A three-card Monte game in Jaffa, Israel (2005). It has all the hallmarks of the con; the cards are slightly curved, the corners have been bent and the dealer has the cash in hand to conceal any sleight-of-hand.
|Playing time||5-10 min.|
Three-card Monte - also known as find the lady and three-card trick - is a confidence game in which the victim, or mark, is tricked into betting a sum of money, on the assumption that they can find the "money card" among three face-down playing cards. It is the same as the shell game except that cards are used instead of shells.
In its full form, three-card Monte is an example of a classic "short con" in which a shill pretends to conspire with the mark to cheat the dealer, while in fact conspiring with the dealer to cheat the mark.
This confidence trick was already in use by the turn of the 15th century.
The three-card Monte game itself is very simple. To play, a dealer places three cards face down on a table, usually on a cardboard box which provides the ability to set up and disappear quickly. The dealer shows that one of the cards is the target card, e.g., the queen of hearts, and then rearranges the cards quickly to confuse the player about which card is which. The player is then given an opportunity to select one of the three cards. If the player correctly identifies the target card, the player gets the amount bet (the "stake") back, plus the same amount again; otherwise, the stake is lost.
Since there are only three cards, the jack of spades and jack of clubs often complement the "money card", which is usually a queen. The queen is often a red card, typically the queen of hearts. Sometimes the ace of spades is used as the money card, since the ace of spades is viewed as lucky, which might lure the mark into playing the game.
When the mark arrives at the three-card Monte game, it is likely that a number of other players will be seen winning and losing money at the game. The people engaged in playing the game are often shills, confederates of the dealer who pretend to play so as to give the illusion of a straight gambling game.
As the mark watches the game, they are likely to notice that they can follow the queen more easily than the shills seem to be able to, which sets them up to believe that they can win the game.
Eventually, if the mark enters the game, they will be cheated through any number of methods. An example of a simple scheme involves a dealer and two shills:
Dealers employ sleight of hand and misdirection to prevent the mark from finding the queen.
While various moves have been devised for Monte, there is one basic move which is overwhelmingly used with virtually all Monte games. It has to do with the way the cards are held and tossed to the table. The dealer will pick up one of the cards with one hand, and two with the other. This is the key: although it appears that the dealer is tossing the lowermost card to the table, in actuality they can toss either the top or the bottom card at will. Thus, having done so, and while mixing up the cards, the mark will be following the wrong card from the beginning. The move, done properly, is undetectable. Even the shills pretending to play are often unaware of where the money card actually is without the dealer employing signals of various kinds to let them know where it is.
Inevitably, once in a while the mark will manage to find the correct location of the card by pure chance. This presents no problem at all for the mob; if the mark picks the right card, one of the shills will simply post a higher bid, which the dealer immediately accepts, announcing that they will accept only the highest bid. In other words, the mark puts down money on the right card, at which point a shill will immediately place a double bet on top of the card, thereby winning the "right" to play that round. Of course, if the mark picks the wrong card, the dealer takes the bid and the money. The dealer will never accept a winning bid from a mark.
The psychology of the con is to increase the mark's confidence until they believe they have a special ability to cheat the dealer and win easy money. Everything the Monte mob does is geared towards creating that mindset in the mark. To increase the mark's motivation to bet, they will also employ standard strategies such as having the dealer be slightly abrasive or rude, so there is even more reason to want to take their money.
The "bent corner ploy" is one of the classic scams in three-card Monte, and is used if the mob thinks a mark can be had for more money, or needs more convincing to put some money down. During the course of tossing the cards, the dealer "accidentally" drops the cards, resulting in a corner of the money card having a slight bend in it. Another variation is for the dealer to look away, and while occupied, one of the shills will quickly put the crimp in the money card. Either way, the dealer pretends not to notice, this perhaps being made more plausible by having the dealer wear thick glasses. Assuming the mark bets on the card with the bent corner, the dealer will tell the mark to turn it over (so there can be no accusations of card-switching), revealing that it is not the money card after all, but one of the loser cards. The dealer has, in the course of tossing the cards, un-bent the money card and bent the loser card. In this variation, the mark will be even more reluctant to complain about having lost money, as doing so would reveal that they intended to cheat the dealer.
The three-card Monte is performed in card magic tricks with minor or major variations that manipulate the use of gimmick cards, and other sleight-of-hand techniques.
In Canada, under section 206(1) of the criminal code, it is illegal to do the following in relation to the three-card Monte:
They are indictable offences, with a maximum penalty of two years in prison.
Canada Bill Jones (1820-1877), was considered a master of three-card Monte, in the middle of the 19th century in America.
In 1898, infamous con man Soapy Smith won a sack of gold from returning Klondike miner John Douglas Stewart after several rounds of three-card monte. Smith's associates grabbed the gold and ran when Stewart was reluctant to pay up. A local vigilance committee ruled that Smith should return the gold, but he refused, claiming that Stewart had lost it "fairly". Smith was killed during a shootout with the committee the next evening.
After revealing the secret behind the trick on the British television show How Do They Do That?, American illusionist John Lenahan became the first person to be expelled from the Magic Circle.
The play Topdog/Underdog features three-card Monte as a significant plot device.