A periodic blog about Games, Books, Movies, Pop culture, Technology and whatever else I happen to feel like writing about...

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The Old Shell Game, or How I Almost Got Beat Up by 5 Brazilians


Sao Paulo - 3 shell game
Originally uploaded by Mark M.
Here is a photo of a gentleman running the shell game con. I say con, as the game is totally rigged, and the purpose of the con is to get one person with a lot of money to make a huge bet and to lose.

As a magician, I cannot tell you how the game works, but I would like to warn you about how the con goes. The same tactic is used in classic Three Card Monte, or Find the Lady (there was a version for blind people using braille cards called "Feel the Lady", but I digress)

The operator, the dude who runs the game, has at least two accomplices. One is the muscle/lookout, and his job is to watch for the cops and to rough up anyone who gets too annoying. The other accomplice is the person whose job it is to make friends with the "Mark", the person who has the money that the con men would like to get.

The Mark wanders up to the game, and the operator is letting a few people, who might be the accomplices, win a few dollars in small bets. The Friend starts chatting with the Mark, who was identified either by his clothes, watch, or by being seen with a suitably large wad of cash paying for something near by.

The Friend tells the Mark that he has noticed that one of the shells has a nick or scratch on it, and that it is really easy to follow. He points out where the pea is a few times, and says that he would bet himself if he only had any money. Then, the Mark watches a few people lose when he can see clearly where the pea is. If he tries to make a bet, one of the other accomplices bets higher, as only the highest bet counts. Finally, the Mark gets so convinced that he will win that he bets a significant amount, but when he points to the shell with the scratch, the pea is not there. It is under another shell.

Now, the Friend takes the Mark over to the side, and starts commiserating with him. While this is happening, the Operator packs up and leaves, and the muscle stays close by in case of trouble. Finally, the Friend tells the Mark that he has been conned, and that he should never, ever play this game. This is the only thing that the Mark gets for his money, an education on TANSTAFL (There Aint No Such Thing As A Free Lunch) and a reminder to never bet on another man's game.

Without getting into details, the operator is really, really good at manipulating the shells and the pea. He can have the pea appear under any shell he wants, whenever he wants. You will never, ever see him do it. Don't even try. If you, by some dumb luck, manage to find the pea, the muscle will probably manage to "convince" you to give the money back.


Now, knowing all of this, I smiled when I saw the game being played, but I really wanted a photo. I got to a discreet spot, and snapped one, and started to walk away. Then, 5 Brazilians surrounded me, started shouting very angry things in Portuguese, and seemed to be telling me that I had done something inconceivably horrible.

"Canadian" I said "Tourist"

Insert lots more shouting, very angry.

"Tourist" I said again.

Insert even more shouting. Lots and lots of shouting. I probably don't even want to know what they are saying.

At this point, a gentleman walks over to me, and tells me that there is a police stand down the way. I tell him that I don't think I need to go to the Police, that this is just a misunderstanding, and he goes and talks to the dudes. After that, they start flashing me the thumbs up, and everything seems to be OK.

Then, the light bulb over my head goes off. This guy was their Dono, or crime boss. The Three Shell con men had to pay this dude to be able to con people on the street, and he told them to leave me alone, as I was not a cop. If I had said I was going to the police, I probably would not have made it, as I was around 1.5 blocks from the cops, and I would have been swarmed before I got there.

As it was, I crossed the street a few times on my way to the Metro, and was very careful to see if I was being followed. I made sure that my route took me past the Police Stand, in case they were waiting to jump me. I made it to Sao Bento, onto the Metro, and I felt much, much better when I had made it back to Karen's security apartment complex.

Then, I self-prescribed a couple of medicinal beers.

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