A card sharp (informally also cardsharp, card shark, cardshark) is a person who uses skill and deception to win at poker or other card games. Also known in card gaming jargon as a "mechanic", an older politically incorrect term is "greek".
The label is not always intended as pejorative, and is sometimes used to refer to practitioners of card tricks for entertainment purposes. In general usage, principally in American English and more commonly with the "shark" spelling, the term has also taken on the meaning of "expert card gambler who takes advantage of less-skilled players", without implication of actual cheating at cards (in much the same way that "" or "pool hustler" can (especially when used by non-players) be intended to mean "skilled player" rather than "swindler").
A card sharp (by either of the gambling-related definitions) may be a "rounder" who travels, seeking out high-stakes games in which to gamble. The 1998 film Rounders dramatically illustrates this lifestyle.
Card shark who cheat or perform tricks use methods to keep control of the order of the cards or sometimes to control one specific card. Most, if not all, of these methods employ sleight of hand
. Essential skills are false shuffles
and false cuts
that appear to mix the deck
but actually leave the cards in the same order. More advanced techniques include culling
(manipulating desired cards to the top or bottom of the deck), and stacking
(putting desired cards in position to be dealt).
Dealing the cards can also be manipulated, by dealing either the bottom card from the deck or the second one from the top instead of the top card. These are called the bottom deal and the second deal respectively. Dealing may also be done from the middle of the deck, known as the middle deal or center deal, but this is not as common.
The use of these methods to actually cheat at cards is generally frowned upon by stage magicians
and other card trick artists, as this associates practitioners as a class with swindling. In their card trick routines, however, they often use card sharping techniques that originated as cheating methods.
Etymology and usage
According to the prevailing etymological
theory, the term "shark", originally meaning "parasite" or "one who preys upon others" (cf. loan shark)
, derives from German Schorke
("rogue" or "rascal"), as did the English word "shirk[er]". "Sharp" developed in the 17th century from this meaning of "shark" (as apparently did the use of "shark" as a name for the fish), but the phrase "card sharp" prefigures the variant "card shark". The original connotation was negative, meaning "swindler" or "cheat", regardless of spelling, with the more positive connotations of "expert" or "skilled player" arising later, and not supplanting the negative ones. "Card sharp" and "card shark" are synonymous, although American English
is somewhat, but informally, beginning to favor "shark" as a positive term versus "sharp" as a negative one. (However not even all American dictionaries agree with this, and some suggest the opposite.)
In popular culture
Card sharps are common characters in caper
films, since the questionable legality
of their hobby also plays well with that of their occupation. Notable examples of such films are:
- Sanford and Son featured an episode where card sharps defeated Lamont at poker; while he went to get drinks, Fred was able (through a specially marked deck and one of his many pairs of reading glasses) to defeat the card sharps and win Lamont's money back.
- Stage magician and actor Harry Anderson (of Night Court fame) made several appearances on Cheers as card sharp "Harry the Hat".
- On Prison Break, the character Theodore "T-Bag" Bagwell is an expert card sharp, to the point where "there are maybe five people in this country who can do what I do with a deck of cards"; while this may have been an exaggeration, T-Bag uses this skill successfully in the episode "Bluff".
- On an episode of Friends, Ross was debating with his doppleganger Russ about the correctness of the term "card shark" vs. "card sharp".