, I used to give him the last five minutes to just entertain everybody. He can do whatever he wants to do. He’s so smart, so funny. Quite a mind. I’m glad he’s on the good side.”
Wessmiller says the poker DVD has already led to an offer to do a similar production on the ins and outs of three-card monte, a favored card scam of New York City street hustlers. Though fascinated by that realm—“There’s so much psychology to that little game. It’s incredible,” he says—he’s turned down the project. He’s got another year of school before he’ll get his degree in criminal justice. He’d like to hook up with Las Vegas casinos in some sort of fraud-prevention capacity after graduation. To keep his senses sharp in the meantime, Wessmiller works in security for a large department-store chain, and he’s talked to the Virginia Department of Charitable Gaming about a summer internship.
“They would want me to look into bingo,” he says. “Apparently there’s a lot of bingo cheaters. Who knew?”—Dave McKenna