For as long as there have been decks of playing cards, there have been methods of randomizing their order by “shuffling.” The simplest method, often used by children or beginners, is called the “Wash”; cards are mixed by spreading them out face down on the surface of the table and then sliding them around and over one another before gathering them into a single pile. Such shuffling takes up a lot of space and takes quite a long time to complete.
A much faster and more common method of shuffling cards is the “Riffle”, in which half of the deck is held in each hand with the thumbs pointing toward each other, and then the cards are released by the thumbs so that they intertwine as they drop to the table. Other versions of shuffling include “Stripping” (also known as the overhand or side shuffle), “Weaving” (pushing two halves of the deck into each other) and “Piling” (dividing the cards into piles), among others.
In casinos and poker rooms, the responsibility for shuffling decks of cards has traditionally fallen to professional dealers. However, there is always a bit of concern on the part of both players and casino management when dealers handle cards. Nobody can be sure just how well the cards have been mixed, and the possibility of cheating always exists. Unfortunately, there have been more than a few cases of collusion to prove the worst suspicions true.
Early Shuffling Machines
The first patents for card shuffling devices began to appear in the late 19th century. One of the earliest was little more than a box with a comb at the bottom; once the deck was placed inside, the box would be lightly shaken to mix the cards, which would randomly fall out through the comb. Other devices included complex combinations of springs, gears and cranks. In 1897, two brothers by the name of Crook came up with a design that used a rotating triangular frame, a drum, five compartments and pins to mix the cards.
In the 1930s, inventors competed against one another to come up with mechanical apparatus that could deal the cards as well as shuffle them. The “dealing table” created by Laurens Hammond in 1932 was one of the first to use a motor and electricity. Two years later, Ralph Potter produced an electromechanical machine that employed perforated cards to generate random sequences—a primitive precursor of today’s computerized random generators and game consoles.
After World War II, attempts to develop shuffling technology focused more on practicality, seeking not to eliminate dealers altogether but to make their jobs easier and the resulting decks more random. By the 1960s, the first “automatic shuffling machines” became available—relatively simple electromechanical devices that would feed the output deck back into the machine for repeated shuffles.
Many casinos began incorporating such auto-shufflers into their Blackjack games. They helped speed up the shuffling process and reduced the likelihood of repetitive motion stress injuries among dealers, while removing the possibility of “deck rigging” and helping to guarantee the randomness of the cards. Mass production soon followed so that today compact shufflers capable of mixing six decks can be purchased online for under $20 and two-deck shufflers for less than $10.
Modern Shuffling Technology
Although playing-card shufflers have many advantages, they still have a few drawbacks. The most obvious of these became apparent in the 1970s when Blackjack card counters began showing up at casinos and using mathematically proven systems to turn the game’s built-in House Edge to their own advantage. If players knew what cards had been removed from the decks, they could know which ones remained and calculate when to make big wagers as well as when to move to another table.
In 2000, the company known as Shuffle Master introduced their first Continuous Shuffling Machine (CSM) for the game of Blackjack. They dubbed it “The King,” and its primary purpose was to help casinos thwart accomplished pros. Indeed, one of the company’s early advertisements read, “The King continuous shuffler is the card counters (sic) worst nightmare.”
This machine not only shuffled the discards back into the deck at the end of each deal, it also shuffled the current deck non-stop while hands were in play and could produce any number of cards on demand. To guard against any biased shuffles, all of the King’s movements were computer-controlled. As a side benefit, more hands could be played per hour at a table, because there are no breaks required to shuffle, neither by hand nor automatically. Also, the CSM uses just four decks, not six or eight, which reduces the casino’s overhead.
Players, of course, have their own concerns about CSMs. Apart from foiling card counters, continuous shuffling means less time for socializing, a more hurried pace and fewer opportunities to overcome the House Edge. Dealers are not necessarily in favor of CSMs either. They say the machines eliminate the welcome physical and mental break that shuffling provides from what can be a very intense and focused game.