"The Only Game in Town"
By Nick Mamatas

Being a bohemian Communist without a mutual fund, a 401(k) or any valueless dot-com stocks to add to the oil drum fires the homeless gather around, I don't often find myself in the Financial District. But when I do, I get the biggest kick out of seeing white brokers, lawyers and computer guys lining up for the three-card monte games run by dusty blacks, Latinos and Roma atop cardboard boxes. Full of blowhard confidence, these Wall Street gurus refuse to believe what the rest of us have already figured out. You can't win.

Three-card monte is a simple trick. The tosser holds up two black cards and one red one and tosses them face down on a table. He shuffles them a bit, then asks the punter (in this case, one of the Wall Street guys) to point to the red card. Thanks to a little prestidigitation, the red card appears to have been dropped first, but was really dropped second. The punter loses the card's place and thus his money. Repeat till the cops arrive.

And on this sunny April afternoon, the cops were nowhere to be seen. I watched one guy dump $300 in six minutes and then leave with a smile on his face as two more fellows fell in after him and placed their bets. One of the guys–I'll call him Stan Laurel because he was a long stringbean of a man–dumped $75 in three turns. His pal, a hefty, sweating Oliver Hardy sort, was a bit smarter. So smart that he called the right card after Laurel eliminated one of the black cards with his incorrect guess. Hardy was so smart, in fact, that he fell into the tosser's second trap.

"One bet atta time, one bet atta time," the tosser said, then offered Hardy $100 a turn. Hardy ran out of money after two rounds. By the time the crowd started turning against the tosser, I had watched him pocket at least $800. Not bad for twenty minutes' work.

Three-card monte has been around since at least fifteenth-century Spain, and the even older shell game was probably played in the shadow of the pyramids. By the nineteenth century, tossers were dressed to the nines, playing on the image of the professional gambler. Tired and hungry settlers, half-drunk prospectors and bumpkins were their punters. Millions of hard lessons later, the unwary marks learned the basic lesson of capitalism: There ain't ever gonna be something for nothing. So they dropped out of the game, leaving only the wary.

But what makes the game such a powerful draw down in the Financial District? Even in these economic doldrums, the average Wall Street punter can still work through lunch and pocket more money working the phones than he ever could with a game of three-card monte. It's the nature of scam to tantalize, though. Working the phones is hard. Shaking down some poor sucker on the street, especially when he looks and acts like a laid-off janitor, seems easy in contrast. The money is flying. The sun is bright. The smell of boiled hot dogs is in the air. And there's no way some street guy can beat a polished financial predator, right?

Three-card monte now depends on what they call "the rube act." The tosser I observed was great. Rotten sneakers, holey jeans, worn T-shirt and a missing tooth. His entire ensemble could have been purchased ten times over for the price of one of his victim's neckties. Who could resist? Certainly not the Wall Street people. They think this guy must be running his game out of desperation, hoping that luck will put a few bucks in his pocket. The game seems simple. Get lucky and win! Even if you're unlucky, you haven’t lost that much, and there's always the next round, right? But three-card monte isn't that simple.

The tosser's investment in human resources is quite extensive, for example. There's a shill, who appears to win the game; a roper, who attracts folks to the game and encourages people to play, the muscle to settle disputes in the tosser's favor and a lookout to watch out for the fuzz. The fat pigeons in thousand-dollar suits were so eager to be took that this tosser probably didn't even need to invest in the muscle.

Then there is the grift, or the actual dialogue the tosser engages in. Wall Street's tosser had a fairly basic one: "Find lady luck/ she's dressed in red/ throw down a buck/ and come out ahead." Not all that inspired actually. This rhyme had all the soul of a Britney Spears lyric, but in these milquetoast corridors of power, it was a siren's call, just like an 18 year-old Christian virgin who wants to be a slave 4U might be! There are better grifts though, for example this one once overheard in Chicago:

"Up tomorrow, down tomorrow;
Rich man's luck and poor man's sorrow
Maybe you win, maybe you lose
It all depends on what you choose.
If you pick the queen, then you win
If you pick a black card play again
Find the Lady! Find the Lady!
Cherchez la femme!"

What makes three-card monte so hilarious is that the scam is now so obvious. These days, even TV sitcoms debunk it, usually with the help of a streetwise black character. On News Radio, the otherwise sophisticated Catherine went all "ghetto" to get back the thousands of dollars her billionaire boss lost to a three-card monte game, one that didn't even have the benefit of a shill or a grift! In Run DMC's classic video "It's Tricky," the rapping trio out-hustle a young Penn and Teller (very young, before Penn ate his own weight in pancakes) to get back one of those thick ropes-chains of gold so popular in the 1980s. The police departments post signs in subway stations to warn off the tourists, and the trick is easy enough to teach children. It's been dissected in books and magazines for years. Why play it then, especially after you just spent the last two years shoveling your way out from under worthless dot-com stock plays? Canada Bill Jones, the famous nineteenth-century monte operator and Faro addict put it best. "I know the game is crooked," he said once, while losing his shirt in a dirty Faro game, "but it's the only game in town."