In 1994, Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Sheryl L. Parker was faced with a difficult ruling. Was three card monte a game of skill or a game of a chance?
The wager is a simple one: the con artist mixes three playing cards face down on a table. The sucker has to guess which of the three cards is the odd one out. If they succeed, they double their money. Fail, and the money is gone.
The prosecution argued that it was a gambling game and, therefore, was illegal to play on the streets of New York. The defendant’s lawyers, however, argued that is was a game of skill. The player can win if they successfully track the winning card's position.
The judge's ruling? Three card monte is a game of skill and therefore not illegal.
In reality, three card monte is not a game of chance, a game of skill or a magic trick. At its purest, three card monte is a scam; its sole purpose is to separate its players from their money.
I've played three card monte around the world. I've seen crews set up along Las Ramblas in Barcelona alongside human statues and buskers. I've seen them offering incredible odds outside major casinos on the Las Vegas strip. I've been busted spying on them hustling brits in Brick Lane, London.
I have lost thousands in the name of research and never won a single cent.
The only way to guarantee a win is to walk away with your wallet firmly in your pocket.
Even the name "monte" is a lie. Historians tend to assume that the game comes from Mexico. After all, Monte was the most popular game in Mexico when the game first became popular in the 1800s in America. In reality, Mexican monte has nothing to do with the scam. Instead, swindlers took the name Monte because it gave the game a legitimacy, associating it with the Mexican game.
The scam is mentioned in Expert at the Card Table as an "ancient and honourable game" by S.W. Erdnase who then goes on to explain, in great detail, how to cheat. In 1935, John Scarne wrote Why You Can't Win to help World War II soldiers avoid being swindled. My first book, Chasing The Ace, tells the story of an aging three card monte scammer and his protege.
The game had resurgence in the early sixties in New York where it was used to scam tourists, a practice that continued up until the nineties when Giuliani cracked down on three-card-monte players. And while the new, cleaner New York has fewer three card monte mobs than it once did, you'll still find the game on street corners.
DON'T BELIEVE THE HYPE
The backbones of the three card monte is a simple sleight-of-hand move called "The Hype".
As the con artist has three cards but only two hands, he is forced to hold two cards in one hand. The ace—the winning card—is underneath the two in his right hand. See the extra card on top of the ace in the picture below? That's the other two.
You'll notice that cards have a slight bend in them. This makes them easier to pick up.
The con artist throws the cards on the table one at a time, first the ace in his right hand, then the two in his left and, finally, the remaining two in his right hand. Then he picks up the cards and repeats the action.
However, at some point during the mixing process, the con artist performs The Hype. In the action of supposedly throwing down the ace, he releases the two and lets it slide off the ace and land face down on the table. He barely moves his fingers as he releases the two, relying on the momentum of the throwing action to get the two over the ace.
The sucker thinks they've just seen the ace thrown down on the table when really it is a lowly two.
Using The Hype isn't really cheating. The con artist asks the sucker to follow the ace. The sucker fails to do so. If he knows the move or if the con artist isn't as well-practiced as he might be, the sucker has a fighting chance of winning the money.
Even with a stab in the dark, they have one in three chance of winning.
MEET THE CREW
This inherent weakness of the game—or fairness—depending on your side of the table is why most professional three card monte con artists don't work alone.
Most three card monte tossers work in crews of 2-8 people, making enough money to keep everyone on the team employed.
The role of the crew is to increase the chances the sucker will pick the wrong card and provide an escape route in the unlikely event the sucker chooses correctly.
Using the old-timely lingo the team may include:
Tosser/Dealer/Banker: The man with the cards. It is his job to perform the moves and collect the cash. He usually positions himself behind a stack of cardboard boxes or a waist height table.
Roper/Booster: The roper keeps an eye out for possible suckers, striking up conversation and encouraging them to play.
Blockers: As well as adding bodies to the game, blockers can get in front of undesirable spectators and box them out.
Lookout: Standing away from the game, the lookout keeps an eye on the street for cops, security guards or rival gangs.
The Boss: The mob's leader and responsible for bankrolling the game, splitting up the winnings and assigning roles.
A tosser, a lookout, two or three blockers, a roper and a sucker on the far right.
There's a huge number of plays that a three-card-monte mob can use to seperate the sucker from their cash.
The most famous is The Bent Corner. The sucker is watching the game when the roper digs him with her elbow and points out in whisper that there is a tiny bend in the corner of the winning ace. She piles her cash on to the bent ace and wins big. Of course, when the sucker tries, the bent corner has been moved to a different card without you noticing. And he can't call the dealer a cheat because that would mean admitting they were a cheat themselves.
However, you could still technically win right? What if you know that the bent corner is not on the right card? What if you lay your money down on the ace? Surely the con artists would be forced to give up the cash then?
The most popular technique for dealing with correct guesses is to outbid the sucker. Before the con artist has a chance to turn over the winning card, one of the other crew members will bet more money on another card. The sucker's bet is removed from the play and mob member 'loses.'
If the con artist is feeling ballsy, they might try sleight of hand to avoid paying out on a winning bet. For example, the Mexican Turnover sees the con artist use one card to turn the other face up, switching the two cards in the process. The move allows the con artist to swap the ace for the two AFTER the sucker has made their guess. It's an easy enough move but tough to pull off when the heat is on.
Similarly, the hype can be used to hide the ace. The sucker points to the winning card. The con artist picks up the winning card and a two quickly in one hand in the positioned used for the hype. He shows the two and then performs the hype, throwing the ace down. He then shows the same two a second time and grabs the money from the table. Note that he never shows the winning card, just that the two cards he didn't turnover are losers.
I have only seen this play once in the wild. It was accompanied by faux incredulous shouts of surprise and gentle mockery at my supposedly bad choice by the crew.
i felt stupid at my choice for a full minute despite knowing I made the right call.
THREE CARD MYTHS
There's a right way to play three card monte
There is a tendency among magicians and three card monte researchers to talk about the "real way" to run a three-card-monte, as if the game is some kind of ancient cultural traditional. Three card monte is a scam, run by criminals. They want cash, not some misguided idea of authenticity.
Three card monte is always a small scale street scam In the early part of the 20th century, three card monte was so profitable that mobs would set up fake shops selling cheap tat designed to bring in customers. While in the shop, the suckers would notice a seemingly impromptu game of cards being played in the corner and empty their wallets. The big store was big business.
Three card monte is a card game
In Europe, you're more likely to see three card monte played with play disks in a variation that goes by the name Hungarian Monte or Alba Neagra. The moves are similar and the plays the same but without the connotations that come with playing games.
There is honour among thieves
Popular culture has created an image of con artists as noble figures who refuse to use or violence or only scam those who deserve it. This is not true. Con artists will scam anyone who plays the game and, if need be, us violence to avoid paying out.
You can't con an honest man
You can. While certain techniques like the bent corner rely on the sucker being dishonest, there are plenty of ways for honest people to lose their money playing three card monte. There is nothing unethical, dishonest or immoral about playing a game and expecting the other player to follow the rules.
Three card monte is not a game of skill.
Three card monte is not a game of chance.
Three card monte is not a game.