Red Card, I Win; Black Card, You Lose.

Guest Post by Alfred M. Albers

Often times, we think of a con artist as someone who preys on the elderly because of their genuine good-heartedness. But that’s not always the case; every day, unsuspecting “marks” are cheated out of thousands of dollars playing confidence (con) games. The adage, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” (which, by the way, is erroneously attributed to P. T. Barnum) epitomizes the con artist’s skill to intentionally distort the truth. So why does the mark play? One word: greed.

Greed is the motivation behind every scam and while the scammer’s greed is a vital ingredient, the con artist also depends on the potential mark’s greed. Human nature, and the thought of “something for nothing,” is a trait by which the con artist relies on for his profit. It’s this attractiveness that is used to reel in a victim and unceremoniously relieve him of his money.

One of the most popular con games is Three Card Monte, a variation of the old shell game played at carnivals and fairs. Monte is played with three crimped cards, usually two black Jacks and a red Queen, with bets typically starting at $20 per guess. Yes, per guess. It starts with the come-on to win easy cash and some innocent-looking, rhythmic card flipping. “You, sir. Step right up. You win on red and lose on black. All you have to do is find the lady and you win. Twenty gets you forty; forty gets you eighty. Where’s the lady?” In reality, the dealer should say, “Red card I win, black card you lose; it doesn’t matter which you choose.” But that aphorism won’t garner any bets. Besides, the mark has only one thing on his mind: money. But I digress.

Here’s the scene. You’re slowly walking down a city street, taking in the sights and sounds and aromas of the myriad bakeries, delis, street vendors’ food carts and outdoor cafes. Suddenly, you find yourself approaching a lively cluster of people, at least six deep, standing in an arc. Your first thought might be one of concern: something happened. But as you get closer you hear someone vigorously talking. Your curiosity kicks in and as you slow your pace, you mentally debate whether you should stop and join the crowd. Not a good idea; especially in a bustling city. Your best bet is to avoid the temptation to stop and mingle. It’s a pickpocket’s paradise and you’ll never know you’ve been violated until you reach for your wallet, hours later, only to find that it’s long gone. But you stop, anyway. As it turns out, the earnest talking you hear is the Three Card Monte swindle that is about to begin. (Think carnival barker luring customers into the big tent for unforgettable wonders.)

As you maneuver in close, you see three face-down cards arranged in a row on a cardboard box resting atop an upright box. Each card is sharply creased lengthwise. One by one the cards are picked up and shown to the onlookers by the con artist (a.k.a. the dealer). He then begins to flip the cards down, rhythmically, in a cross-handed motion, occasionally showing the cards’ faces as he sizes up the spectators looking for a willing mark.

(The speed at which the cards are shown and tossed down is a minor part of the swindle. The primary part is the switching of one card for another while your attention is distracted by the come-on to win money. The dealer is good—real good—and the mark will be hard-pressed to make an accusation he can’t prove, when he loses.)

As the cards are continually turned and tossed, the dealer is talking a mile-a-minute, priming the onlookers to how things are going to be. After all, you’re in his world right now. The moment of truth finally arrives. “You, sir. Step right up. You win on red and lose on black. All you have to do is find the lady and you win. Twenty gets you forty; forty gets you eighty.” The cards are turned and tossed one last time and then arranged in a straight line. “Place your bet on the lady’s location,” he says. The dealer knows the score, but the mark—well; I’m getting ahead of myself.

Round One: The set-up.
First red flag. At first glance, Three Card Monte seems innocent enough. That is until you’ve been invited to bet money. Your money. The mark’s chance of winning is—no surprise here— non-existent. What neither the mark nor the crowd knows is that the dealer has three “shills” in cahoots. Shill number one will initially play and win a few times thereby setting up the mark to be the next player. (We’ll get to the other shills in a moment.) Once the mark is convinced he, too, can win, the shill quits betting. Of course, the mark loses.

