How to Win at Three Card Monte

three card monte

I couldn’t believe I was about to make 50 dollars. I was only 12 years old.

Robert and I were standing on the corner of 45th and Broadway, right near Times Square. The guy had his cardboard table with three cards on it.

“Where’s the Queen? Where’s the Queen?”

He was flipping the cards back and forth, every now and then lifting one up to show us the queen. One girl said, “I know where it is!” and she threw down $5 and he lifted up the card and it was a Jack. “Damn!” she said.

Another guy pointed to a card, “it’s that one.” The guy doing the cards said, “that’s right,” and he turned over the queen, “but you didn’t bet.” The guy who pointed turned to me and said, “Ugh, I could’ve won twenty dollars.”

He did it again. It looked so obvious to me. And of course, I thought, I was smarter than everyone here. I could see the Queen right through the cards as if I had X-ray vision.

The guy who picked the right card the first time pointed again. “10 will get you thirty” the card table guy said. The guy picking the card threw down a $10. The card was turned over. The Queen! He got his $30. Of course it was that card, I thought. This is so easy!

One guy in a suit walked by Robert and me and whispered, “get away, it’s a scam.” But what did he know? He just got there. He was just passing by. He didn’t see the Queen like I did.

Next one: The cards flipping back and forth. “$20 will get you $50!” The guy said. Everyone around the table was encouraging me.

“Pick a card,” said the first woman.

Robert and I were visiting his dad’s office a few blocks away when we decided to take a walk past the arcades in Broadway. Then we ran into this table. Then I wanted to make money. $50 meant I would be able to take a cab to school maybe. So people on the bus wouldn’t bully me anymore. Heck, maybe I’d even take a limo. All the girls would like that.

“I don’t know,” Robert said. “That guy said it was a scam.”

“20 will get you $80! Where’s the card, young man!” I was sure I knew. I pointed to one of the three face-down cards. “Where’s the 20?” the guy said, “I have to see the 20!”

I didn’t have $20. I asked Robert. His dad was a stockbroker. I was sure he had $20. “Just show the $20,” I said to Robert, “it’s definitely that card to the right.”

“I don’t have a $20,” Robert said.

“Ok,” the guy said, “your watch will get you $80. All you have to do is hold up your watch and point to the card.”

Robert took off his watch. It was a nice watch. When I think back on it now I think it was a gold watch but that’s probably not true. I just know it was a nice watch.

Robert had nice everything. He always had cashmere sweaters. A sweater for every day of the month. The guy held out $80. “I’ll hold everything,” he said, “and you pick and get everything back.”

He took the watch and had his $80 in his hand. I pointed to what I was sure was the right card. I was following every movement of that card. The guy flipped the card over and it was…a Jack. “Ooohhh,” everyone in the crowd said.

Robert said, “I knew it.” I said, “I’m sorry”. The girl who we first saw playing said, “Police coming!” and the guy folded up the table, everyone around us disappeared, the guy disappeared, the girl disapeared, Robert’s watch disappeared, my future wealth disappeared, my limo picking me up and taking me to school disappeared.

Robert and I were standing there by ourselves, a ghost-like white bracelet carved into his skin where his watch had been. “Shit,” he said. “My dad is going to kill me.”

He was crying on the elevator when we went upstairs. His dad got worried right away. “What’s wrong?” he said.

Robert told the whole story. I would not have told the whole story. I would’ve made something up. But Robert said everything. His dad hit Robert on the back. “You stupid shit!”

Robert slouched down and when he straightened up his dad hit him again, “You are one dumb f***!” Robert was crying. We didn’t talk again on the ride back and they dropped me off at home. My parents asked me if I had a fun time in the city. “It was ok,” I said, and went into my room. Star Trek was about to come on.

3 card monte has been around since the 1500’s.

The word monte comes from a legit card game played in Mexico in the 1800’s and when the scam made it’s way into the US via Louisiana in the 1830s it took that name to give it a veneer of legitimacy.

