Monday, April 8, 2019

Deal With It: You Can’t Win at Three-Card Monte. ...Or Can You?

As you stroll the boardwalk, the sun shining, the smell of churros and the cry of seagulls filtering through the air, someone makes you an offer. Would you like to double the money in your wallet? It will take about five to ten seconds, and all you have to do is point.

The appeal of the game “Three-Card Monte” tends to draw a crowd, but there can only be one winner. The person who offers the highest bet will be the one to have the honor of pointing to one of three cards, and they could potentially win a lot of money. You join the crowd to watch, intrigued, jostling shoulder-to-shoulder with other curious spectators to determine if this too-good-to-be-true offer is real or not.

"Three-Card Monte" derives its name from the 19th century word "monte" in Spanish, which translates to "mountain" but also refers to the pile of cards left on the table after dealing them.  Three-Card Monte leaves a heck of a "monte" if you started with a full deck, because only three cards are dealt.

Three-Card Monte has been around for centuries; there are records of it being played back in the 15th century.  And variations of the Three-Card Monte, such as the "shell game," have been around since ancient Greece.  If you Google it, you'll find Renaissance paintings and old-timey pictures of people  playing it in the World War 1 era.  It's a very popular game, and you've probably seen it, but just in case you haven't, allow me to describe it for you:

The dealer shows that he has three ordinary playing cards, and he invites onlookers to follow one as he shuffles the cards face-down. The crowd watches, murmuring, as the dealer shows them the face of the cards, and then flips down the cards down on the top of a cardboard box with an audible thwick. The dealer invites one of the spectators to make a bet and try to select the “money card.” It may be the ace of spades or the queen of hearts. It doesn’t matter, because the player will not find it. Three-Card Monte isn’t a game; it’s a scam.

 You should have realized when you drew a trap card by accident and later a "Rules for Playing Rummy" card.

But as you watch the dealer shuffle his cards around the table, you follow their path with ease, and then you witness someone else in the crowd win $20 after betting $10. How could it be a scam if someone just won money? The dealer smiles, shrugs, and gives up the money almost sheepishly. The crowd thrums with excitement; this particular dealer doesn’t seem very talented at moving the cards around fast enough to outwit the player. The crowd of observers grows, and cheers loudly when another one of their own throws down even more money, $50 this time, and selects the correct card again. Reluctantly, the dealer pays out $100 to the lucky player, doubling his bet, and begins yet another round. You guessed the last two rounds correctly while watching others win money, and you guarantee you can win, so long as you monitor the movements of the cards closely.

You have $100. You're going for it.

What you don't know is that the dealer uses sleight of hand to throw the results. And the people who won? Those are plants, or “shills,” whose job it is to lure in unsuspecting victims, or “marks.” They whipped the crowd into a frenzy and "won" a few rounds to convince someone to empty the contents of their wallet. If they play their cards right (forgive the pun), some poor rube (in this case, you) might end up parting ways with a crisp $100 that still bears the inky smell of newly printed bills.

So how does the scam work? The dealer presents three cards and then moves the cards around the table, and the player tries to follow one. But when the dealer threw down the money card at the very beginning and told you to follow it, it wasn’t the one that you thought it was. You have been following the wrong card all along; the game (or more accurately, the con) was over before it began.

Holding the cash bets in hand allow the dealer to further obscure sleight of hand.

Magicians call this technique a “lift.” After displaying the face cards to the audience, the dealer flips them to throw them face-down on the table. The seemingly casual motion obscures the dealer’s trick; he masked one card with another.

If the mark does select the correct card by pure, dumb luck, the dealer can use sleight of hand to swap cards, perhaps even employing the lift technique from before. (The dealer often uses a card to flip over the selected card, and when he does so, swaps them; this move is colloquially called a “double turnover” in magicians’ circles, or a “Mexican turnover” to hucksters.) Alternatively, a planted shill in the audience might step in and place a larger bet, and then bid on a different card to protect the dealer. Dealers who work with shills control the crowd by planting wins and making the game seem “fair.” Shills get a cut of the money, later, in return for their protection of the dealer and recruitment of marks. 

Having gained your trust and then swindled you out of your money, the dealer packs up and vanishes. He has little to take with him; his entire enterprise, after all, is made up of three completely normal playing cards that slot easily into his back pocket, snugly tucked in with all the money he just won from you. Your sense of excitement and fun has been replaced with disappointment and the dawning realization that you just lost all of your churro money. It wasn't a total bust, though, because you have just learned a hard lesson: the house always wins.

