Three-card monte, the seasonal scourge of Times Square
tourists, is back in the news following a judge’s dismissal of gambling charges
against a three-card monte dealer. Judge Matthew F. Cooper of Manhattan
Criminal Court ruled this spring that because this modern version of the old
shell game is really a game of skill and not of chance, it can’t be considered
gambling within the meaning of the state’s gambling law.
The ruling moved the critic Luc Sante to observe in The New York Times that while the game
might well require skill on the dealer’s part, anyone who fell for it should be
shipped home promptly as a hopeless rube. Michael J. Gorman, a New York City
police lieutenant and a lawyer, then took issue with the judge’s entire
premise, offering the widely shared opinion that three-card monte is simply
“one of the most rotten scams that has ever plagued New Yorkers.”
As a onetime victim of the scam, I have a different view,
one that for years I kept to myself rather than admit: Long ago, newly arrived
in New York, I walked right into the three-card monte trap of my own free will
and with my eyes wide open.
But after 30 years, and
with three-card monte back, however briefly, in the public spotlight, it’s
probably now time to put my cards on the table. I’d like to stand up for this
minor urban menace as one of the easiest and cheapest educations the city can
offer its constant flow of new arrivals in the qualities of wariness and
cynicism that they will need to thrive here. Perhaps instead of being run out
of town, three-card monte should be subsidized. There are a million three-card
monte stories in the naked city, and this is mine.
Although I was born on Manhattan’s West Side, my parents
soon moved to Connecticut, ensuring me a peaceful upbringing-but at the same
time, only a tenuous hold on the city that I grew up regarding, all evidence to
the contrary, as somehow rightfully mine. I moved to New York as soon as I
graduated from college, deploying any strategy I could think of to pass myself
off as a real New Yorker. Too often, my strategy amounted to little more than being
too proud to ask directions, with predictable results. While my passport
attested to my authenticity as a native, my job required not a passport but the
ability to get myself to various addresses in Brooklyn and Queens.
I had never heard of three-card monte when, one Sunday
afternoon during that first summer, I left my West 70’s studio apartment for a
stroll through Central Park. Just off a well-traveled path, I came upon a group
of people crowded around a card table set up on the grass. From my position at
the edge of the small crowd, I watched as the dealer seated at the table
quickly shuffled three face-down cards and a young man who’d handed him some
money for the right to play managed successfully to pick the ace from among the
The young man played several times, losing once or twice,
but mostly winning. I didn’t have a very good view, but the scene was
intriguing. I edged my way closer, studying the rhythm of the dealer’s hands
and listening to his patter. People hung back, attentive but seemingly in no
hurry to take a turn themselves. I found it surprisingly easy to follow the
fast-moving cards with my eyes. I can do that too, I said to myself, so when
the dealer called for new volunteers, I found myself calmly stepping forward.
I have to give a little
background here. I was an enthusiastic recreational horse-player, and so I had
no qualms about gambling and little doubt of my ability to match wits with
other gamblers. In fact, after a few weeks in New York, I was feeling a bit
nostalgic for the genial, laissez-faire fellowship of the Boston-area
racetracks where my college friends and I had spent many pleasant afternoons.
I had found the racetrack scene intimidating until I learned
the code and came to enjoy the anonymous comradeship of a day spent in the
competitive yet collective effort to beat the races. The track is a fellowship
that includes not only the other horse-players-who observe a strict code of
behavior under which a folded Daily Racing Form is sufficient to hold a
sought-after grandstand seat for an entire afternoon-but also the clerks who
sell the pari-mutuel tickets.
Understanding that fact
was an essential part of my education at the racetrack, but it had not been
obvious at first. I had little hesitation about picking a horse or spending the
$2 to back up my selection, but the prospect of actually stepping up to the
betting window to put my money down was daunting. I was afraid the clerk would
laugh at me, or-perhaps worse-would see through me and mentally unmask me as a
fraud, a college kid who didn’t belong here.
But I quickly learned that my worry was misplaced. The
clerks usually gave me a friendly smile and sometimes a hearty “good luck.” On
the infrequent occasions when I came back to the window to cash a winning
ticket, they congratulated me. Whether they remembered me or not didn’t really
matter. They wished me well. They wished everyone well. We were all in the game
As I moved to the front of the crowd in Central Park, I
knew, of course, that this wasn’t the racetrack. But I felt the good fellowship
all the same as people moved aside to let me up to the card table. I was in the
game. I handed the dealer a $10 bill-a good 10 percent of my weekly take-home
pay, twice the amount I had ever bet on a horse race. But with the eyes of the
crowd on me, I didn’t want to look like a novice $2 bettor. This was New York.
It was over, needless to say, in seconds. I thought my eyes
were following the dealer’s hands as before, but something had changed. The
card I confidently pointed to turned out not to be the ace. I was overcome by
embarrassment. The understanding that had eluded me only moments before now
struck like an epiphany. I had been taken, and I knew it. I wasn’t sure what
the trick was-was the card up the dealer’s sleeve? Was it some sort of optical
illusion? That young man who had been playing so well-he was part of the game,
wasn’t he? The lure that led me into one of the oldest tricks in the book.
I heard snickers from people in the crowd who, I now
realized, were there only for the recreational value of seeing naïfs like me
walk into the trap. That was why they had stepped aside so obligingly to let me
take my turn. That was why they looked at me now with a mixture of amusement
and pity. There was no fellowship here. These ordinary people out for a summer
afternoon’s entertainment almost certainly did not wish me any serious harm.
But nor did they wish me particularly well. No one here did.
That was the second epiphany of that Sunday afternoon, and
it was oddly liberating. I was on my own. Cheeks burning, eyes straight ahead,
I made my way through the crowd, back to the path and out of Central Park to
claim my birthright as a New Yorker.