Ever since then, the guy behind the card table has been using sleight of hand, shills who would pretend to play, a crowd egging on the victim, and every other classic technique in the book to make money. Millions have been made. As far as I know, NOBODY running the con has ever lost money.

And why does it work? Because of illusion. Not just the sleight of hand, the illusion of quickly replacing one card with another without anyone noticing, or the legitimacy of the name, or the fact that’s it’s just cards.

But the illusion created by the crowd, the excitement that builds up until the only way it can relieve some of the pressure is if YOU pick the card, the climax of the illusion, when everything is downhill after that.

The excitement is all an illusion. The other people betting are all illusion. The crowd that surrounds you so you can no longer back out and you are slowly pushed closer and closer to the table is all an illusion.

The police are an illusion so they can quickly abscond with your money and find another mark. The illusion exists on at least five different levels. And always it ends with the victim alone, minus his money, and about to be punished in some way, either by his own regrets, or the fist of a father.

And then we look around Times Square and we are bombarded with the illusions that then carry us through the rest of our lives. All life is a three card monte.

The commercial images. The shows on TV or in the news (“Greece worries plunge markets!” If I hear that one more time well, I’m going to do nothing, but I’m sure I’m going to hear it at least 100 more times).

The pressures of our friends, peers, parents, colleagues. The pressure to OWN a home (“ROOTS!”), go to college (“you won’t get a job otherwise!”), the need for success and ambition, the need for $100 million to push off mortality, the need for us to fight every four years (“it’s either US or THEM who will run or ruin the country,” turning our friends and neighbors from full-blooded humans into plastic figurines who will either ruin or save us depending on who is elected).

Just like in 3 card monte, the key is to just stand back and observe the illusion.

You can’t stop the illusion. But you don’t have to put up your money. You can just observe. You learn to observe by every day checking the “X” on some small, incremenetal self improvement physically, emotionally (be around positive people), mentally (be an idea machine) and spiritually (be grateful for the world we are in this moment).

Then, as an observer, you can marvel at the beauty of the sleight of hand. The psychology that turns three cards on a cardboard box into MAGIC. How beautiful that is. Marvel at the way people manipulate the mark. Laugh in delight at the way everyone disappears when imaginary police are spotted. It’s all beautiful. It’s all entertainment.

Everything is theater. You are either an actor in the theater (and in almost every case, you are “the mark” 99% of the time) or you are in the audience.

Being in the audience is fun. You can watch the illusion unfold in everything around you. You can admire the production quality. You can laugh at the things you find funny. The more illusions you train yourself to observe, the more fun you will have.

Spot the illusion in everything. Appreciate the art of it. Appreciate the magic created by all the humans around us as they try to get us into their imaginary worlds and vision.

And once the show is over, the entertainers exit stage left. The curtain comes down. You can leave. The sun is outside and it’s time for you to enjoy it.

  • Henrique Estrêla

    It means awaken and observe the “real” world?

    • Henrique Estrêla

      About the picture: at the first time that I saw the picture above I saw just the trees. When I stopped to observe I perceived the illusion of the world. Thank You.

  • Some play and lose, some observe from the sidelines, and some more are wondering how to run the scam…

  • Andrew

    Ha, the same thing happened to me when I was a teenager, almost 30 yrs ago. Since then, I have occasionally wondered whether it is possible to beat them at their own game. What if you get the guy to give you odds like 50 against your 20, or 80 against your 20, and then you pick one of the two “wrong” cards. Is your expected value then positive, or is your expected value a punch in the face?

    • J.P.

      None of the cards will be the queen. It doesn’t really matter which one you pick. The game is rigged from the start, and you cannot win.

      • Haven’t played the game since I was a kid (and got snookered too), walked by them all the time when working in NYC though.

        Since none are the queen, is it possible to hold your card down and force the dealer to reveal that the other two are jacks, therefore yours must be the queen? Or would that just get you a beating?

