The Two Death Cards

Regardless of how often I look through my casebook of Sherlock Holmes I never cease to be amazed at his incredible powers of deduction. Many a crime that baffled the most intense investiga­tion he unravelled by such simple logical argument that one wondered why they had not thought of it first. I was com­plete­ly absorbed in re-reading one such exploit when I heard a distinct­ive, yet familiar, tap-tap-tap telling me that my great friend was at the front door. As I admitted Holmes I sensed in his de­mean­our an excitement that only an unsolved crime could induce.

"Come in, Holmes," I said and, testing my assessment of his barely discernible agitation, added, "and tell me about this latest puzzling case."

"Ha! Excellent deduction, Watson. You'll have me looking to my laurels if you keep learning my methods."

"Actually," said Holmes, as he settled before the fire to warm his hands, "I have to slightly correct the impression you have formed. The matter that brings me to visit you this chill morning is unlikely to be investigated as a crime. However, if you can postpone your reading of The Rembrandt Trio you might care to accompany me for this case is not without interest."

"But how do you know what I was reading before you arrived?"

"Elementary, my dear Watson. On entering the room I noticed that on your desk is your casebook and although closed its bookmark is halfway through which I recall is the location of The Rembrandt Trio. The chair I now sit on you took from your desk and as it was already warm I deduced you had spent quite some time reading your casebook."

"True, Holmes, true. Now, what, may I ask, is this new case about?"

"Get your coat and hat and on the way to the scene I will tell you about it."

I sat opposite Holmes during the short cab ride, totally enthralled by his enthusiasm for what to most would be a terrible event.

"Although this tale may sound as having occurred in the Wild West, Watson, believe it or not, it happened not more than a few minutes from your door. Three men were playing poker; now two are dead, apparently having shot each other. The sole survivor and witness gave evidence to the police. The victims had accused each other of cheating until each drew a gun and fired and both were killed. What do you think of that, Watson?"

"That is appalling. If there were cheating, it is unlikely that both were cheating. Therefore, though some might see the cheat as having got his just desserts, the other victim, completely innocent, has died most tragically."

"I agree, and as the cheat would appear to have already paid the supreme penalty it is unlikely that the police will make more than a perfunctory investigation. Ah, I see we are almost there."

Our cab halted at the palatial Excelsior Hotel which surprised me as I had imagined the poker scene would be a grimy, smoke-filled room in a back-alley.

Inspector Lestrade was in the foyer interviewing hotel staff when he caught sight of us.

"Good morning, Mr Holmes and you, too, Dr Watson. But are you a poker player, Mr Holmes?"

"No, Inspector, but I do note similarities between poker players and you and me as criminal investigators. We all need to deduce what our opponents may do and occasionally call their bluff. And we all seek clues that I believe poker players call 'tells'."

The Inspector laughed, "Tellingly put, if I might say so. Now, perhaps, you may care to come with me to the scene of the tragedy. The surviving player, Mr Carter, has been sent for and will join us anon."

We entered a most elegantly furnished room and there in its midst could see where the poker game had been played. The cards still lay upon the table and the chairs lay where they tumbled when the victims fell.

"The wounds sustained by both men indicate they died instantly," said Lestrade. He continued, "You will note that the two hands that lead to the accusations of cheating still remain faceup on the table as does the money they had wagered. You will note, also, that both hands contain an Ace of Spades. All the cards have been counted and there are 53 in total. Quite clearly then, one or the other was the cheat and used a second Ace of Spades. It is impossible to say who was innocent and who guilty, and as the guilty party is dead the case is all but closed."

"I follow your reasoning, Inspector. By the way, Watson, you will recall that the Ace of Spades is called the Death Card and when that card is dealt neither saint nor sinner can avoid his fate. In this case we have two Death Cards and two deaths, one an evil-doer and one innocent."

"The finger of fate is indeed fickle, Holmes."

"Inspector, as Mr Carter will be joining us shortly perhaps I might be permitted to ask him a few questions about high-stakes poker."

"It's all one to me, Mr Holmes, ask what you will. I can play nothing but 'Old Maid'."

Carter arrived and after introductions Holmes began enquiring into the intricacies of poker.

"I understand that poker at the highest level is an extremely skillful game. Could you please enlighten us?"

"You are correct, Mr Holmes. In fact, I and my two opponents, Abbott and Brown are, or rather were, among the better players in the world. We make our living by winning competitions for which anyone can participate for the cost of an entry fee. However, we professional players need to hone our skills. We seek, therefore, to play against the strongest opposition and so we needs must play each other and for high stakes as correct betting is a most difficult thing to master."

"I am surprised that pistols are carried by players. Must one be able to draw a card and draw a gun with equal facility?"

