Three-card Monte

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This article is about the confidence game. For the casino game, see three card poker.
Three-card Monte
Three Card Monte.jpg
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.
Origin Spanish
Type Gambling
Players Np.
Skills required Chance
Cards 3
Deck Any Deck
Playing time 5–10 min.
Random chance Easy
Related games
Monte Bank

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.[1]

In its full form, Three-card Monte is an example of a classic "short con"[2] 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.[3]


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.[4] 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 gets the amount he bet (his "stake") back, plus the same amount again; otherwise, he loses his stake.

Usual card selection[edit]

Since there are only three cards, the jack of spades and jack of clubs often complement the "money card", which is usually a queen.[5] 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[edit]

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:

A Three-card Monte stand in Warsaw, July 1944
  • 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.


In Canada, under section 206(1) of the Criminal Code, it is illegal to do the following in relation to the Three-card Monte:

  • 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)

They are indictable offences, with the maximum penalty of two years in prison.[6]

History and popular culture[edit]

Canada Bill Jones (1820–1877), was considered a master of Three-Card Monte in the middle of the 19th century in America.[7]

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.[8]

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.[9]

The play Topdog/Underdog features Three-card Monte as a significant plot device.[clarification needed]


  1. ^ Tom Ogden The Complete Idiot's Guide to Magic Tricks, pg. 123, Alpha Books (1998) ISBN 0-02-862707-5
  2. ^ New York Post, Three-card monte scam artists return to midtown, Is this Christmas 2014 — or 1974?
  3. ^ Paul B. Newman Daily life in the Middle Ages, pg. 169, McFarland (2001) ISBN 0-7864-0897-9
  4. ^ Richard John Neuhaus The best of The Public square, pg. 203, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (2001) ISBN 0-8028-4995-4
  5. ^ Three-card Monte at
  6. ^ Criminal Code, RSC 1985, c C-46, s 206.
  7. ^ William Norman Thompson Gambling in America: an encyclopedia of history, issues, and society, pg. 205, ISBN 1-57607-159-6
  8. ^ Sauerwein, Stan (2005), Soapy Smith, Skagway's Scourge of the Klondike 
  9. ^ Vincent, Matthew (30 March 2012). "Equities: A kind of magic". The Financial Times. Retrieved 9 January 2015.