NYC Scams 101: Don't Get Fooled By Three Card Monte, the Oldest Trick in the Book

Three Card Monte
Three Card Monte
Photo: Dead Betty

Three-Card Monte is a street hustle that doesn't feel like a scam. The target often feels that they have an excellent chance at winning money from the gambling-type game, and because they overestimate their chances of winning, they generally lose big. Here is how it works.

  1. A group consisting of the scammer dealer and a mob of shills who are in on the scam setup on the street, in the subway, in public areas and wait for a "mark" to pass by. Generally these will be tourists, or wealthy looking individuals.
  2. As the mark nears, the shills play a simple game with the dealer in which they have to identify a card from a stack of three that are moving around quickly. The dealer always lets their shills win, and the resulting celebrations attract the mark to the table.
  3. The skeptical mark will watch the game a little to see what the commotion and crowd is all about, and the dealer will continue to let the shills win. The mark sees everybody winning, and sometimes the shills will even engage the mark by telling them how easy it is to win, and how much money they have made, etc...
  4. Once the mark decides to play, the dealer employs several tricks to ensure that the scammers will always win. They can hide cards, move much faster than previous iterations with the shills, and employ betting techniques with the shills to get maximum bets from the mark.
  5. If the mark randomly guesses the right card, there are tricks the dealer can use to ensure that a shill actually wins instead of the mark.

This scam is one of the oldest in the book. It is so old that an artist named Hieronymus Bosch painted the scam 500 years ago.

"The Conjurer," painted by Hieronymus Bosch. The painting accurately displays a performer doing the cups and balls routine, which has been practiced since Egyptian times.
"The Conjurer," painted by Hieronymus Bosch. The painting accurately displays a performer doing the cups and balls routine, which has been practiced since Egyptian times.

This street hustle was commonplace in New York City in the 1970s and 1980s, but has mostly disappeared from City streets, or at least gone underground and unfortunately, there are some people who still get scammed by the Three-Card Monte today. Redditor kubbyrules saw this group on the subway just the other day, recounting:

My friend saw this guy on the uptown bound D line along with his friends who pretended to be bystanders. He invited people to bet $100 or up to guess which ball will appear under his three caps. His friends(pretend bystanders) put in their money and right away got their money back in the first couple of rounds when they guessed it right. Although other people quickly saw that it was a scam, there were others who failed to notice so. The lady you see in the back fell for it and handed over up to $200 bucks and lost it all. The man in the cap was aggressive -- once he realized he had lured someone in, he would instantly increased his bet to get more money out of people. There was another victim not in the video who also lost close to a similar amount. In merely 3 stops, he and his group of friends stole $500+ from the bystanders.

If you see this scam happening, please don't engage with the group, and instead, call the police. Nobody ever wins the Three-Card Monte game unless you are the dealer or a shill.

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