Have you ever heard of the three card monte game? The three card monte, an old school hustle where a flamboyant “pitch man” will gather a crowd and bet people that they can’t find which of three mixed-up playing cards is the “money” card. Simple game: three objects being mixed around and 2 people competing directly with each other. It likely goes back thousands and thousands of years and shares DNA with the walnut shells and a pea or the famous cups and balls (all of which, like many gambling cons have crossed over in to the world of magicians).

The three card monte is not nearly as prominent as it once was, but in certain urban centers, L.A., Chicago, New York, you can still find poor marks being separated from their hard-earned cash. Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco is one of the infamous hotbeds of this and other charming cons and hustles, with pitch men mixed amongst the junk food peddlers and street performers. I use the phrase “pitch man” and male pronouns because historically this role is inevitably male, though I imagine a lady running this hustle could be uniquely deadly.

Starting the kid gambling young!   Photo Credit: Jerzy Kociatkiewicz

Starting the kid gambling young! Photo Credit: Jerzy Kociatkiewicz

Here’s the catch: some especially savvy spectators realize that the pitch man is probably using sleight-of-hand and will watch him carefully to catch him at his own game. After all who could make a career of gambling if they give their opponent an honest chance?  Though casinos manage to do pretty well despite that minor logic problem. These spectators might have backgrounds in magic tricks and be very knowledgable and actually catch the pitch man palming or secretly switching cards and even begin to win the betting game – though even if they win they are missing something VERY important.

The three card monte is NOT about the betting game at all, its about the pitch man drawing a big, focused crowd so his unassuming associate can pickpocket the living daylights out of them. Even the people who think they know the secret and might be winning the game itself are being robbed blind. This sort of dynamic is present in lots of subtle ways in everyday life: the person who “wins” free tickets to the sports event or comedy club or nightclub in order to enjoy the privilege of buying cocktails that cost more than a decent entree, or the car salesman who finally relents and throws in the carpeted floor-mats for free, while being paid handsomely from a hidden and massive markup on the car itself.

These Hustles are often run on cardboard boxes that can be quickly collapsed if the hustler needs to get out in a hurry!

These Hustles are often run on cardboard boxes that can be quickly collapsed if the hustler needs to get out in a hurry!

It’s said that you can’t hustle an honest man; the three card monte example takes that maxim to it’s logical extreme: even just watching a hustle can be dangerous. Of course that’s part of the fun isn’t it?

(In keeping with the spirit of THE HUSTLE, I did no historical research whatsoever for this piece, though much of it could very well be true. Of course I’m not the most trustworthy source – my name isn’t even really Ezra. Though you can and should find me on Twitter and Facebook as Ezra)

  • Peter

    Love the qualifier at the end.