Friday, 15 July 2011

three-card monte

In the decades prior to their defeat by the British on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, the French ran a thriving colony in Quebec (‘New France’). However, administration from the centre was extremely casual: money arrived irregularly from the home country, and the colonial authorities were forced to improvise.

The model that they chose to emulate was that of Massachusetts, which in 1690 had issued the first paper money in North America. However, the only durable stock of paper available was playing cards, which had the dubious advantage of bearing the official government signature. These then became promises to pay that could be redeemed for gold or silver when ships from France finally arrived in the colony. Different suits were worth different amounts.

Unfortunately, as with regular paper money, if too many cards are dealt inflation results. In the final years of New France this occurred: need was immense, while the means for redemption were tiny. The purchasing power of the playing cards became vanishingly small, and this particular fiscal experiment ended in 1759 with the French defeat.

It is with some sadness that I report this story. Had it become standard practice throughout the world to use playing cards as money, then the recent activities of investment banks might have been more widely recognized as gambling earlier than turned out to be the case. It would also have been glaringly obvious that they were playing with a rigged deck.

In this respect, investment banking has a lot in common with the confidence trick known in America as ‘three-card monte’ and in the UK as ‘find the lady’, because the object of the ‘game’ is to identify which of three cards is the queen of hearts. If you see such a game in progress, by all means stay and watch, but on no account should you bet any money, because you are certain to lose. Despite appearances, it isn’t a fair game: the widespread encouragement to invest in mortgage-backed securities a few years ago merits a broadly similar description.

Three-card monte is usually played in a side street close to a busy area with a lot of people passing by on foot. The first thing you will see is a man standing behind an upturned packing case or cardboard box manipulating three cards and inviting spectators to put money on their ability to identify the queen. You should bear in mind that the ‘dealer’ is not alone. Some spectators will be ‘shills’, or accomplices, each with a different role to play in the perpetration of the scam.

At least one shill will be playing; he may be winning easily, or he may be losing outrageously. There is a reason behind these different strategies. In the first case, the appeal is to simple human greed; the second is a set-up for a second shill to make his ‘pitch’ to a potential ‘mark’, or victim. I always enjoy playing the latter, because part of the fun of watching a three-card monte operation is in identifying all the shills and listening to what they have to say. The most common angle is that they will point out that the game is crooked, but that they know how to beat it. I can see the appeal to vanity here: this offers a chance to scam the scammers. Of course, I always dip out when the question of putting down money arises. It is a pity that this strategy wasn’t followed by many employees of the big investment banks, who rushed to buy securities that offered exceptionally high returns with apparently little risk. With hindsight, it would be fair to say that they fell for both the appeal to greed and the appeal to vanity.

So how is it done? It is actually quite easy to follow the queen. However, when the dealer picks up the three cards, note that he must have two in one hand. A skilled card sharp can choose which of these cards to ‘throw’ onto the playing surface. The usual assumption is that he has thrown the bottom card, but if the two cards are being held correctly, it is just as easy to throw the top card. In other words, it is impossible, if the switch is done properly, to spot which of the two cards has been thrown first. So effective is this technique that even the shills may not be able to follow the queen, so a system of secret hand signals is needed to let them know its location.

What happens if the mark places his money on the correct card? Given that the golden rule in this type of con is that the mark is never allowed to win, how can this difficulty be circumvented? The usual tactic is for one of the shills, who will be aware that the mark has picked the correct card, to place a higher bet on the same card. The dealer then declares that he accepts only the highest bet in any given round of the game.

There are other tricks that can be employed, including the mystifyingly named ‘Mexican turnover’, which is an alternative method of dealing with the awkward circumstance where a mark selects the correct card. It, too, requires a degree of legerdemain. However, there is an interesting variant that I’ve seen being used in London that doesn’t require any such manipulation of the cards, although it is likely that the dealer can do so if required, because the three cards are always slightly curved around their long axes, which is a prerequisite for the standard throw described above.

In this variant, one shill will be playing, and he will choose the correct card to bet on each time. He can do this because he looks at the card first. Then he reaches ostentatiously for his wallet to take out some money, turning away from the cards as he does so. As this is taking place, the dealer brazenly swaps the queen for one of the other cards. Cue a second shill, who can point out to a potential mark how stupid the man must be for not keeping a finger on his chosen card while getting his money out. The mark is then asked to place his finger on the card while the second shill gets out his money.

And now comes the pitch: if the mark is prepared to match the stake wagered by the second shill, they can share the winnings. I cannot describe how the mark is relieved of his cash by this method, because whenever I’ve been in the position of the mark in this scenario, this is the point where I’ve always ‘made my excuses and left’. Older readers will recall that this was the standard form of words used by News of the World journalists in less prurient times as part of their exposés of illicit sex, drug dealing and other activities of which the newspaper disapproved, before it decided that it was more profitable in the long run to stay and watch. After all, whatever form money takes, there will always be some people who want more of it and who will not be deterred by the annoying detail that what they choose to do to get more of it might be illegal.


  1. Brilliant. I couldn't agree more with the last sentence.

  2. Ponzi did it without the cards. Greed makes bigger marks all the time.


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