“A strange game. The only winning move is not to play”
It’s true of thermonuclear war, noughts and crosses and, it turns out, Three Card Monte. Otherwise known as Find the Lady or The Three Card Trick, the goal of Three Card Monte is simple. I have three cards, a queen, and two other cards of any type in a row in front of me. I’ve shown you which card is the queen, and now I’m going to put them face down, shuffle them around a bit, and then if you can guess which card is the queen, I’ll give you money.
Sounds straight forward enough and you’ll find this game being played on street corners the world over. So why is it so hard to win?
Well, the primary reason why it’s such a hard game to beat is disappointingly prosaic.
Magician Ali Cook explains, “It is possible, but if you did win, the minute you turned the corner someone would just mug you anyway. The people who do the Three Card Monte are not nice people, and it’s not just one guy at a table. There are normally around seven people in a crew. But even without the threat of violence the chances of winning are very, very slim as it’s very hard to follow.”
But why should the game be so hard? After all, even if you closed your eyes while they were shuffling the cards around you should still have a one in three chance of winning. That’s the first reason the Three Card Monte works, however. Humans like to think they’re better than dumb luck. They will try to follow the card and game the system, and that’s where the first layer of the con works.
In The Cards
So the most basic level of the con is this, you watch the card to see where it goes, you follow that queen all around the houses, and then when they finally turn it over… it’s the ace of spades.
“There’s lots of ways of doing it,” Cook says. “There are maybe ten ways of doing it and even if you know one way they can switch it in another. It varies between pure sleight of hand, such as the Mexican turnover or the classic Monte Switch, to people holding extra cards in their sleeves and their watches. When you go to put your money on the table the odds are the queen isn’t there anymore.”
Cook has performed his own versions of the trick (although like the best magicians he’s evasive about the specifics of how). He even shows me a video of him performing the trick, filmed through the bottom of a glass table.
I’ve watched this video many, many times in the interests of investigative journalism, and I still haven’t been able to figure out how he does it.
However, not everyone is as deft or as secretive as Ali is. One commonly used and alarmingly simple trick involves holding the queen between thumb and index finger, and another card between thumb and middle finger in the same hand, allowing the Monte thrower to easily switch the cards without the mark (you) realising. Once you realise that’s what’s going on it’s much easier to follow the queen, but it doesn’t matter, because if you thought this was a trick that was only going on on the card table in front of you, oh my poor adorable dear.
You see the con doesn’t begin when you make your bet. The con began much earlier, when you were watching some other poor mark trying to follow the queen, and failing miserably, while you, clever clogs that you are, could see exactly where the card was the whole time.
Only remember earlier, when Cook mentioned that these scams usually involve a crew of seven people? Yeah, that mark in front of you in the queue is part of the gang, again, trying to convince you that you are the only one clever enough to see through this ruse. That supportive crowd, egging you on, daring you to play while always happening to be just standing in your way when you try to back off? They’re in on it too. They’ll use all kinds of psychology to convince you to put down your money – including trying to persuade you that you’re the one conning them.
“They like to throw in little convincers,” Cook says. “Someone will come over and distract the Monte thrower. While he’s distracted someone will sneak in and bend the corner of the queen.”
Now that the queen is marked without the Monte thrower knowing the game is suddenly tilted heavily in the player’s favour. If you see somebody winning at Three Card Monte this way, and you can see which card is marked, why not step in and make some easy money yourself? After all, knowing that these games are always a scam anyway, it’s basically poetic justice isn’t it?
It’s an opportunity that will seem too good to miss, right up until you put your money on the table and discover to your surprise that the marked card has magically become the nine of clubs.
“The distracter is in on the scam,” Cook points out. “He marks the queen, then he plays one round to win the game. Then he’ll switch the card.”
But even if you’ve got the sharpest of sharp eyes and an eidetic memory to boot, even if you’re wearing X-ray specs that allow you to see through the cards and know definitely which one is the queen, you’re still not going to be walking away with that money. And the scammers won’t even have to resort to mugging you. If you put your money down next to the right card all that needs to happen is for one of the Monte thrower’s secret stooges to put down a higher bet on another card. Then the thrower can simply say “Sorry, I’ve got to take the higher bet” and turn over the incorrect card.
So the best way to win at Three Card Monte is to learn some card tricks and offer to buy your mates the next round if they can find the queen.