If You Buy This Book, You've Been Snookered

THE MODERN CON MAN: HOW TO GET SOMETHING FOR NOTHING
By Todd Robbins
Bloomsbury, 227 pages, $16.95

Todd Robbins is a con man, and a good one, too. This is both comforting and disturbing as one reads his new book, aptly titled The Modern Con Man: How to Get Something for Nothing. Mr. Robbins has made the rounds of the late-night talk shows, performed at Carnegie Hall and swindled a thousand suckers. He parts fools from money with the precision of a surgeon. On the other hand, one can’t help but think, paging through his musings, descriptions of tricks and the other sundry segments that make up the text, that his biggest con is having made you part with $16.95 for a copy of his book.

Of the hundred or so “scams” in the book, many are based on puns and verbal slipperiness, some rely on sleight of hand or layman physics, and others on rudimentary logic. A few are simply illegal. A con, for example, called the Impossible Drink essentially relies on sophistry. Bet your victim (or mark, as they’re called) a “whole bottle of the fancy stuff” that you can drink from a bottle without opening it. Mr. Robbins explains: Just flip the bottle over, pour a little of some other drink into the concave part at the bottom and “drink from the bottle.”

In a game called NIM, in which two players draw matches from a pile of 20 in groups of one, two or three, with the player drawing the last match losing, the “scam” is a numbers game: The “trick” in this case is to make each turn add up to four. If he takes two, you take two, etc. You’ll never lose. Bubbles in Guinness sink to the bottom. That’s good for a round of drinks in Mr. Robbins’ world.

Maybe—but at my local bar, the Impossible Drink scam yielded only open hostility and choice unprintable words. And though bubbles do sink to the bottom of Guinness (something to do with density), no one was willing to bet me anything over it. Mr. Robbins’ tricks are fine and enjoyable to read about and, in his hands, surely effective. But almost without exception the con doesn’t make the con man; the man does. And that one does not learn from a book.

In a section titled Work Wagers: How to Scam Your Coworkers, which comes after Bar Bets but before Friendly Wagers, Mr. Robbins suggests setting up a Web domain and creating an e-mail address to pose as your CEO. “Using that email address, contact a new employee who hasn’t fully acclimated to your office. Welcome him to Smith Inc. and sound like a CEO. … now the fun begins.” Among the suggested e-mails to send: “It’s so-and-so’s birthday [NOTE: It’s not really.] Round up some folks and some cake and make it happen.” And: “A wrestling team might improve morale. Round up men and women for five different weight classes.” Not to sound like a legalistic Debbie Downer, but I’m pretty sure this scam is in direct violation of equal-opportunity legislation.

 

MORE COMPELLING THAN the mischief is the down-at-the-heels seedy world The Modern Con Man evokes. It’s certainly not modern. The bars are filled with smoke and traveling salesman in fedoras. The slatted blinds are drawn. Ordering whiskeys neat are con men with names like Titanic Thompson, Ol’ Doc Shannon and Jefferson “Soapy” Smith. It seems a lot like the set of an Arthur Miller play—but filled with nasty Pinter characters mounting Mametian scams. Most of the tricks seem retrofitted for the American twilight years of sad proud men just getting by who, coincidentally, are the biggest suckers of all. Who carries boxes of matches these days?

Even more enjoyable, though, than this nostalgic whisky-and-shadow-soaked hinterland the book evokes is the sinister pleasure Mr. Robbins takes in swindling. At heart, all con men are Manichaean, and Mr. Robbins is no exception. “The world is … separated into the Deceivers and the Deceived,” he writes, “The sooner you decide which group you want to be in, the better off you will be.” There’s a crumminess at work here that, in its own way, is purifying. A sneering us-versus-them ugliness cloaked in lingo and steeped in lore. Todd Robbins’ gift—as a writer and as a con man—is making you buy into it.

Joshua David Stein is a regular contributor to Page Six Magazine and The Guardian. He can be reached at books@observer.com.

If You Buy This Book, You've Been Snookered