Three Card Monte
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Basic Information

Three Card Monte, also known as "find the lady" is a variation on a traditional short-playing con that is also found played as the cup and ball trick, the shell game and similar things. This con relies on fast talking, misdirection and sleight of hand and relies on a streetside stall where the con-artist offers the mark a chance to pick a specific card from a choice of three (traditionally one of the queens, hence "find the lady"). The con artist takes the mark's stake, shows him the three cards (normally a queen and two common suit cards) shuffles them and places them face down in a row - the mark then picks one and, if he picks successfully, he wins a prize … if not the grifter takes the stake. Variations allow the mark to "double up" rather than playing again, in the hope of scooping a growing pot on the (theoretical) one in three chance of picking correctly. The variant games place a ball under one of three cups or a pea under one of three shells.

The con comes in the fact that none of the cards/cups/shells is the correct one - the grifter has palmed the marker (and if challenged can usually palm it back to a location the mark didn't choose) - and so the mark has no chance of winning. The con may be enhanced with one or more accomplices - including shills who can be shown "winning" the game to make it appear straight and/or a pickpocket who dips spectators. The accomplices can also disrupt the game if the mark appears to be getting wise and, in extreme cases, stab a mark in the back if he becomes violent. Works best on clueless yokels and other naïve characters who genuinely think that one-in-three chance exists.

This is not a particularly lucrative scam, working best for small stakes and often, but is usually greasy enough that the police won't take an interest. In some jurisdictions it may not even be a crime to run this con (and/or it may be impossible to prove that you have been conned as opposed to being very unlucky) whilst in others it may be illegal to play and so the mark has no recourse to law.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Traditionally when this con appears in fiction, the hero places his hand on one cup and then shows that the ball isn't under the other two … so it must be under his one right? The accomplices are there to disrupt the game before this can play out … one way or another.
  • Also a good place for the heroes to find their party thief, down on his luck and running a cheap swindle, showing that he is basically harmless (as opposed to supporting himself through some less family friendly crime).
  • The shell game can be played more ways than for pennies on a street corner:
    • Which of three helicopters is the president in? Actually, he's in a chartered taxi cab pulling in at the service entrance.
    • Which of the many deadly, trap filled branches of the master-thief's tomb is the mcguffin down? None of them - it's actually underneath the statute at the entrance that explains that you have to pick a branch to explore.
  • Can also be found as a straight game at county fairs and church fetes (if played for donated prizes, rather than cash, or if the return on stake is set right you can still make money on a one in three payout) … which, frankly, only trains people to be taken in by the con artists.
  • Don't underestimate the use of one scheme to run others, either. A loud and flashy game (whether legit or not) can draw victims for cutpurses or a ready audience for some other scam, or even just be a distraction to keep someone from catching the trick to some other con.
  • "Three Card Monty" also sounds like a reasonable name for an NPC … especially one who is often found running this con. Or one who is "a couple of cards short of a hand" depending on local tastes…
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