Second red flag. Coming to the mark’s rescue—another minor part of the swindle—shill number one accuses the dealer of cheating. The dealer denies the accusation and offers the shill the opportunity to play again. He does, and wins. After thanking the dealer for that easy cash payout, he confidently turns and edges his way through the crowd as he puts his money into his pocket. (What no one realizes is that the shill doubles back and mingles with the crowd at the very back. This is when pockets are picked.) With one shill out of the picture, the focus now returns to the mark that, a few scarce minutes ago, lost. Once again he is persuaded to play, this time for free. Since no money changes hands, he wins. “See how easy it is to win!” shouts the dealer.

Round Two: The payoff.
Third red flag. Shill number two immediately demands to play and quickly edges his way up front. The mark, still somewhat hesitant about betting again, is all too happy for someone else to pony up his money. It also gives the mark an opportunity to observe the card tossing. This time the dealer intentionally tosses the cards a little slower and shill number two wins every time. Upset over this unfortunate turn of events, the dealer makes a too-good-to-turn-down offer—a chance to bet it all for “the big kill.” Shill number two accepts, but when he loses he accuses the dealer of cheating. Frustrated at the dealer’s insistence that everything was “fair and square,” shill number two picks up one of the Jacks and throws it as far away from the dealer as possible.

Fourth red flag. While the dealer searches for his card, shill number two, in an attempt to get even, quickly grabs the Queen and slightly bends its corner. Of course, everyone except the dealer “sees” the now-gaffed card. The crowd, eager to see revenge, is silent. Emboldened by his actions, shill number two demands to play again; however, the dealer is not so inclined. Fences are quickly mended—the shill apologizes—and the dealer, willing to show that there were no hard feelings, agrees to continue. Once again, the shill reaps the benefits: win after win. Now it’s the dealer who is visibly perplexed at this sudden turn of events. The mark, intensely watching and seeing nothing out of the ordinary, wants in on the action. Now.

Round Three: The whitewash.
Fifth red flag. When shill number two leaves, the mark pulls out his money. Big bills. A big payoff is moments away. The dealer goes through his spiel and the bet is made. Since it’s a substantial wager, the dealer requests that the mark keep his hand with the money on the card. He does—just so there’s no misunderstanding about which card was chosen. “Are you sure?” the dealer asks. The mark, broadly smiling, nods. At that point, the dealer reaches into his pocket and pulls out his matching bet.

Sixth red flag: Snap! (That sound you just heard was the trap door slamming shut.) When the chosen card is turned face-up, the mark is aghast to find that instead of the red Queen, he has a black Jack. Before the mark has a chance to react, shill number three who has been at the back of the crowd from the onset, hollers, “Police.” In that frozen moment of time, the mark’s money is quickly snatched as the stunned crowd turns to look. And that’s when the cards, shills and dealer take off in different directions. The only thing left are the cardboard boxes and the crowd. Many of whom are glad they didn’t lose their money. As for the mark—he’s another victim of this century-old con game. Sadly, even if he was able to outwit the dealer, the mark wouldn’t have gotten very far before he was relieved of his winnings, his wallet and other valuables. Yes, some people are very sore losers.

So what happened? The secret is that all three cards have flexible corners. When the dealer picks up the cards, he straightens the corner of the Queen while simultaneously bending the corner of the Jack. This is inconspicuously done under the ruse of showing each card as it’s flipped down.

Although Three Card Monte is just one of many con games, they all have one thing in common: to relieve some poor soul of his hard-earned money. It’s ironic that people only hear of the misfortunes of the well-to-do, and not the average citizen. But it does happen and yet it never makes the 6 o’clock news. Why? Because the average person is probably ashamed to admit he was conned, besides being embarrassed about the whole thing, anyway.

“You, sir. Step right up. You win on red and lose on black. All you have to do is find the lady and you win. Twenty gets you forty; forty gets you eighty. Care to bet?”

Alfred M. Albers is a part-time professional magician and the author of three mystery novels. His latest book, A Pocket Full of Voices, can be previewed at


Posted on April 29, 2013, in General. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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