Of course, as the title of this article implies, now that you know it's a scam, you might perhaps be able to scam the dealer back in a karmic act of clever card trickery.

For example, let's say you can get the dealer distracted and bend the corner of a card.  Or let's say the dealer slips up and accidentally marks the card himself.  Ha!  Now you can win back your--

Nope, sorry, that's also part of the scam.  Sometimes, shills will "bend" a card, which "guarantees" a win.  The dealer pretends not to notice.  When the shill points out the bent" card, he wins.  When you do it, you lose, because the dealer will use sleight-of-hand to bend a losing card and/or to swap out the bent money card with a bent loser card.  Congratulations.  You played yourself.

 A tutorial on the Monte and the "bent card" variation.

So the house always wins.

Or does it?

Arguably, there are two ways to win the unwinnable game that is Three-Card Monte. The first: to act as either the dealer or the shill, assuming you don’t mind breaking the law. Three-Card Monte is illegal in many places, including California; Section 332 of the California Penal Code was amended in 2005 to make Three-Card Monte and similar games into larcenies that carry up to a $5,000 fine. And Canada banned Three-Card Monte nationwide under Criminal Code section 206; conning people with this simple card trick can land you in jail for up to two years. Across the pond, the 2005 Gambling Act in the UK functionally outlawed Three-Card Monte as well (though, unlike Canada and the United States, does not mention it by name).

Knowing that being a Three-Card Monte dealer is fraught with potential legal fallout, you might prefer the other way to win Three-Card Monte and “beat the dealer.” This trick can be summarized in only four words: don’t fall for it.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Los Angeles Transplants

(Note: This entry is backdated.  It was originally written April 9th, 2019.)

One of the most common questions you'll hear in Los Angeles is, "Where are you from?"  People in Los Angeles are slightly obsessed with each other's origins; there's certainly a pride that comes from having been born here.

Not to be confused with Pride.

I was not born here, and I also do not have a good answer to the question, "where are you from?"  I have moved around a lot, and the eight years I've spent in the same home in Los Angeles has been the longest I have ever settled anywhere.  Los Angeles in my adopted hometown.

But to "natives," the length of time you've been here doesn't matter.  "Native" is the world people in Los Angeles use to describe their status as people who were born here, and not, as I initially thought, referring to the Native Americans, specifically the Tongva, who were the tribe who previously occupied what is now the second-most populous city in America, with about 4 million residents.  (The Tongva, meanwhile, currently have less than 2,000 people remaining in their tribe.)

To understand the phenomenon of the Angelino obsession with "nativeness," I would like to refer to my terrible, ancient Guatemalan neighbor, Maria.  Maria likes cats and, as far as I can tell, not much else.  A few times a year we have a confrontation, usually over noise or the cats.  Maria feeds a large and every-expanding colony of feral cats in the neighborhood.  In our last confrontation, one of my dogs ran up to her, presumably to say hello, and she took a swing at the dog with her cane.  Rest assured that the dog is only six pounds and is no threat to Maria, and Maria is slow and missed actually hitting the dog, so no one was hurt.  However, I was irate that she would even attempt to hit my dog, and I told her as much.  "I would never hurt your cats," I pointed out.

"They were here before you," she responded.

Aside from being a very strange response (Maria has dementia and so her replies are often only loosely connected to the topic at hand), it gave me some insight into Maria's way of thinking.  The cats were there first and therefore they had a right to be there.  Never mind that the cats are dirty little disease vectors.  Never mind that I paid a pet deposit for my dogs to be there.  Never mind that I exercise far more control over my dogs than she does her cats.  In Maria's mind, the cats took precedent over the dogs and it had nothing to do with any practical measure, such as whether or not the animals were on our leases, or whether the animals were nuisances to our neighbors.  In Maria's mind, the cats had been there first, and that gave the cats some sort of authority over the dogs in all matters, regardless of any other context.

Not to say dogs are better than cats in general but there's a clear fucking winner here.

In L.A., a similar mentality reigns.  People who were born here consider themselves to "belong."  Transplants (the word used here to describe those who have moved to Los Angeles, especially recently) are generally frowned upon.

It's such a part of the local culture here that it's got its own slogan, complete with merchandise.  It's appeared on billboards and in advertisements.  The slogan is, "Los Angeles is full.  Go home," or, alternatively, "Don't come to Los Angeles; we're full."

