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 guysI'll call
him Stan Laurel because he was a long stringbean of a
mandumped $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
"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'
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 havent 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!
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."