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.

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