Transplants are blamed for many of Los Angeles's most talked-about problems, including the terrible traffic and the homelessness.  Homelessness in Los Angeles has grown by 75% in the last six years, and I have heard more than one person suggest that the homeless who are appearing on the streets moved here.

To say we're "full" is a bit of an exaggeration.  There are about 7,545 people per square mile here.  Compare that to New York's population density: 27,000 people per square mile.

New York has a transplant "problem," too, of course.  A quarter of their population arrived after the year 2000.  Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, about 46% of people who live here were born in California.  And it's projected that native-born Californians are poised to take over as the majority. So the odd tribalism of scoffing at non-natives seems a little bit over-blown.  What's more, Los Angeles isn't growing nearly as fast as the average resident here would have you believe.  The state of California's growth rate has been declining and now hovers around 1% per year.  In the last decade, Los Angeles has had a 4.7% growth rate, which is only slightly higher than the national growth rate of 4.1%.

The fuss over transplants is especially odd when you consider that nearly every staple of Los Angeles is itself a transplant.  Unless you are one of the remaining 1,700 Tongva people, you can't claim to have true California "heritage."  And it's not only the people who are transplants.

Consider one of the most iconic entities of Los Angeles: the palm tree.

If you Google search "Los Angeles," then you'll see palm trees occupying a special focus in the foreground of the city skyline.  In fact, here's the top result in my images. 

And here's the top result for Los Angeles from the website Shutterstock.

But California has only one native species of palm: the California Fan Palm.  All of the other species are transplants.  Canary Island Date Palms, planted for their fruit, are, of course, from the Canary Islands, and the Queen's Palms that lined the streets of Beverly Hills and Hollywood are native to South America.

The temperate climate here means that just about anything can thrive.  Case in point: we have a whole Wikipedia page dedicated to a selection of invasive species in California, and a separate page for just the plants, listing well over a hundred and mentioning that this only encompasses "some."  It didn't even mention all of the parrots.  Keeping in line with the Los Angeles image of a luxurious, hyper-desirable paradise, wild green parrots (conures) live in clusters throughout the city, delighting tourists and infuriating residents, myself included.  (Those bastards are loud.)

While locals bemoan the presence of human transplants, they seem less concerned with the invasive plants and noxious weeds, despite the impact they have on the environment here.

Unlike the parrots, the palm trees have been here long enough to have earned some "local" status.

How did they get here?  Accounts vary.  According to some, the emergence of palm trees came from Spanish missionaries, who planted them for use on Palm Sunday.  But prior to the 1930s, palm trees weren't widely seen in the city.  The ubiquity of the palm tree in California owes itself, in part, to the association with tropical vacation climates, the popularity of palm gardens during the early 20th century, and a desire by developers to have Los Angeles seem exotic.  (During the 1930s, Los Angeles planted some 40,000 trees in preparation for the 1932 Olympics.)

The $100,000 project, which created 400 jobs, was part of a larger $5 million unemployment relief program.

I have also heard some accounts that the various palms here, like many of the other non-native plants and animals, simply came here by accident and then took over.  While this seems unlikely, it's worth noting that coconut palms are notorious for colonizing foreign shores by having their seeds (the coconuts) float long distances and then wash ashore and take root.  (So, in case you've ever wondered how much truth there is to the Monty Python skit about migrating coconuts, you now know that it's mixed in accuracy: coconuts do, in fact, migrate, but no swallows are involved.)

Ironically, or perhaps unironically, the exotic promise of paradise from these non-native trees attracted non-native people.  Hollywood became a golden, shining place that people idealized, and naturally, they wanted to move here.

Los Angeles residents should be proud that they've built such a desirable place.  Although the frequency of transplants here is exaggerated, there are many who came here and put down roots, much like a coconut washed ashore.  Those people should not be scorned, but celebrated.  Because if palm trees have taught us anything, it's that transplants shape Los Angeles culture, and given time, can become a cornerstone of what we view as "true Angelino."

True Angelinos have pride.  
...hometown or otherwise.

Of course, the alternative to accepting transplants with open arms would be to get angry at palm trees for not being local.  But that seems like a huge waste of energy.  People who move to Los Angeles are often here to stay, and maintaining an artificial pride in who came here first serves no purpose.  Instead of asking where people are from, perhaps we should begin asking what brought them here in the first place, or what they love about Los Angeles.  God knows, there's plenty to choose from.