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  • Writer's pictureNicholas J Johnson

Mastering the Ancient Art of the Bar Bet

“If you ever come across a man that has says he can make a jack jump out of a sealed deck of cards and spit cider in your ear, do not bet this man. For as sure as you stand there you will end up with less money and cider in your ear” -Sky Masterson, Guys and Dolls

At their core, propositional wagers are simple, small time swindles designed to win a few dollars or a couple of drinks in a bar. Played well, they can net a fortune.

The con artist makes an impossible sounding statement and invites the mark to bet on the statement’s validity.

“See this cigarette? I bet you I can tie it in a knot without putting a single tear in the paper.”

On the face of it, the bet seems unloseable. After all, even the slightest bend will tear the thin paper of the cigarette.

But it’s not that simple.

The first mistake most budding swindlers make when running a bar bet is focusing on how to win the bet.

Winning the bet is easy.

The hard part is convincing the victim to take the bet in the first place.

Most people think like Sky Masterson in the quote above. They know that if something is too good to be true, it probably is. Why would the con artist offer the stake if he can not be sure of winning it?

So the smart hustler will follow this step by step guide to convincing a sucker to take the bet.

Step One: Introducing the concept The con artist will introduce the idea of the concept without offering an opinion either way. The statement appears off the cuff and impromptu. If the concept can be worked into conversation organically, all then better.


“Do you think it’s possible to tie this cigarette in the knot?” “I once met a guy who could tie a cigarette in a knot.” “How far do you think you can bend a cigarette until it breaks?

If the con artist works in a team, one might strike up an argument with his shill and let the mark over hear it. He may ask their opinion and invite him into the conversation.

Step Two: Allow free discussion of the concept Once the discussion starts, the con artist will listen to the mark and wait for him to make a definitive statement such as “it can’t be done” or “that’s impossible.”

Step Three: Create a sense of opposition At this point the con artists needs to argue in a non-committal way. He wants to make the victim strengthen his point of view without setting his own position in concrete. If he sounds too sure of himself, the victim may back down.

e.g. “I reckon I could do it…” “I don’t know that you’re right…” “It must be possible…”

The mark will see this as a sign of the con artist’s weakness and start to argue further.

Step Four: Make the bet. This is the moment that you go in for the kill.

e.g. “How much are you willing to bet that it can’t be done” “I’ve got ten bucks that says it can be done” “Wanna put your money where your mouth is”

(notice he didn’t say that HE could it, just that it could be done. This removes the con artist from the challenge and makes the bet seem more objective)

Step Five: Shame the mark into making the bet. If he backs down or refuses the bet, the con artist will shame him into betting. Make him feel like an idiot or a flip flopper for suddenly backing down.

“So you don’t want to put your money where you mouth is.” “I’m not sure I can do it but at least I’m willing to have a bet!”

This is a lot easier with a shill willing to place his own money down on the bet.

Step Six: The Cool Off Having won the bet, the con artist now needs to make the mark feel OK about losing.

“To be honest I’m a little drunk, I didn’t think I could do it!” “What are the chances of that? You were unlucky!”

This way the con artist can can hit him again with another bet.

I was discussing the issue of bar bets with the late Steve Walker, a magician, comedian and old friend a few years ago. He suggested that many ‘victims’ of the bar bet know that they are going to lose. However, they are interested in the proposition and are willing to lose the bet just to learn the secret. In other words, the victim is paying the learn how to perform the stunt himself. If the bet is small ($5 or a beer or similar), this is not entirely unfeasible.

After all, how much would you pay to learn how to tie a cigarette in a knot?

Fine, I’ll put you out of your misery…


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