How many ways are there for an enterprising confidence man to separate a mark from his money? Confidence games can be divided into two categories, the big con and the short con. Big cons sent the mark home to get more money; short cons are designed to empty the mark’s wallet and send him on his way. The big con had three main variations: the wire (in which the mark was convinced that con men were delaying the telegraph reports of horse races, allowing them to make sure-fire wagers; this is the method used in The Sting), the rag (a similar setup, only involving stocks; this shows up in The Grifters), and the pay-off (in which the mark believes he is putting his money on a fixed race). But the small con flourished in a thousand tiny variations. David Maurer’s study of mid-century confidence men and their language, The Big Con, gives a partial list: the spud, the bat, the send store, the green-goods game, the rocks, the tale, the lemon, the strap, the short-deck, the pigeon, the poke, the shiv, the slugs, the broads, the autograph, the tear-up, the big-mitt, the big joint, the dollar store, the high pitch or the give-away, the slick box, the penny-box, the double-trays, the cross, the slid, the boodle, the count and read, the electric bar, the transpire, three-card monte. I suspect the "high pitch" is a reference to fake slip-ups on the part of monte dealer, but the dollar store is almost certainly not a short con; it’s a device created by Ben Marks, perhaps the greatest of the three-card monte artists if only for this invention. Marks, who based his operation in Council Bluffs, Iowa, opened a dollar store offering great bargains in order to lure marks in to be fleeced. Marks was immensely successful, becoming a force to be reckoned with in Council Bluffs, and three-card monte stores soon began to spring up throughout the country:
Once inside, the sucker’s interest was switched from the dollar bargains to a three-card monte game being dealt on a wooden barrel. Since no customer ever left the monte game with any money in his pocket, none of the merchandise was ever sold… Steerers and ropers would operate at hotels and the rail and stage terminals to find suckers and bring them along to the bargain store. In an ironic development, one such store in Chicago eventually found itself making more money selling items for a dollar than running scams, and the owner founded a national chain of legitimate department stores.
The monte store would evolve into the "big store", the innovation that made the big con workable.
But is three-card monte, also called "Find the Lady" or "Bonneteau", even a con game? It’s a scam, of course; those people who beat the dealer at three-card monte are almost universally shills. But monte, like bunco, an earlier card game that gave rise to the phrase "bunco squad", isn’t normally played as a confidence game. It can be; some people have lost thousands of dollars after being suckered into thinking that they had an advantage over the house. I’ve read of this exact scam — convincing the mark that he misinterpreted the signs about what to bet — being used with faro, which has the added advantage of being almost certain to confuse the mark through its sheer obscurity. The refinement of getting the mark to think that he’s teaming up with one of the con men against the other is the trick that makes a coin-matching short con known as "the smack" (and presumably a dozen others) work.
A confidence game relies on establishing confidence, a sense on the mark’s part that he’s with friends who are cutting him in. The earliest confidence game was simplicity itself, as an 1849 newspaper report reveals:
For the last few months a man has been traveling about the city, known as the "Confidence Man;" that is, he would go up to a perfect stranger in the street and, being a man of genteel appearance, would easily command an interview. Upon this interview he would say, after some little conversation, "have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until tomorrow;" the stranger, at this novel request, supposing him to be some old acquaintance, not at the moment recollected, allows him to take the watch, thus placing "confidence" in the honesty of the stranger, who walks off laughing, and the other, supposing it to be a joke, allows him so to do.
But the game of three-card monte as practiced by hustlers in Times Square or the gangs that once roamed the South has very little to do with gaining confidence. It is no more and no less than a game that cannot be won; it relies on sleight of hand, misdirection, and giveaways — a glimpse of color, a tattered corner — that give nothing away. Unlike shell games, the winning card usually stays on the table, but you will never, ever get to put money on it. Monte is hardly more dependent on confidence than shortchanging someone or stealing their wallet (indeed, pickpockets sometimes work in tandem with monte dealers).
The only persuasion required is getting your money on the table, and it’s here that the monte team comes together. The exhortations of the team’s roper, the constant flow of money to shills, and the rhyming patter of the dealer (occasionally borrowed for more literary pursuits) are all designed to pull you in, and once you’re watching, get you playing (whether you know it’s a scam or not). It’s a playing game, not a watching game:
If right, you win; if not, you lose; The game itself is lots of fun, Jim’s chances, though, are two to one; And I tell you your chance is slim To win a prize from Umbrella Jim.
Cherchez la femme!