Lot 421: gear used by a gambling cheat
Item acquired by the Surnateum ca. 1980
Origin: Chicago (USA) between 1930 and 1970
Lot 421 comprises a backgammon set (it is complete but has
suffered extensive exterior damage) in wood and stiffened cloth
with the look of crocodile hide, interior in cork (cracked)
in which the following are arranged: a series of 12 American
numbered casino dice (6 normal dice and 6 loaded dice), a pack of
cards (1945) from the US Army,
a metal cigarette box containing a full set of bottles of special
ink for marking cards, two 'Wizard' hold-outs (1888 and 1897),
various trick teetotums,
a metal cigarette lighter in the form of three black dice with
white dots, a book entitled Expert at the Card Table by S.W. Erdnase (published
in 1902 by Frederick Drake
& Co, probably the 1905 printing (inside the book are a $2 bill (1917)
and an old ticket to visit the Empire State
Building), a partly filled bottle of snake oil liniment, a small
coin purse containing three dice used in playing 'Crown and
Anchor' and a series of trick Australian coins (a shell and four
coins, one of which is a double-faced coin).
A set of brass knuckles (knuckle-dusters) is also included.
Based on an account given by Roger D.
Lot 421 was owned by a certain Samuel Smith,
better known by his nickname 'Snake Oil' Sam (born 1920, died ca. 1976).
He got his nickname from his regular use of the foul-smelling snake oil liniment
he used to rub into his hands.
Samuel Smith was born in Chicago on the day that Prohibition officially
took effect (under the Volstead Act), the son of Martha Smith
and an unknown father - probably a travelling salesman.
His adoptive father, a professional gambler, apparently gave Samuel
his first taste of poker, backgammon
and craps at a very young age. At the age of 6, he is said to have
won his first $2 bill playing a game of 'cut the high card' from a
gambler, a friend of his mentor called 'Titanic Thompson' (*1) who
was passing through Chicago. He kept that first $2 bill as a
personal good-luck charm.
In 1928 (at the age of 8), he began frequenting Matt Schulien's Tavern (*2)
located at 1800 North Halsted Street with his mentor, where he met
magicians and cheats.
(He used to like telling the story of the night he met Marilyn Monroe.)
He quickly learned the rudiments of gambling and cheating, and
acted as an assistant to Matt and the regulars. His calling in life
was clear: he would become a professional gambler and cheat.
He spent his time at various bars and establishments in Chicago,
where he specialised in cleaning out travelling salesmen and delegates in
town for trade shows.
In 1941 he joined the US Army so that he could gamble and win
other soldiers' pay, earning himself a nice little nest-egg.
In 1944, he was sent to the front and took part in the liberation
That same year, while on leave in Brussels, he crossed paths with Roger D.,
aka 'Little Roger',
a well-known cheat from Brussels. They became close friends after Roger
saved him from a brawl at a Brussels pub.
Back in the United States, he was demobilised. He was no longer
making much through gambling in the barracks because of John Scarne's
initiative (*3) designed to counter cheats.
From 1946 to 1974, he joined forces with various Chicago bar
owners to hustle suckers. He also travelled regularly throughout the
country, always on the look-out for high-stakes games and small-time
He always assumed the identity of a travelling sales representative
to fleece his victims.
In 1972, Roger D. got back in touch with his American friend
because he wanted to buy a set of loaded dice.
Sam, who by this time was suffering from cirrhosis of the liver and
knew that his days were numbered, gave Roger D. his backgammon set
and the cheating gear inside it as a souvenir of their friendship,
and to ensure that the gear did not simply vanish after his death. Roger
D. lost touch with Sam shortly thereafter and assumed that he died
sometime in or around 1976.
(source: Roger D.)
(*1) Alvin Clarence Thomas, 1892-1974: professional gambler and
cheat implicated in the murder of Arnold Rothstein in 1928. For more
information see The Unsinkable Titanic Thompson, by Carlton Stowers.
(*2) Matt Schulien (19 Nov. 1890-1 March 1967): Son of a German immigrant
and saloon manager in Chicago. For more information read The
Magic of Matt Schulien by Phil Willmarth, as well as Eugene Burger on Matt Schulien's fabulous card discoveries.
(*3) John Scarne: Orlando Carmelo Scarnecchia (4 March 1903-7
July 1985). America's top gambling authority; named one of the 10
best American card handlers in 1983. For more information read: The
Amazing World of John Scarne: a Personnal History; Scarne's
Complete Guide to Gambling; Scarne on Dice, Scarne on
Card Tricks, etc.