        • MadMeme

          The game is rigged – but not in the way that J.P. says. The queen is there – but when real money is on the table (when a mark is betting as opposed to a shill) the queen is in the last place you would suspect. If the mark actually tries to pick the correct card, either one of the shills will quickly give a higher ‘bet’ thus negating yours – or – as happened to me, you will quickly find the bet cancelled (without cards being shown), your money pushed back at you, and you will be surrounded by a number of large shills who will quietly ‘request’ that you leave the area. In my case, one of the shills was actually fairly sympathetic, and he explained to me patiently that I would never win anything – that they never allow anyone to win.

  • Nneka, Working Mystic

    First off great picture:-)

    Sometimes it’s fun to get caught up in the illusion, as long as you know how to get back to center. It’s a ride. You’re swept up in all the hay-day. You stop. You observe. Sometimes, you can even watch yourself. The dance of life is incredible.

  • cctoronto

    That was GOOD, great post!

  • rob


    Why cant we have all your writings on the blog…rather than the blog and the email newsletter?

    • I don’t know. For some reason I started this newsletter. Maybe it was a way to kickstart some creativity I felt was missing. I don’t know yet.

      • Roy

        But James….

        Why deny your writing and wisdom to people who havent joined the list…..or who dont like to subscribe to lists?

    • Derek

      The question you have asked suggests that the ‘the Walmart culture’ is more deeply ingrained in people than I realised.

      • Roy

        Hi Derek,

        The problem with Walmart isnt so much that they have everything in one place….No.

        It is that in their drive to keep costs as low as possible and keep profits at a maximum, quality and nutritional value is sacrificed.

  • Adam

    The borderline child abuse in this story is the most important part. Your revealing it brings at least a tiny bit of justice to your friend’s abusive father and maybe even a microscopic bit of deterrence to others. Thank you for that.

    • roberto

      “Borderline child abuse”? Please, that’s what every parent would do back in the day. A slap in the back of the neck or something meant nothing.

      Of course now everyone is a unique snowflake or something, and that’s how you get all those intolerable people that never had someone tell him they can do better, or tell them when they are doing harm to others or act foolishly.

      • Roberto, I think it’s possible to hold young people to high standards without physically striking them.

        • JMG

          Wow, Adam and Marlon are probably pussy metrosexuals.

          • Buster

            Did the kid buy that expensive watch? Did his Dad intend for him to lose it in a stupid game? Also, Dad, being a stockbroker realized that it was a riskless arb for the author. If he won, he would get the limo ride, if he lost, well, its not his watch.

            Sometimes precious snowflakes need a punch in the back. Its “everyone wins a trophy” people like Adam and Marlon that deserve to be the 99% and why people like “Robert” get ahead in life. He knew he shouldnt have put up the watch. His Dad just helped re-enforce the message

      • Adam

        Roberto, I am approximately James Altucher’s age, and therefore was approximately his age when the story took place, so you are no more an authority than I am about standards “back in the day”, at least the day of this story.

        I read James’ “fist of a father” reference as implying that Robert’s father punched Robert twice in the back with a closed fist.

  • Derek

    I’m on the e-mail list and got that letter. I even read that letter but it didn’t resonate then. Having read it today and not realised it was something I had already read it makes me realise for any message to be of use I have to be in the right place.
    Today I am in that place, a week or so ago I wasn’t.
    Life is wonderfully weird.

  • Eric Landeen

    James, why don’t you correct your typos? No biggie but was just wondering why you don’t. I get that when you are writing you want to get it out and not worry about misspellings. Sometimes they’re probably even funny (the typos, the accidental unintended meanings). But you said this was a newsletter and now you put it on your blog so you’ve published this a couple of times, and I’m sure you proof read it. So.. why? Must be intentional right?



  • Rollin Crittendon

    This reminds me of a book I read, The Mark Inside. It is about a rancher name J Frank Norfleet and how he tracked some people that swindled him. The charlatans of early America were amazing in the staging, literally that.

