The Only Game in Town

by

05/20/2002

19 Fulton St, New York, NY 10038

Neighborhood: Financial District

Being a bohemian Communist without a mutual fund, a 401(k), or any valueless dot com stocks to add to the oil drum fires the homeless gather around, I don’t often find myself in the Financial District. But when I do, I get the biggest kick out of seeing white brokers, lawyers and computer guys lining up for the three-card monte games run by dusty-looking blacks, Latinos and Roma atop cardboard boxes. Full of blowhard confidence, these Wall Street gurus refuse to believe that the rest of us have already figured out. You can’t win.

Three-card monte is a simple trick. The tosser holds up two black cards and one red one, and tosses them face down on a table. He shuffles them a bit, then asks the punter (in this case, one of the Wall Street guys) to point to the red card. Thanks to a little prestidigitation, the red card appears to have been dropped first, but was really dropped second. The punter loses the card’s place and thus his money. Repeat till the cops arrive.

And on this sunny April afternoon, the cops were nowhere to be seen. I watched one guy dump $300 in six minutes and then leave with a smile on his face as two more fellows fell in after him and placed their bets. One of the guys — I’ll call him Stan Laurel because he was a long stringbean of a man — dumped $75 in three turns. His pal, a hefty, sweating Oliver Hardy sort, was a bit smarter. So smart that he actually called the right card after Laurel eliminated one of the black cards with his incorrect guess. Hardy was so smart, in fact, that he fell into the tosser’s second trap.

“One bet atta time, one bet atta time,” the tosser said, then offered Hardy $100 a turn. Hardy ran out of money after two rounds. By the time the crowd started turning against the tosser, I had watched him pocket at least $800. Not bad for twenty minutes’ work.

Three-card monte has been around since at least Fifteenth-Century Spain, and the even older shell game was probably played in the shadow of the pyramids. By the Nineteenth Century, tossers were dressed to the nines, playing on the image of the professional gambler. Tired and hungry settlers, half-drunk prospectors and bumpkins were their punters. Millions of hard lessons later, the unwary marks learned the basic lesson of capitalism: There ain’t ever gonna be something for nothing. So they dropped out of the game, leaving only the wary.

But what makes the game such a powerful draw down in the Financial District? Even in these economic doldrums, the average Wall Street punter can still work through lunch and pocket more money working the phones than he ever could with a game of three-card monte. It’s the nature of scam to tantalize, though. Working the phones is hard. Shaking down some poor sucker on the street, especially when he looks and acts like a laid-off janitor, seems easy in contrast. The money is flying. The sun is bright. The smell of boiled hot dogs is in the air. And there’s no way some street guy can beat a polished financial predator, right?

Three-card monte now depends on what they call “the rube act.” The tosser I observed was great. Rotten sneakers, holey jeans, worn T-shirt and a missing tooth. His entire ensemble could have been purchased ten times over for the price of one of his victim’s neckties. Who could resist? Certainly not the Wall Street people. They think this guy must be running his game out of desperation, hoping that luck will put a few bucks in his pocket. The game seems simple. Get lucky and win! Even if you’re unlucky, you’ve not lost that much, and there’s always next round, right? But three-card monte isn’t that simple.

The tosser’s investment in human resources is quite extensive, for example. There’s a shill, who appears to win the game; a roper, who attracts folks to the game and encourages people to play, muscle to settle disputes in the tosser’s favor and a lookout to watch out for the fuzz.

What makes three-card monte so hilarious is that the scam is now so obvious. These days, even TV sitcoms debunk it. The police departments posts signs in subway stations to warn off the tourists, and the trick itself is easy enough to teach children. It’s been dissected in books and magazines for years. Why play it then? Canada Bill Jones, the famous monte operator and Faro addict put it best.

“I know the game is crooked,” he said once, while losing his shirt in a dirty Faro game, “but it’s the only game in town.”

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