Three Card Monte Scam Explained [History and Secrets]

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  • Post published:April 27, 2024
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The three card monte is one of the oldest and most infamous street scams in the world. Also known as find the lady or follow the queen, this simple card trick has fooled countless victims out of their money for centuries.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about the three card monte, including:

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A Brief History of the Three Card Monte

The exact origins of the three card monte scam are murky, but it seems to have emerged in Europe sometime in the 15th or 16th centuries. The trick became popular with gypsies and traveling carnival workers, who would set up portable stands and fleece spectators out of money.

The game eventually spread to America, where it became a staple hustle on city streets, played on makeshift cardboard boxes or blankets. Famous confidence men like Canada Bill Jones and Soapy Smith got rich off the three card monte in the 19th century.

The scam thrived for centuries because it was simple to set up and took advantage of human psychology. Even today, the three card monte can still be seen on city streets and public spaces around the world. Wherever there are tourists or crowds with money, scammers are sure to be running the monte game.

While illegal, the trick persists because it is nearly impossible for police to shut down. Dealers are quick to pack up and disappear at any sign of law enforcement. And victims are often too embarrassed to report being swindled.

3 card monte scam

How the Three Card Monte Scam Works

The three card monte is deceptively straightforward. The dealer begins by showing three cards – usually two low value cards (tens or jacks) and one “money card” (normally a queen or ace).

The money card is shown clearly to identify it. Then the dealer places the cards face-down and shuffles them around quickly. The player must follow the money card and select the correct card when the shuffling stops. If chosen correctly, the player wins even money on their bet.

Of course, no player ever wins at three card monte. It is completely controlled by the dealer. Through sleight of hand, the money card is switched with a low value card during the shuffle. Some common techniques include:

The Hype – Holding two cards as one, the dealer can secretly throw either the top or bottom card while appearing to only throw the bottom. This disguises where the money card really is.

The Backflip – Flipping a card face up while momentarily obscured seems to show the money card, but actually switches it to a low card.

Switching – When Cards are close together, quickly exchanging the money card for a low card goes unnoticed.

Advanced three card monte dealers can manipulate the cards seamlessly, making it impossible for players to track the queen/ace. Victims assume they just guessed wrong or got unlucky, not realizing they never had a chance to win.

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The Role of Shills and Psychology

What takes three card monte from a simple magic trick to an effective scam is the psychology used on its victims. Shills are critical – confederates of the dealer who pretend to play and win money, reeling in unsuspecting marks with the lure of an easy payout.

Seeing shills apparently win big payouts convinces real players that they can win too. The dealer will even let shills win a few hands at the start to build trust and entice bigger bets. Little do victims know the game is rigged against them from the start.

Other psychological ploys include:

  • Dealers acting rude and abrasive, daring players to win their money.
  • Female shills flirting with male victims to distract them from the game.
  • Peer pressure from crowds gathering around the dealer, placing social pressure to play.
  • An early small win to give the victim confidence before a bigger loss.

Skillful dealers use these tricks to manipulate human nature and greed. Victims are made to feel special – smarter than the average player or the ability to outwit the dealer. These vulnerabilities are what makes the monte so effective.

Famous Three Card Monte Scammers From History

The three card monte has created countless professional swindlers over the centuries. Let’s look at some of the most notorious…

Canada Bill Jones

One of the most famous monte dealers of the 19th century. Bill was known for his gentlemanly appearance and manners, which helped lure in victims. His slick skills and teams of shills helped him rake in a small fortune before his death in 1877.

Soapy Smith

The infamous crime boss and con artist reigned over Denver and Skagway, Alaska in the late 1800s. Soapy used every trick, from rigged gambling to political connections, but the three card monte scam earned him his first big money.

Henry Clive

A British con man and card sharp. Clive traveled Europe and America in the 1800s, amassing fortunes from rigged gambling games and lavish spending. He was so infamous that Alexandre Dumas based a character on Clive in his famous novel The Count of Monte Cristo.

Titus Welliver

A lesser known but masterful monte dealer in early 20th century New York. Welliver used his skills to assemble a major street operation that ran every kind of short con. He trained generations of scammers before his disappearance in the 1930s.