Carter laughed, "Ha ha, no, Mr Holmes, the better the player the safer the game. An unwritten code of ethics exists between top players. Anyone falling outside its high moral principles, such as a cheat, would have no future as a player in our fraternity. Pocket pistols are rarely carried and only then for self-protection against those outside the world of poker such as robbers and other criminals."

"I understand. Now, I will come to the game that lead to the tragedy. I take it that the deal passed around the table in clockwise order."

"That is correct. Clockwise is the conventional way. In fact, it was I who dealt that final game to produce the hands you now see upon the table."

"You dealt first to Abbott, next to Brown and lastly to yourself?"

"That is correct, Mr Holmes."

"If you please, describe what happened."

"I drew a poor hand and threw it in immediately without betting. From then on I was a mere spectator to the play of the other two. They played their hands as normally except that the betting, though of short duration, was particularly high. However, with the showdown of cards there followed the accusations of cheating and the shootings."

"I see that Abbott's hand was four Aces and that Brown's was a Royal Flush of Spades. There is an Ace of Spades in each hand so clearly someone has cheated. Please describe the play of the hand and how the betting proceeded."

"Abbott made an initial small bet and Brown raised this bet a small amount. Abbott responded with a very large raise which Brown then called. Brown's betting level suggested he held a very strong, yet beatable, hand such as a small full house. Abbott laid down his four Aces and said "Four of a kind." Not surprisingly, given the indication that Brown seemed to be holding a much weaker hand, Abbott moved to rake in the pot whereupon Brown called '"Heh! Stop! I've got a straight flush."'

Brown laid his cards down in dramatic fashion naming each card as he placed it, saying '"King of Spades - Queen of Spades - Jack of Spades - 10 of Spades"', but then he stopped. For a few seconds he held the fifth card aloft as though savouring the moment. Naturally, we waited for him to lay down the 9 of Spades but imagine the shock when he slammed the card onto the table and called '"Ace of Spades! I've got a Royal!"'

There was absolute silence as Abbott and I stared, open-mouthed, at that Ace, but only for a moment. It was I who spoke first, '"There are two Aces of Spades on the table. Someone is cheating!"'

Immediately the other two began accusing each other of being the cheat. A violent argument ensued with both standing until suddenly they drew pistols and simultaneously fired, killing each other."

"Well, there you have it, Mr Holmes, a terrible tragedy but we will never know which of the two was the cheat."

"Perhaps so, Inspector, but at least we know who killed them!"

We three, Lestrade, Carter and I, that is, responded as one in turning our heads toward Holmes, presumably, being equally astounded by his ambiguous remark.

"What do you mean?" asked Lestrade. "They killed each other. Surely, you're not suggesting they were killed by a third party?"

"Indeed, I am," said Holmes, most emphatically.

"But that can only mean Mr Cart..." began Lestrade, only to be interrupted by an impassioned plea from Carter.

"No! No! No! No! I did not kill them."

"Holmes, that is a wild accusation," said Lestrade, "Where is the evidence? What is the motive?"

Despite my faith in Holmes's deductive powers, those two questions, though basic to every investigation, would seem well nigh impossible for Holmes to answer. However, I was in for a surprise!

"I can answer both questions quite easily, Inspector. Firstly, the evidence; we have two bodies supposedly having been shot simultaneously. That is nonsense! They were not shot, nor could be shot, simultaneously."

"I dispute that. It is still possible, however improbable you may try to paint it," interjected Lestrade.

"On the balance of probabilities, I have weighed simultaneous shootings and found them wanting. Consider this: For there to be simultaneous shootings there would need to be simultaneity of thought and action but how unlikely is that? Each of the three players had quite contrary thoughts.

The cheat, of course, knew he was the cheat but accused the other player with an Ace of Spades of being the cheat. That player believed his accuser to be the cheat. Mr Carter, who announced that cheating had occurred, and is, therefore, in my opinion, not the cheat, cannot tell which of the other two is the cheat. These three differing thoughts will cause three differing response times in a shootout. Two people simultaneously shooting each other at point-blank range is highly improbable at the best of times and I say it is impossible given their likely responses. What do I conclude from that, then? The obvious! They did not shoot each other!"

Holmes paused, allowing us a few moments to weigh up the implications. Carter, with his head slightly tilted, stared vacantly at the floor. Clearly, he was lost in deep thought.

