January 13, 2012

Top and bottom: Dice swindle game.

Possibly a Top and Bottom game

One piece of gambling equipment Soapy and the Soap Gang utilized but rarely mentioned is dice. The most common swindle game using dice is top and bottom. My book has only three pages mentioning the game and only one with an explanation. The following is from Alias Soapy Smith.

... the News reported that about thirty bunco men were headed for Boulder and the fireman’s tournament: “There are pickpockets and soap men and shell men, eight die men, top and bottom men, flim-flamers and the smiler with the shells, and all the rest of the boys.” Associating “the boys” with the robberies was an easy link for readers. Did the robbery of Lewis raise the profile of Soapy and the bunco brotherhood? The answer seems clear. Why else would “the brotherhood’s” travel to Boulder be newsworthy?

The “eight die men” mentioned in the story ran a game called “Top and Bottom.” It was a short con with gaffed, or altered, dice in which the victim bets that the top and bottom faces of three tossed dice either will or will not add up to twenty-one. It is based on the principal that players cannot see around corners. If they could see more than three sides of the cubes at once, they would notice not only that the tops do not come close to adding up to seven on opposite sides but also that some numbers are missing entirely while other numbers appear twice. The operator of “Top and Bottom” is a skilled sleight-of-hand artist who can switch sets of dice at any given moment.

Recently I read the book, Fools of Fortune or Gambling and Gamblers published in 1890 by John Philip Quinn which contains a great description of top and bottom.

This game of dice-if it may properly be called a game-is a swindling device, pure and simple. It is, in effect, nothing but a scheme of fraud, for the successful operation of which are required two sharpers, who act as confederates, a dice box, three ordinary dice, a "ringer" and a "sucker." The place commonly selected for working it is a saloon, and the method in which it is operated is as follows:

The victim having been selected and located in a saloon, the first sharper scrapes an acquaintance with him and induces him to throw dice for the drinks or cigars. While the dice are being handled, the gambler calls the attention of the dupe to the fact that the number of spots on the faces of the three dice added to the number on the three reverse sides is always equal to twenty-one. This fact necessarily follows from the construction of all fair dice; on the reverse face from the ace is a 6; opposite to 3 is 4; and directly opposite to 5 is 2. There are, however, many persons, who not having had their attention directed to this circumstance, are ignorant of the fact. The "sucker" usually satisfies himself of the correctness of the statement made by his newly formed acquaintance through throwing the dice several times in succession, until he becomes convinced that the sum of the six numbers is always equal to twenty-one. At this point sharper number two makes his appearance. He strolls up to the pair and offers to join in throwing dice for refreshments. The first swindler proposes that they guess as to the number of spots on the upper and under sides of the three dice. To this sharper number two assents, and guesses, say, 25. As a matter of course, the greenhorn guesses 21 and wins. The second confederate thereupon remarks that he is a "pretty good guesser." To this the first swindler replies that "the gentlemen can tell the number every time." The confederate demurs to this statement, saying that it is impossible. He offers to bet the price of a box of cigars that the dupe cannot do it. His accomplice retorts that he would be willing to bet $I,000-that he can, and offers to lend the dupe money to add to whatever sum the latter may wish to bet for the purpose of laying a stake against his confederate. The bet having been made, the attention of the victim is momentarily diverted and the "ringer"-either a loaded dice or one prepared after the manner described in the paragraph upon the game of "crap"-is substituted for one of the fair dice. The throw is cast, and when the spots are added together their sum is inevitably found to be either greater or less than 21. Sharper number two thereupon demands and takes the stakes.

Ordinarily the dupe is too bewildered at the moment to understand the precise nature of the game which has been played upon him until after the two confederates have left the house. Should he, however, remonstrate and undertake to raise a disturbance, it is usually found an easy matter to quiet him by summoning the town marshal or some other police officer. In fact, I have known an officer actually summoned, who insisted upon the dupe keeping quiet, for which service he received a bonus from the pair of swindlers.
The last paragraph mentioning the summoning of the marshal or police is interesting. Before joining the Soap Gang "Big Ed" Burns ran a top and bottom gang in the Tucson area. It was there that Morgan Earp, serving as his brother Virgil's deputy, was accused in the Tucson Citizen (August 28, 1881) of being in league with the bunco gang. Casey Tefertiller in his book Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend, gives the defense that the accusation could not be true because Morgan later arrested Burns. Students of bunco gang history know that arrests by policemen receiving graft payments is part of the routine, and often are orchestrated in order to be taken to a "safe" police headquarters where personal protection and possibly a quick release can be had. Much the same way when the Earp brothers were "arrested" in Colorado on trumped-up charges by friends in order to keep them from being extradited back to Arizona on charges of murder. 

Top and bottom: page 78, 99, 262.

January 13
1929: Wyatt Earp dies. Soap Gang member Wilson Mizner is chosen as a pallbearer.

Jeff Smith


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