10 gets you 20: The truth about three-card monte

"Lucky? Ain’t nothing lucky about cards. Cards ain’t luck. Cards is work. Cards is skill. Ain’t never nothing lucky about cards." – Lincoln in Topdog/Underdog

Watch him close, watch him close now. The dealer’s hands move with frantic speed over the makeshift table, lifting and flipping the cards as he rearranges them over and over into the same neat line. Think you’re following the right card? Think again. You’re seeing what he wants to you to see and the moment you think you’re ahead of the three-card man is the moment you’ll lose your cash.

Three-card monte is not a card game or a game of chance. It is not about a player’s luck or ability. If the dealer decides you should win, you will win. If he wants you to lose, you will lose. It is a street corner side-show, an exercise in manipulation; in short, three-card monte is a con.

The con we’re familiar with traces back to card games from the 15th century, which were adaptations of a shell game found in ancient Greece. In the United States, three-card monte became popular in the 1830s on riverboats and railroads, when men were migrating around the country looking for work, carrying all their cash with them in the days before accessible banking. Never established as much in cities, which favored casino games and poker, three-card is ideal for playing on the road, since it requires only cards and a flat surface to play on and is easy to pack up when the cops arrive.

Three-card can be played anywhere and is still most popular in high-traffic areas like boardwalks and tourist attractions. The con remained popular with hustlers until the victims of the game stopped carrying cash and started carrying debit and credit cards.

To play, the dealer places three cards face down on a flat surface, usually a table of cardboard balanced on milk crates or an old box. The three cards are shown: two cards are the similar – for example, two black queens – and the third card is different – a red queen. The dealer flips them face down and rearranges them quickly, trying to confuse the player, or “Mark,” about which card is which.

The Mark places a cash bet, which the dealer matches. The Mark is given the opportunity to pick out the one card that is different from the other two. If he chooses correctly, he wins the money. If he doesn’t, the dealer wins.

The better dealers have style and flair, a rat-a-tat cadence, physical ease and charm, all of which distract the Mark from the actual game of getting as much of the Mark’s money as possible before the cops show up. Dealers have Sidemen planted among the crowd, confidants that keep an eye out for police, as well as entice the Mark in and demonstrate how easy it is to win.

But here’s the catch: it is impossible to win. The dealer has sleight of hand skills that make it look like he’s throwing down one card when he’s actually throwing another. Most of the time the Mark will lay his money down on the wrong card and lose. If the Mark happens to lay his money on the correct card, one of the dealer’s Sidemen will lay a bigger bet on the wrong card (Sidemen know the dealers tricks or are given a sign pointing to the correct card) and the dealer will go for the larger bet, knowing that he’ll split the money with his partners at the end of the day. So in three-card monte, you can’t win if you’re the Mark; you can’t lose if you’re the dealer.