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Three Card Monte from a Police Officer’s Perspective 

By Glenn Hester -- Police Officer --


  As a police officer and a magician, I have occasion to demonstrate Three Card Monte in magic shows or as an instructor while training other law enforcement personnel.  Although Three Card Monte is typically played as a swindle, it can be played in an honest fashion as well.


  Think of a carnival game that can be played honest or crooked.  This is known as a Two-Way Game.  If the operator wants to swindle you, the game will be altered to make you lose.  If the operator does not alter the game, you have an opportunity to win, depending on your skill level.  Three Card Monte is called a game.  Some have said it is gambling.  It is neither a game nor gambling.  Three Card Monte uses principles of magic to reach the objective.


  What makes Three Card Monte legal or illegal is the “intent” of the operator.  I have been asked what I would do, as a law enforcement officer, should I witness Three Card Monte being played on the street.  First, I would observe the actions of the operator.  From that, I could ascertain the “intent” of the operator.  If the deception was for entertainment purposes only, such as in a magic show, there is no crime.  Should the operator’s actions fit the elements of theft by deception, then there is probable cause to make an arrest.


  One problem magicians have with demonstrating this on the street is the negative stereotype it has been given due to the unscrupulous teams that fleeced the flock.  Years ago, in New York City, Three Card Monte was such a big problem that local magicians waged a campaign to alert the general public to this swindle being played on their streets.  On several magic forums, people have asked me how they can perform on the streets without encountering problems from local authorities.  First, contact local authorities and explain your “intent”.  Educate law enforcement on Three Card Monte.  Many law enforcement personnel do not know the mechanics or skill needed to perform Three Card Monte.  Should they have to make an arrest, they may have to demonstrate this in court.  Knowledge of “how it is done” comes in handy when prosecuting a case.


  How does a person get caught up in this swindle and become a victim?  I witnessed this first hand one night while attending a convention in another state.  I was in a lounge demonstrating this for another officer when a civilian came over and wanted to place a wager.  I explained that I was a law enforcement officer and a magician and to accept his wager was not only unethical, but a violation of my Oath of Office.  Still, he persisted.  I allowed him to play by writing down his winnings and losings on paper.  Within five minutes, he would have lost almost two thousand dollars.  The “victim” told me that he thought he could win.


  If you are thinking about performing Three Card Monte, remember what was mentioned about “intent”.  Performed in a way that does not swindle will not present a problem.  Should you decide that you can make a lot of money by taking people’s money under false pretenses can cost you more than you bargained for.  If you are thinking about learning and performing Three Card Monte, do it legally.



How does the law would define Three Card Monte in the scenarios mentioned?


  It depends on the jurisdiction (venue), and the laws on the books.  Each state is different, and each agency has their own policy and procedures for enforcement of the laws and ordinances.  

What I read was Three Card Monte being performed in a way that would be looked upon as  gambling since there was a wager, and the player had a chance to win.  Normally, Three Card Monte is looked upon as a con game by cops. If someone was playing without the hype and sleight of hand, and doing it in a manner as you described, if an arrest was made, the cops may still charge the offender with theft as that is the only way they know Three Card Monte is played.

Now, should they see that no deception is present, and chance is involved, they could charge under their gambling statutes.  As mentioned, it is up to the LEO's (law enforcement officers) of that area to decide the charge as they will have to prove it in court.  I hope this answers your question.

Just remember, I am a street cop, not an attorney.  I have seen courts decide cases wrong because of attorney's.  They control what happens in the courts.




Three Card Monte from a Scoundrel’s Perspective

by Whit Hayden - Professional Scoundrel --

I don't have any problem with the ethics of the three card Monte game, in that the victim is always just as morally culpable as the operator of the game.

I think that both the victim and the operator are equally in the wrong. It is a sort of "entrapment" from the other side of the law. If law officers trick or encourage people to break the law when they wouldn't have without such encouragement and then arrest them, it is entrapment. Here a criminal encourages another citizen--who had no thought to take unfair advantage of another--to do just that, and then rips him off.

I have no sympathy for the victim, who really deserves what he gets.

Still, I think the game should be illegal because it is always an occasion for possible violence and is not really a benefit to society, even though the practitioners might claim it teaches people "a valuable lesson." Their real goal is not to "wise up a chump" (something in other circumstances they would deny could ever happen) but to take the money. Even so, I would allow three-card Monte if there was not such a high incidence of violence connected with it, simply as a form of free speech.

Three-card Monte is a mean-spirited game. If the game were not illegal, it still is not a fun way to make a living for any length of time, and I don't think it is a healthy thing for the operator spiritually. We are all brothers and sisters on this planet, and it is not our job to expose and take advantage of the weaknesses of each other, but rather to help each other and build each other up--to try to assist each other to stay on a good path.

Operating a three card Monte game teaches you to look for the weakness and vice in other people, rather than to look for the good and wholesome that is in people--to be cynical and mean and to feel superior rather than to see the universality of mankind, and to recognize that we are all the same, with both good and bad mixed together. I would not want to take a path that leads into self-aggrandizement, loneliness, and cynicism.

Many things are legal or illegal at one time or another, and that may have nothing to do with their respective vice or virtue. In the twenties, pot was legal and alcohol was not. Now it is the other way around. I know people who will not smoke pot--even though it might be a great relief to the symptoms caused by serious illness--because it is illegal.

If it was legal, they would use it in a heartbeat. My mother is like that. She had a radical mastectomy a few years ago (she is in her eighties) and even though she believed, and her doctors encouraged her, that pot would have helped her symptoms, she wouldn't use it. I know others who do use pot to control nausea or to increase their appetite during chemo-therapy, and I don't feel they are doing anything morally wrong at all, even though they are breaking the law.

I grew up in the South in the fifties. Jim Crow laws were "the law." I did not respect those laws, and felt no problem breaking those laws and helping and encouraging others to break them.

This is a democratic republic. It is every citizen's job to question authority, and at times to stand against the majority or the law. It is our civic duty to alter or abolish laws that stand in the way of the free exercise of the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

If I didn't feel the way I do about these games, and I thought that the laws against the shell game or three card Monte were unjust or unfair or even unnecessary, I might try to skirt around them, break them, or change them. I would act the way I would to unfair or nonsensical laws about other forms of street performing--I would try to sneak around them and not get caught, or I would publicly break them in order to try and change them.

So I don't accept the facile statement, "It is illegal, case closed."

All that said, I do think that three card Monte and the shell game are public nuisances and should be illegal.

Then if it were legal, as it has often been in times past and may be again, and as it is in some other countries, would you still say "case closed?" What if you had a way to do it that you were certain you could not be hurt or punished?

If it were not a crime, would you be tempted to do it for money, and why or why not?

"If it were legal, would you do it?" with a parental "it is illegal, case closed" doesn't really help. I think that it is much better to discuss the pluses and minuses of these actions to help find an ethical and spiritual approach that is not totally dependent on the "wisdom of authority."

"The point is that it is not legal" begs the question.

If it were legal, if that were not the problem, would you play the shell game for money? Why or why not?

It would be the same for drugs. If drugs were legal, would you do them? "Drugs are not legal" doesn't answer the question. Why wouldn't you want to discuss the various reasons that drugs should not be used recreationally? Why would you want a young person to just accept that drugs are bad because you or the law say they are, when you could have a chance to explain the many solid reasons why drugs are hurtful to the body, the mind, the will and for society?

It is important to talk to young people with reason and fact rather than just repeat the "because it is" type of argument that makes one sound like the guy in South Park:

"The shell game is bad, ummmkay?"



Are you now interested in Catch 33: Three Card Monte?