Holmes continued, "Inspector, Mr Carter has lied to us. He was involved in the shootings. I invite him to tell the truth but that he not be tempted to varnish it let me first make these points:

Mr Carter told us that players sometimes carry guns for self-protection against robbers and other criminals. Cheats would seem to fall within that compass. I assume Mr Carter carried a gun. Having discovered that cheating had occurred and whilst the other two were arguing he drew his gun ostensibly to apprehend the cheat. Holding them at gunpoint, he disarmed them. He told us earlier of the high ethical standards of poker players and contempt for cheats. This was the motivation for his next action. Being unable to determine which of the two the cheat was, he shot them both," and with a sardonic grin, "just to be on the safe side. He shot one and then, with a different pistol, shot the other. He then placed a pistol in the hand of each of the dead and concocted the shootout story to bluff his way out of a cold-blooded, double murder."

"No! No! It did not happen like that," pleaded Carter, "I did not murder anyone."

"I think I ought caution you, Mr Carter, that anything you say may be taken down and used in evidence," said Lestrade.

Carter's expression was one of shock at Holmes's accusations, "I am innocent."

"Then tell the truth or it will go very hard against you and your life may be forfeit," warned Holmes. "Was it your gun that was found in Mr Brown's hand?"

"Yes, Mr Holmes."

"And did you shoot Mr Abbott?"

"Yes, but in self defence."

"Oh, stop. More and more lies. I'll hear no more," said Lestrade. "I advise you to seek legal advice before you say another word. I place you under arrest."

"A moment or two more, if you please, Inspector," requested Holmes. "I have only one or two further matters to address."

"The floor is yours, Holmes."

"I refuse to say another word, Mr Holmes, as my attempts to tell the truth have placed me in a worse predicament."

"Very well," replied Holmes, "then I will advance some private observations.

Mr Brown was not the cheat. How do we know? Because he revealed the second Ace whilst the first was exposed on the table. The real cheat would not have done that.

Now I come to the cheat, but first a question: 'Why would an apparently skillful player cheat?' I offer this thought: 'If a player has the skills to win, then logically, it is unnecessary for him to cheat.' He would be a fool to jeopardise his career by cheating and risk being caught. My conclusion, therefore, is that a cheat is an incompetent player and being incompetent will make mistakes and misjudgements resulting in him being caught in the end. Such was the cheat, Abbott!

And how did Abbott go about his cheating? Using the extra Ace, of course, but how and when did he use it? Though one cannot say precisely there are things that must apply and I will pose my case as though Abbott performed them. The difference between winning and losing is delicately balanced, it's quite tiny. Abbott, therefore, played honestly most of the time and only needed to cheat occasionally to win. He used the cheat card whenever he could guarantee to recover it. This he did by only cheating on the hand before his turn to deal, that is, when Mr Carter dealt. During his own deal he performed a false shuffle and dealt himself the cheat card which he secreted for further use.

His other protection against exposure was to 'call' the other players. This enabled him to check that their hands did not contain the true Ace of Spades. Only then would he use his cheat card. So, what went wrong in that final hand to cause him to reveal the cheat card? Two things! His greed and his incompetence even to cheat.

When he was called he ought to have refrained from playing the cheat card and simply played his hand honestly and set down three Aces. Apparently, he could not equate Brown's betting strategy with any hand containing an Ace of Spades and assumed he held a full house or even four of a kind. In either case Abbott needed to include his cheat card to beat either of those hands.

And so, his greed caused his cheating to be revealed! And what did he then do? He had prepared for this contingency and always carried a pistol and had a simple plan, namely, to kill anyone who discovered he was a cheat. Now, he put his murderous plan into effect. He drew his pistol and shot poor Mr Brown. He then turned to shoot Mr Carter but those few seconds taken to kill Mr Brown had given Mr Carter the vital time he needed to draw his pistol and he was able to shoot Abbott. Do I have that about right, Mr Carter?"

"Exactly, Mr Holmes, but how you have deduced it leaves me staggered beyond belief. You have revealed my stupidity in attempting to conceal my involvement. Though I acted in self-defence I thought a revelation of these events might leave a lingering doubt that I might be entirely innocent. I can now approach the world confident that what I say is backed up by the great Sherlock Holmes. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, Mr Holmes."

"We need only ensure that Inspector Lestrade releases you from arrest."

"Of course, of course, you are free, Mr Carter. I am curious of one thing, Holmes. If I understand you, did you believe all the time that Mr Carter was innocent of murder?"

"Of course."

"Then why did you take such pains to suggest he had committed a double murder?"

Lestrade's question was most intriguing and I waited with bated breath for Holmes to answer.

"Mr Carter is a poker player and tried to bluff us with his version of the shootout. I called his bluff and then ran my own bluff to get him to admit the truth."

"You are quite a card, Mr Holmes," said Carter, "but please do not become a poker player. You'd be far too good for the rest of us."

2003, Graeme Lindridge

Previous | Top | Home | Puzzles | Next