Inv. SCC/mt-00421
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 of Belgium.
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 cons. 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.