How to Win at 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.

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