The “three- card-trick”

A figure of language for a gullible or stupid person is that they fell for the “three-card-trick”. The “three-card-trick” is a con game/swindle/scam that has been fleecing the unwary for a couple of centuries, and shows no signs of disappearing.

The appearance of the game is simple. It is played between the Tosser (or dealer), who manipulates the cards and takes the bets, and the punter (or mark), a more or less gullible member of the public who places a bet on the game in the (unrealistic) hope of winning some money.

The Tosser has three cards, one of which is a Queen or an Ace. These cards are shown to the punter and then simultaneously thrown face-down on a table. The punter is invited to bet on which card is the Queen or Ace.  Normally the operators of the game work as a team:

  • The Tosser (dealer) is the sleight of hand man who mixes the cards and takes the bets
  • The Shills are accomplices who pose as punters making bets, to give real punters the impression that the game can be beaten
  • The Lookout watches for police and signals their approach so that the game can be “folded up” quickly
  • The Muscle Man takes care of anyone who decides to complain
  • The Roper seeks out likely punters and encourages them to join the game

The punter wins the first few deals, but afterwards won’t win a single one, because the Tosser uses the following trick. There are two cards in his right hand. The upper card is held between his thumb and his forefinger, and the lower card is held between his thumb and his middle finger, with a small gap (a few millimetres) between both cards. According to common sense, the Tosser should drop the lower card first, but his forefinger surreptitiously ejects the upper card first, which causes the punter to lose track of the right card. This is especially difficult to see if the “Tosser’s” hand makes a sweeping move from his left side to his right side while he drops the cards.Here is an excellent video showing in detail the Tosser’s drop trick.

There is a variation on the “drop” – the “bent corner”.  The corner of the correct card is “accidentally” bent up a bit, apparently unobserved by the Tosser. The cards are tossed again, the punter gleefully bets on the card with the bent corner and loses — it’s not the right card.

During the previous toss, the Tosser has not only performed the throw, but has also straightened the corner of one card and bent the corner of the other — all unobserved by the punter . It is not as difficult as it sounds, however, and a few weeks practice is sufficient for a Tosser to perfect the trick. Of course, the Shills are only too happy to point out to the punter (if they haven’t already noticed), that the winning card seems to have a tell-tale bend in the corner.

If the punter happen to bet on the right card, the Tosser may employ various tactics, such as accepting instead a wrong bet from a Shill and refusing the punter’s bet on the grounds that only one bet can be taken at a time, or swapping the cards while the punter’s attention is distracted, or simply arranging for the table to be knocked over and declaring the deal void, which usually occurs if the police make an appearance.

Here is a real-life example of the scam in operation – note how the “shills” encourage to the mark to take part, as well as distracting them when the dealer makes the “drop”.

This page at pagat.com was used for the creation of this blog post, along with this archive page from the New York Times.