|Playing time||5–10 min.|
Three-card Monte (also known as Find the Lady or the 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 queen of hearts, the player wins an amount equal to the amount bet; otherwise, he loses his stake.
Usual card selection
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.
Drawing a player in
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, he is likely to notice that he can follow the queen more easily than the shills seem to be able to, which sets him up to believe that he can win the game.
Eventually, if the mark enters the game, he will be cheated through any number of methods. An example of a simple scheme involves a dealer and two shills:
- The dealer and shills act as if they do not know each other. The mark will come upon a game being conducted in a seemingly clandestine manner, perhaps with somebody "looking out" for police. The dealer will be engaged in his role, with the first shill betting money. The first shill may be winning, leading the mark to observe that easy money may be had, or losing, leading the mark to observe that he could beat the game and win money where the first shill is losing it.
- While the mark is watching, the second shill, acting as if he is a casual passerby like the mark, will casually engage a mark in conversation regarding the game, commenting on either how easily the first shill is winning or how he is losing money because he cannot win at what appears to the mark to be a simple game. This conversation is engineered to implicitly encourage the mark to play, and it is possible the second shill could resort to outright encouragement.
- If the mark does not enter the game, the dealer may claim to see police and will fold up his operation and restart it elsewhere, or will wait for another mark to appear on the scene.
- If the mark enters the game, he may be "had" (cheated) by a number of techniques. A common belief is that the operator may let the mark win a couple of bets to suck them in, but this is virtually never true. In a true Monte scam, the mark will never win a single bet, as it is not necessary. There are too many ways for a well-run mob to attract the marks, suck them in, and convince them to put money down.
- When the dealer and the shills have taken the mark, a lookout, the dealer, or a shill acting as an observer will claim to have spotted the police. The dealer will quickly pack up the game and disperse along with the shills.
How it is done
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 he can toss either the top or the bottom card at will. Thus, once he does so, and begins 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; the dealer employs 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 "I only accept 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 he believes himself to have a special ability to cheat the dealer or 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 his money.
The "Bent Corner" variation
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. There are several variations, but all follow this basic idea: during the course of tossing the cards, the dealer "accidentally" drops the cards, resulting in a corner of the target card having a slight bend in it. On the next play, it becomes obvious that this bend is there, thereby rendering the card "marked," without the dealer noticing. Seeing this, the mark will generally bet on the card with the bent corner. At this point, the dealer will tell the mark to turn his card over (so there can be no accusations of card-switching), revealing it is not the "lady" 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. Like the basic move, this is standard sleight-of-hand which, when done properly, cannot be detected. Because the bend is so obvious to all, one might wonder how the dealer could miss the obvious marking; there are various ways to overcome this "objection," such as having the dealer wear thick glasses.
An oft-used variation is for the dealer to turn around to talk to someone, and while he is thus occupied, one of the shills will quickly put the crimp in the target card, just before the dealer turns back around again. The scam then proceeds basically as described above. This is part and parcel of the overall psychology: the mark will be reluctant to complain about having lost his money, as doing so would reveal that he intended to cheat the dealer.
- Receive bets
- Induce any person to stake or hazard any money or other valuable property
- Carry on or play or offer to carry on or play in a public place
- Employ any person to carry on or play in a public place
- Allow the game to take place (the owner of the premises)
History and popular culture
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.
The play Topdog/Underdog features Three-card Monte as a significant plot device.
- Tom Ogden The Complete Idiot's Guide to Magic Tricks, pg. 123, Alpha Books (1998) ISBN 0-02-862707-5
- Paul B. Newman Daily life in the Middle Ages, pg. 169, McFarland (2001) ISBN 0-7864-0897-9
- Richard John Neuhaus The best of The Public square, pg. 203, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (2001) ISBN 0-8028-4995-4
- Three-card Monte at pagat.com
- Penn Jillette, radio interview, NPR, ca. 2000
- Criminal Code of Canada
- William Norman Thompson Gambling in America: an encyclopedia of history, issues, and society, pg. 205, ISBN 1-57607-159-6
- Sauerwein, Stan (2005), Soapy Smith, Skagway's Scourge of the Klondike
- How to perform the Three-card Monte (Simplified)
- Step by step on how to perform the Three-card Monte (Bent corner variation)
- Video showing Three-card Monte trick with cards
- Slide show focusing on the actions and expressions of Times
- Video showing a slightly modified version of the Three-card Monte trick