Three-card monte scam

Where Three Card Monte is Commonly Seen Today

While illegal, three card monte dealers still operate out in the open today in many big cities. Popular spots include:

  • Tourist areas – Heavy foot traffic and unsuspecting visitors make tourist hot spots like Times Square or the Las Vegas Strip prime targets.
  • Pedestrian bridges – The confined space on bridges and overpasses force crowds together, allowing dealers to collect players.
  • Public transport hubs – Train stations, metro exits and bus stops also gather crowds ripe for petty scams before and after the workday.
  • Downtown streets – Dealers set up cardboard boxes on busy downtown streets, blending into the urban bustle.
  • Special events – Street festivals, sporting events and concerts draw big crowds where scammers can operate.
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Dealers often flee at the first sign of law enforcement, dropping their table and scattering in seconds. But they soon reassemble in a less conspicuous spot. It’s very challenging for police to fully stop three card monte.

Clever Variations to Fool Victims

While the basic three card monte technique remains the same, creative dealers have come up with some clever variations over the years to manipulate victims. Some common ones include:

Bent Corner

A shill subtly bends one corner of the money card while the dealer looks away for a moment. The mark can now easily follow the bent card during the shuffle. But the dealer secretly bends a low card while straightening the money card, switching the target for the victim.

The Solo Act

Advanced dealers can perform the entire scam solo without shills. The dealer simply manipulates the cards and reveals fairly, but uses sleight of hand if the mark picks the money card to prevent any payout. This solo act removes suspicion of peer influence.

The Shortcut

If a dealer spots the victim is already wise to the scam, they simply stop cheating. The victim loses money by overthinking and choosing the wrong card, assuming the dealer is still scamming them somehow.

Small Prop Bets

Some dealers will start with a small-stakes game using bottle caps or poker chips to build trust and get the victim invested before proposing a larger cash wager.

Moving Target

The dealer may “accidentally” expose the money card during a shuffle, then quickly switch it to a losing card unbeknownst to the player. Now the target has moved without the mark’s knowledge.

These advanced tricks help seasoned scammers stay a step ahead of their victims. A skilled dealer makes the swaps imperceptible every time.

How to Avoid Becoming a Victim of Three Card Monte

While some unsuspecting tourists do occasionally get duped, experienced travelers can avoid losing money to three card monte through simple precautions:

  • Simply never play the game, no matter how tempting. Walk right by ignoring the dealer’s pitches.
  • Teach yourself to recognize the scam on sight so you can steer clear.
  • Keep valuables out of sight on crowded streets so as not to attract scammers.
  • Be wary of large crowds gathered closely around folks with cards, cups or other props.
  • Never try to outsmart or beat the dealer at their own scam. You will lose 100% of the time.
  • Trust your intuition – if something feels like a scam or hustle, it almost certainly is.
  • Keep walking or firmly say “No thanks” to refuse engagement from scammers. Don’t debate or negotiate.
  • Educate travel companions about common street scams to avoid getting separated or fooled.
  • Consider travel insurance in case you are the unlucky victim of fraud or theft abroad.
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With basic street smarts, travelers can recognize and steer clear of three card monte dealers without issue. Don’t be tempted into playing – that’s how they get you!

three card monte scam - how to avoid

Learning Three Card Monte as an Entertainment Trick

While clearly unethical as a money-making scam, the three card monte can be learned as a magic trick to impress friends. Aspiring magicians practice manipulating cards with the same sleight of hand techniques dealers use.

However it should only be performed free of charge, for entertainment purposes, and not as a means to win money. With that huge disclaimer aside, here are some tips for anyone wanting to learn the three card monte solely for fun and amusement:

✅ Master basic card sleights like the double lift, palm, pass, top/bottom changes, etc. The more tools in your arsenal, the smoother your technique.

✅ Use highly recognizable “gimmicked” cards – distinct money cards and value cards rather than all normal playing cards. This helps the spectator track the target card.

✅ Exchange the money card at the right times to maintain engagement without frustrating spectators. Get the timing down smoothly.

✅ Practice both your shuffling technique and patter – the entertaining words you say during a trick. Both are equally key.

✅ Consider magnets or sticky wax to help cards cling together for cleaner handling until your dexterity improves.

✅ Add your own personality and flourishes – card spinning, cuts, waves, etc. This builds a unique performance style.

✅ Perform for friends and family first before attempting to impress strangers who may be more discerning.

✅ Credit magicians like Justin Willman for making three card monte entertaining online. Study professionals to improve.

Learning the scam as part of magic training is fine, but repeatedly remind yourself to never actually play for money. That turns an innocent trick into felony fraud.

Conclusion

For centuries, the three card monte has duped countless victims, earning it a notorious reputation in popular culture. It persists because the scam is simple to run, hard to regulate, and manipulates basic human psychology for profit.

While learning the scammer’s techniques is fine for aspiring magicians, playing three card monte on the street carries high stakes for both dealer and player. Victory relies on staying smart and walking right on by this infamous con game.

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