This beautiful street scam was driven out of New York City in the late-90's as part of a hyper-aggressive anti-crime initiative pushed by former DA and then Mayor Rudolph Guliani.
It is debatable whether this anti-crime agenda was good for the city overall (nearly all of the Mayor's methods were later determined by the state supreme court to be profoundly unconstitutional), but what is not debatable is that three card monte vanished from street corners across the city's many toursit-popular locations.
As a result, few people under a certain age have witnessed a full-blown, New York-style game of Three Card Monte. That's a shame, because watching a well-run game––or Heaven forbid PLAYING a game––is an excellent object lesson in how casually, breezily cruel the world can truly be.
Not so much in the existence of the scammers themselves, but in the one ingredient that makes the game possible: the Complicit Audience.
Three Card Monte is a seemingly straightforward game of "cups", only using playing cards instead of cups and a ball. A player picks a card, memorizes it, then tries to keep track of the card as the dealer moves it around among two other cards he has laid on the table (always a shitty cardboard box).
A bet is wagered between the player and the dealer...then the shuffle begins...at which point the audience makes their own side bets on the outcome. Someone in the crowd ALWAYS ups the ante, which is crucial to the success of the con. Others in the audience, made confident by the willingness of others to risk money, and heads buzzing with the promise of quick financial gain, join in.
A few rounds are won, a few lost, until the player and the audience are throwing money on the table in ever higher bets. If the game is well run, there is a genuine sense of energy to it, a feeling that the stakes are escalating beyond anyone's anticipation and you are witnessing a battle royale as entertaining and enthralling as any Las Vegas high-roller craps game.
Then, at the peak of the game, just before the final, decisive hand...the dealer scoops up the money, tosses the table aside, and walks away, disappearing into the crowds.
The audacity is breathtaking. The coldness is heart-wrenching. I watched a man lose two hundred dollars in about six minutes once.
A few people in the crowd were missing their wallets.
The street version of Three Card Monte is not a magic trick, or a simple ruse by a lone scumbag, it's a complicated con game that uses an entire team of people to pull off properly.
There are audience plants that energize the crowd by gleefully upping the bets, there are lookouts posted as far as three blocks away, and in the sophisticated games, pickpockets roam the inner and outer crowds, using the distraction of the game to lift wallets and watches from unsuspecting onlookers.
But not ALL of the onlookers were unsuspecting. Many knew a con was being played, but they said nothing.
I myself watched half a dozen games unfold. After the first one, I was fully aware of the trick about to be played on a bonafide sucker.
Why didn't I say anything? Why didn't anyone say anything?
Because it's fun to watch other people get burned.
This type of con isn't as successful in other cities. You can see it from time to time in Baltimore or Chicago, even less in San Francisco, but the games don't get very large. The takes are smaller, the audiences thinner.
Why? Because people warn each other. Before long someone with a functioning conscience will happen by and simply explain the scam and that's the end of it. There might be some threats, but the cat's out of the bag. Game over.
It wasn't like that in New York. Amazingly, I did witness a good Samaritan force their way into the crowd and loudly proclaim the spectacle to be a fraud. In true American fashion, the player and the audience became enraged at the well-meaning good guy. He was ruining the fun! How dare he! And these were the tourists who had that reaction, not hardened, jaded New Yorkers, but the good people from Indiana and Oklahoma and Delaware and the "kinder, gentler" states of the union. These mild-mannered, God-fearing souls thirsted for the blood of the innocent. Yuck! No wonder New Yorkers are jaded.
As large and skillful as those Three Card Monte teams got, the essential ingredient to their success was an abiding, willing and, most crucially, a silent audience.
That's a valuable lesson for a young person in a big city to learn. That a valuable lesson for anyone to learn. You and your neighbors might be the biggest part of the problem!
Obviously this street-style of Three Card Monte is the way a lot of big "legitimate" business runs in this country. Hardly a shocking insight, but again, the important part isn't that the scam is being run, but that everyone goes along with it.