  • Your friends dad was an a$$. Why not say “hey, you kids got an education today. Son, you’re going to go without a watch for some time, unless your buddy James can help you buy a low budget replacement. But I’m glad you learned a bit today about how cons work, because you’re going to spend the next 50 years or so trying to sniff them out. They’re eveywhere, and they generally smell the same”.

    Some dad’s say that. I’m a dad, I’ve tried to “educate” my kids in similar ways. As opposed to hitting them, which is sort of dumb.

    • I’m not a dad but I fully agree. That’s the way to be a worthy model to your kids. Hitting is for bullies.

  • Your outlook, though somber at times, is refreshing to read. It’s a remarkable feeling to know that there are in fact individuals who have fun being an actor or observing in the audience.

    I’ve come across too many marks in my time (even though we all fall victim to the 3 card monte at times), and I find myself worrying that the world has become overrun by them. I take pride in training myself to spot the illusions through the smoke and mirrors; it makes life WAY more enjoyable.

    But when the curtain goes down and it’s time to leave, I have trouble determining if the sun outside is real, or just the spotlight for another show…

  • vishy

    Life is a game , yes . Is it loaded ? , yes slightly . You dont have to win . But everyone should play . Watching in sidelines is not an option in the long run . World is such that even if you simply stand still , it will sweep off your feet , one day or another.

  • Andres Petrocelli

    Hey James. This reminded me of the little dialogue on “War Games” between Joshua the computer and its creator:

    [after playing out all possible outcomes for Global Thermonuclear War]
    Joshua: Greetings, Professor Falken.
    Stephen Falken: Hello, Joshua.
    Joshua: A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?


  • Aniol Alcaraz

    Hello James,
    Great article as always, pick a card and let the show begin!

    I am Aniol Alcaraz from Barcelona and I regularly read your blog. It really makes me think the right way.
    I am a computer engineer and I started a company, Beautifun Games, with some colleagues I met at the university. We make iOS videogames.
    We sarted March 2011, and finally released out first game, Nihilumbra, a few days ago. We have been featured in the “New and Noteworthy” list in the USA Apple Store and we are recieving very positive reviews and climbing up the charts. I really hope we picked the right card this time.

    I think your blog has helped me a lot during this year and a half and I would like to give you one copy of Nihilumbra as a thank you gift. Sent you a promo code via the contact form.

    Hope you enjoy our game! Tell your friends if you like it.

    Keep with the good work.

  • Twisted Words

    There does exist one way to actually win at three-card monte. You need to create your own illusion – that of a mark. It requires three people. One is the illusionary mark and two others stand a short distance away and watch the money man. Once the mark loses and everyone scatters, the two others trail the mark, confront him with a physical threat and take the original investment and the any other “winnings” to be had.

  • Don’t hate tha playa, accept the game?

  • This is truly a great read for me.

  • “If I hear that one more time well, I’m going to do nothing, but I’m sure I’m going to hear it at least 100 more times)” I love this. I think it’s the first time I see someone admitting that this threat is also almost always an illusion! ;-)

    There are a couple of great 3-card Monte scenes in an episode of NewsRadio. The second one ends with the boss Jimmy (Stephen Root) and Catherine (Khandi Alexander) running away, not from the non-existent police but because he lifted the scammer’s wallet! (who had earlier cheated him of course.)

  • Roger Marchant

    I remember many years ago I taught young grandchildren how to ‘win’ at this game. We played with pennies. I merely showed them that if they were to put their hands on the two outside cards and say ‘I know the Queen is neither of these. She’s the middle card. So please turn the middle one over to shows she’s there.’ Of course there was no Queen – I’d palmed it (clumsy but good enough for kids). I continued: ‘the man will not turn over the middle one because that would mean I could turn over the two outside ones, showing no Queen at all and expose him as a crook. So he would say “you win, buddy” and pass over the bet’.
    I then told the grandkids never ever try this – at the very least they’d get their winnings removed by the outside men and maybe a beating for good measure. (I retrieved my pennies at the end but there was no corporal punishment involved.) They’re all grown up now and rather patronise me but I wonder if they remember the trick?