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Gamblers upon the high seas


The advent of regular passenger services across the North Atlantic was a godsend to both European and American confidence men. After booking passage on one of the ocean greyhounds, a professional gambler could leisurely browse through the first-class passenger list in search of suitable quarry.

After finding a potential victim, the gambler might engage his target in casual conversation, always taking care to ask about the man’s family. This was not only disarming, but it also helped the gambler to judge his victim’s standard of living and approximate worth.

A crossing of five or six days would give the sharp ample time to cultivate the good will of his intended victim, which was usually not too difficult. People always seemed to be less suspicious of strangers on board a ship than anywhere else, and it was this trusting, naïve attitude that brought more than one ocean traveller to the brink of financial ruin.

It did not take long for the shipping lines to realise that professional gamblers were present on their ships. Many lines tried to make their passengers aware of the problem by printing cautionary statements in their passenger lists as well as on signs posted in the smoking rooms. Many passengers enjoyed their card games too much to be deterred by these warnings, though, and many of these people eventually fell into the waiting hands of a sharper.

‘It has always puzzled me why passengers, who are usually men of a certain amount of common sense, allow themselves to be fleeced by the professional gamblers who frequently cross in the large passenger steamers,’ Captain Bertram Hayes once wrote in regard to the gamblers who booked passage on his own White Star vessels.

He continued: Most of these gentlemen carry the trademarks of their profession written all over their faces, and one would think that alone would prevent others from associating with them in any way, let alone from playing games of chance with them. There are exceptions, and I remember one man being pointed out to me who had the manners of the proverbial meek and mild curate, and dressed himself in a kind of a clerical costume to assist him in his business. For the first few days he played with the children on deck and so ingratiated himself with the parents, and I heard that he made a very good haul during the last day or so of the passage … Most of them are well-known to the office staff, and also to the ship’s people, and I should think it must be a little disconcerting to them to be greeted by the Second Steward when making application for their seats at table with the remark, ‘What name this time, sir?’ as very often happens. The police on either side of the Atlantic, too, inform us when they know that any of them are crossing.′

Hayes went on to explain:

We cannot refuse to carry them, as steamship companies are what is known as ‘common carriers’, and by law are compelled to sell a ticket to anyone who has the money to pay for it and whose papers are in order, providing there is accommodation available in the ship … Short of actually pointing them out to each individual, every effort is made on the ship to protect their fellow passengers from them. Notices are printed in the passenger lists which everyone gets, and, in addition, notices are posted in the public rooms warning people not to play cards with people whom they don’t know, as professional gamblers are known to be on board. Yet they somehow manage to ingratiate themselves, and I have had many complaints from passengers who have been fleeced. They seldom, if ever, play for high stakes in the smoke room; that is usually done in their own staterooms or in those of their victims.

Travelling first class on a great ocean liner was a mark of prestige for ‘people of quality’, and it was natural to assume that one’s fellow passengers were of the same respectable social standing as oneself. These people often welcomed the opportunity to spend much of the voyage engaged in a game of poker or bridge whist. It was a chance to relax with old friends and new acquaintances, enjoy good fellowship and conversation, and to test one’s skill at his favourite game of cards. Under circumstances like these, the thought of one player deliberately cheating the others rarely occurred to the average player until it was too late, but there was always a ready supply of card mechanics ready and willing to apply the shears to the sheep.′

Extracted from Fate Deals a Hand by George Behe

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