Linguist, lexicographer, radio host, public speaker

Three-Card Monte

It’s June, I’m downtown. Canal Street, a little west of Broadway, Chinatown. It’s high tourist season. The white tennis shoes and the mid-Western hair-dos are everywhere. Kids from all neighborhoods are hanging out. Everything’s for sale. Shopping bags everywhere.

It’s three card monte paradise.

During the last seven years, I’ve made a habit of casual observation of the three card monte tables. It’s a good show and equal to a university education: human nature at its worst, best and most curious.

Let’s make this clear from the start: Three card monte is a con game. The house always wins. You can’t. Ever. They will always get your money. Always.

Of course, this is the point at which somebody usually says, “But my friend’s friend, he said…” No way. He was lying. Unless he was a she. Sometimes, dealers get an itch and they let pretty girls win. It draws more people to the table, and the dealer thinks he might just have a shot with the girl. If it looks like it’s not going to happen, or once the crowd is big enough, the dealer’ll take the cutie’s winnings in one last round and shut the show down. A dealer might grab the cash out of a winning beauty’s hand because she refuses to play the final, losing round. But that’s rare.

Three card monte presents itself as a game of chance. Your goal is to pick, out of the three cards sliding around the table, the one red card. If you win, the dealer doubles your money.

First the dealer shows you two black suit playing cards and one red. Then he asks you to show him your money. He tries not to use words like “cash”, “money”, “dollars” or any synonym. He wants to bring you in easy. This helps take the sting out.

So he slides the cards around. You lay down your money. You pick the card you think is red. He shows you it’s black, he takes your money.

The key is this: after he showed you he had a red card, he replaced it with a black one. He palmed it. This is the dealer’s primary skill. He hides the red one in his large palm, up a sleeve, in a pocket, wherever. Did you see David Copperfield hide the Statue of Liberty? This is the same trick, only a lot easier.

By way of further explaining the scam, here’s what I saw in June.

There’s a make-shift table. A board on two milk crates. An energetic black man in trim clothes is giving his patter to his two shills in front of him. The average pedestrian won’t stick around long enough to notice they never leave the table, but I know the shills because I’ve seen them at the game before. One shill is a woman, snaggle-toothed, Latin, older. She’s neat, clutching a large vinyl purse. The other is a short white guy, bony, wearing a short-sleeved dress shirt with a wife-beater on underneath. Gold chains, slicked back hair. They both look happy.

I take a seat nearby. In the past, I’ve had to stop watching the three card monte dealers for a couple months. They thought I was a cop. Sometimes they’d break down the setup and walk away when I came around. They kick the crates over, walk off in different directions, and meet up at a pre-arranged spot to start again.

Anyway, I’m watching. There’s lots of noise. The dealer, not even inhaling, says to the woman:

“Okay now who’s it gonna be who’s it gonna be you give me five I give you ten you’re a winner! there you go you’re a winner all yours free and clear okay one more time one more time you give me ten I give you twenny you give me ten I give you twenny you wanna go for forty? for forty? okay okay you give me twenny I give you forty I give you forty twenny forty twenny forty…”

On and on he goes, with lots of clapping and the three of them cheering and looking around like they can’t believe this big gold bar they just discovered, like they’re saying, Will you come get a look at this?

Up and down they go. The woman, the shill, never loses. She’s on top of it. Her role is to bring in the people who say to themselves, “Look at that! She’s making a killing! If she can, and look at her, just think what I can do!”

The male shill plays a different role. He always loses. He loses so bad you say to yourself, “Look at that! What a dope! Even I could see which card was the red card! I could make a fortune!”

Sometimes they switch to Spanish. There are a lot of Latinos around, and the little teenage Latin girls from the outer boroughs, they’re drawn to the game. The boyfriends are always arguing with them, “No, honey, you don’t wanna do that. It’s no good, let’s go get something to eat.”

But the boyfriends always lose, and in a minute, so do the girlfriends. I’ve seen the boyfriends come back to demand the lost funds. It never happens. There are two spotters, standing within whistling distance in each direction, watching for cops. A signal from the dealer, the spotters gather around, looking threatening, always asking, in kind of the same way cops do, “Is there a problem here?” The spotters and the dealers are almost always men that look like they’ve seen the inside of Rikers Island. Not to be messed with.

So when a chump walks by, a sucker, a target, a mark, a victim, the patter changes. The already fast game gets hyper. Fan-tailed cash is waved around. Arms are flailing. The Latin woman looks like she just hit it big at a slot machine down the shore.

There’s a good crowd now. Some of us knowing, but many unaware of the kind of game being played. This pale kid walks by. Late teens, an obvious tourist. He walks too slow. He’s got new shades, new shoes, an Urban Outfitters bag. He watches for a minute. The shills part the crowd, cleverly, and the kid just gets sucked right in.

The dealer slows down his talk. The Latin woman, the shill, wins big, but slowly. Anybody can see the money to be made. The patter changes again. The dealer says, hardly inhaling, to the kid:

“You want in on this? look at that look at that twenny forty sixty eighty one hundred one hunnert all hers [The shill’s almost crying for joy, and she’s got a hanky out] whaddya got whaddya got pick the red card pick the red card red card red card whaddya got show me whatcha got you gimme twenny I give you forty you gimme twenny I give you forty…”

The kid makes a mistake. He pulls out his travelling cash. A wad of twenties, newly minted, in a just-bought leather wallet. The dealer jumps up the exchange:

“You gimme forty I give you eighty you gimme forty I give you eighty forty eighty forty eighty pick the red card…”

In a flash, the kid lays down his money, the dealer slides the cards, the kid chooses. It’s a black card, naturally.

“Go again go again forty eight forty eighty forty eighty…”

The shuffle, the draw, the loss.

“You wanna get it back get it back get it back double up double up you gimme one hunnert I give you two you gimme one hunnert I give you two…”

The kid puts one hundred dollars on the board. Again, the shuffle, the draw, the loss. After less than a minute at the table, the kid walks with no cash.

I ask the kid how much he got taken for. He looks confused. His face is cloudy, his eyes are watery. He might be on dope if I don’t know the story. He’s hoarse. “Almost 200 hundred dollars.” He looks at his shopping bags. “Guess I have to take these back. That’s all I had.”

This year, three card monte was finally made illegal, but I don’t expect it to disappear any time soon. It’s too profitable.

author avatar
Grant Barrett