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Poker Face

A card shark shows his hand and dreams of beating cheaters.

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Wessmiller never leaves home without them. In the three years he's been at VCU, he's carried a deck to every class he's attended. He tells his teachers it's a compulsion, and that he can't concentrate without them.

Even a poker neophyte recognizes that Wessmiller's more than your typical card shark. His attachment to a deck is so strong, it's hard to say where the entertainment stops and the obsession begins. It drives his girlfriend crazy, he says with a laugh.

Today, he starts off with a little bottom-dealing and second-dealing, his long, slim fingers fluttering so fast they don't appear to hold anything at all. Then he cold-stacks, making all four aces appear for an imaginary player's hand.

To most people, he says, "It's completely unfathomable that I could be arranging cards as I shuffle them." But his preternatural connection to cards could be his big break.

At a time when poker's popularity has swelled to the extent that it has become a national pastime, Wessmiller has mastered a sleight-of-hand few pros could detect. What's most surprising about his trickery may not be how he does it, but how he plans to use it.

Despite the glamour and prestige the game now enjoys, Wessmiller says he has no interest in using his skills to win big bucks or to score a dealer's gig. Instead, he hopes to parlay his ruses into a career spotting scams.

His timing is key.

"In recent years, the proliferation of gambling has expanded across the United States and the globe," says Ric Alford, enforcement agent of the Nevada State Gaming Control Board. "This has attracted the attention of film producers."

Alford is a Richmond native who graduated from Midlothian High School in 1993. Today he works in Las Vegas, helping catch cheaters in some of the city's most famous casinos. Such TV programs as "Las Vegas," "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," and televised tournaments help spread poker's allure in popular culture, Alford says.

"Casinos can't make new poker rooms fast enough," he says. "Casinos that didn't have poker tables before are moving out slot machines to make room. And, in most cases, a player will have to put his name on a waiting list to get a seat."

It's a seat Wessmiller refuses. "It's a lose-lose when I play," he says, explaining that his talents cause him to be regarded as a cheat or a louse. Every night of the week some dorm room or apartment or frat house is home to a game where VCU students ante up and bow out in a hand of Texas Hold' Em. He exclaims: "It's absolutely insane how popular it is!"

And not just with students. The popularity of poker crosses generations, cultures and household incomes. So much so that it's on the radar of state officials. Section 18.2-325 of the Code of Virginia defines illegal gambling. How it's interpreted varies. (It can be played in private homes provided no "house manager" takes a fee or share of the money.)

In recent months, some nonprofit organizations with licenses to hold bingo games and raffles have blurred the line between what gambling is acceptable and what isn't. Poker isn't, according to the Virginia Department of Charitable Gaming.

On Sept. 27, agency director Clyde Cristman sent a memo to all organizations with charitable gaming permits or exemptions, stressing that poker games would result in fines and penalties.

"We tried to be proactive," Cristman says of the memo and discussions he's had with various commonwealth's attorneys throughout the state. Poker's image had become so prevalent and so innocuous that the Fraternal Order of Police in Virginia Beach had started holding Texas Hold' Em tournaments, Cristman says. Virginia may one day allow poker — if not in casinos, then in Bingo halls and local lodges. He says there has been interest in introducing legislation to allow it.

Regardless, Cristman is intrigued when told by a reporter of Wessmiller's talents, adding that he could prove a valuable intern.

Wessmiller has an affinity for fooling people, even if only on the up and up.

"I love anything that's underground knowledge," Wessmiller says. He's drawn to eccentric interests. He's spent time as "Ivan the Iranian Butcher," his professional-wrestler alter ego. He's been a ventriloquist, too, as well as a juggler and a magician.

He says he'll stick with cards. It's been more than five years since he picked them up. They're a natural fit, he says, and full of possibility. He employs a card shark's psychology: "The knowledge is so hidden it's almost impossible to find."

Wessmiller flew to Colorado Oct. 21 — where poker for profit is legal — to produce a DVD that shows players how they can be cheated. It's called "Weapons of the Card Shark: Underground Cheating Techniques Exposed."

Next week Wessmiller turns 21. In January, he'll take his first trip to Las Vegas to scout the casinos. "With more poker comes more cheats, so I'm going to try to shut it down." His confidence is palpable. After all, he demonstrates the real sleight of hand and manipulation that movies like "Ocean's 11," "Rounders" and "Shade" can manufacture.

Wessmiller sums it up: "With the image card sharks have today, it's kind of like comparing James Bond with real-life espionage." S



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