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Fool’s paradise

Imagine taking a gamble on a game that you have absolutely no chance of winning, no matter how hard you try. That’s the reality of the murky world that is three-card monte, a popular con that has existed for centuries and can still be found on street-corners worldwide. Gareth Bracken has been exposing the truth behind one of the oldest tricks in the book

THE SCENARIO A foreign tourist is strolling through a busy New York district when out of the corner of his eye he notices a small group of people gathered in a nearby side-street, crowded around some sort of table. Intrigued, he goes to investigate. His attentions are immediately drawn to a gleeful looking woman clutching wads of $20 bills. Some sort of card game is going on and money is flying around left, right and centre.

On closer inspection it becomes clear that the woman in question is absolutely fleecing the man running the stand. The game is called three-card monte and the challenge is to pick out the odd card from a collection of three, in this case the Queen of Spades from two red Aces. The dealer running the stand appears unperturbed by his apparent losing streak, continuing to offer bets to all-comers. “Double your money!” he announces excitedly. “You give me twenty, I’ll give your forty. You give me forty, I’ll give you eighty.” The woman plays again and once more guesses correctly, which is unsurprising as it’s hardly difficult to follow the right card. One of the watching group turns to the tourist and encourages him to have a try, pointing out the ease at which one’s money can be multiplied.

Fancying his chances, the tourist elects to give it a go. The result is painful. He bets a 20 and loses it. Another follows soon after. What had seemed so straightforward just a few minutes ago has now become impossible. The dealer offers simplified variations of the game, sometimes even stopping every few seconds to show the tourist where the Queen is currently sitting. It makes no difference however and the man continues to lose. Eventually, a couple of hundred dollars down and growing increasingly frustrated, he questions the fairness of the game. Suddenly, one of the men to his right shouts “Cops!”, causing the dealer to immediately pack up and scamper away down the street, leaving the now penniless tourist angry, confused and upset.

THE REALITY The truth is, of course, that the whole thing is a con that all persons present, except the tourist (or ‘mark’), are in on. As soon as he decides to get involved in the game he is on the road to ruin – there is simply no other outcome.

Every detail is plotted and planned. The stand is set up in a side-street to avoid running into trouble with the authorities, as the group could be arrested for theft by deception if discovered. The success of the woman winning big is designed to draw the mark in. This ‘shill’ role is usually played in one of two ways. Either the person is constantly winning, making the game seem easy, or always losing, making the mark believe that he/she can better such paltry attempts.

The dealer’s “double your money” patter spells out the potential rewards to the mark, enticing them to gamble, while also keeping the game and the money moving quickly. The job of the encouraging onlooker is to convince a wavering mark to step up and play, or perhaps to provoke an already keen customer into betting more than they originally intended.

It isn’t actually a gamble at all, in the sense that the mark simply cannot win. This is because the dealer uses sleight of hand to ensure that it’s near enough impossible to tell where the Queen actually is. The technique is known as ‘the throw’ and begins with the dealer holding two of the cards face down in the same hand, one on top of the other. The top card is secured between the thumb and the index finger while the bottom card is held between the thumb and the middle finger. When the dealer throws a card down on the table it will look like it’s the bottom one – but in actual fact it could be either.

As soon as the mark begins to suspect something is wrong the hustlers will end the game. In this example they pretend to spot the police and scarper, although another oft-used technique is the sudden emergence of a nearby ‘heavy’ who will intimidate the mark into backing down and leaving. Either way, it’s not a game to ever get involved with – it won’t end well.
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