Punchboard Larceny

People have been cheating at punchboards almost as long as there have been punchboards. Early operators made the boards themselves, with relatively few holes, so it was easy for them to know where the big tickets were located, if they were present at all. Later, when the boards were mass-produced with as many as 10,000 holes, an operator would theoretically have no idea where the winning tickets were. Many punchboard manufacturers were careful to ensure random and unpredictable placement of the tickets and went to great lengths to protect the honesty of the game.

Some manufacturers were not so pious. Many gambling supply houses offered unscrupulous people the opportunity to purchase "keyed" punchboards. A keyed punchboard comes complete with a map or "key" that shows the locations of the board's winning tickets. Many manufacturers sold keyed punchboards through the same catalogs that hawked the honesty of their "regular" boards.

At the height of the punchboard's popularity, there were (by some reports, at least) almost as many dishonest boards in operation as honest ones. Oddly enough, it wasn't always the operator who benefited from the keyed boards. Many times a con man would purchase a number of keyed punchboards, then sell them at a large discount over their normal price to bar and store owners throughout a city. Sometimes the con man might actually sell the boards for less than he paid for them. Of course, he mentioned nothing about the punchboards being keyed. Some time later, his partner would go from bar to bar, buying the winning tickets from all the boards. Nice work if you can get it.

Note to punchboard collectors: If you see a punchboard listed for sale as being a "keyed" punchboard or as "including the original key" don't buy it… at least not yet. There are several features of punchboards that may cause sellers to refer to them as "keyed." Some boards are protected from outside cheating through the use of serial numbers… the board itself has a serial number, and every slip of paper from the board has the same serial number printed on it. When someone presented a winning ticket to the operator, he would compare the serial numbers to see if they matched to guard against ticket counterfeiting. Some sellers refer to these boards that are serialized (or "protected") as being keyed. Many other sellers incorrectly call the metal stylus (or punch) that came with punchboards the "key." So if you buy a "keyed" punchboard sight unseen, you may end up with just a regular punchboard and punch.

The keyed punchboard con was immortalized in the movie "The Flim Flam Man" starring George C. Scott. If you are interested in such things, the movie is a must-see.


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