Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

One of these days in your travels, a guy is going to show you a brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is not yet broken. Then this guy is going to offer to bet you that he can make the jack of spades jump out of this brand-new deck of cards and squirt cider in your ear. But, son, do not accept this bet, because as sure as you stand there, you’re going to wind up with an ear full of cider. -Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls.

Shell game

Shell games are short cons. The Merriam-Webster dictionary says shell games are dishonest actions done to deceive people. They are traditionally games of the street, where the operator sets up on a suitcase or cardboard box, anything with a flat surface.

The operator of the game hides a pea under one of three walnut shells

He moves the shells around a flat surface, all the while chanting a well-rehearsed line of patter. When he stops, the gambler guesses which shell the pea is under. It is of course, a game of deception, trickery and sleight of hand – a swindle.

Another favorite swindle in cities with high concentrations of out-of-towners is 3-card Monte

This game is also called Hide the Lady. The game operator shows the gambler three cards face up, only one of which is a Queen. The operator throws the cards face down, moves them about while chattering all the while. Onlookers are challenged to wager on their ability to know which card is the Queen.

When you see gamblers guess properly and win the bet, you can be sure the game operator allowed it to happen

Shills are employed by game operators to pose as customers but are really part of the con. When shills win, it’s only to pretend the game is legitimate. When shills guess wrong and lose, they are guessing wrong on purpose and the game operator has made the Queen so easy to follow that potential customers can’t help but see themselves being sharp-eyed enough to know for certain which card was the Queen. Manipulating you into believing you will be a sure winner is a key part of the theatrics of a well-played con game. Skilled game operators also know how often they need to let suckers win to keep them losing their money. Psychologists call this variable-ratio reinforcement, the same principle behind slot machine payouts.

As Canada Bill Jones said, “It’s immoral to let a sucker keep his money.”
  • A sucker is a dupe, sap, chump, patsy, pigeon, names for people who are easily hoodwinked. In the con game lingo, these suckers are called marks, meaning they’re easy targets for skilled marksmen.
  • Hoodwinking originally meant nothing more than blindfolding someone. Over time, it came to mean the act of deliberately deceiving people. Sucker fish (family loricariidae) were easy to catch because they had such large mouths and would bite at anything. No wonder people started using the word sucker to describe a person easily hoodwinked.
Gamblers cannot win either of these games, of course

In 3-card Monte, the operator has used sleight of hand to remove the Queen and replace it with a third losing card, meaning all three of the face-down cards are losers. In the shell game, the operator has removed the pea, meaning whichever shell you choose is wrong.

In both cases, the hocus-pocus is done at the start so the sucker is following the wrong card or the wrong shell from the beginning. Because the operator is skilled at trickery and deception, the cheating goes unnoticed when he turns over the Queen or when he reveals the pea under one of the unchosen shells – after the sucker has lost.

Figuratively speaking, a shell game is anything that perpetrates fraud by deception. Shell games are dishonest actions done to cheat people. How dishonest they are is usually determined by how much they can get away with.

Another shell game

Advertising is in many ways deception, especially the painting of too-rosy pictures. Prescription drug commercials come to mind immediately. For many years pharmaceutical companies had been restricted by law to marketing only to doctors. The law changed in 1997 when the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration allowed prescription drug companies to make their sales pitches directly to the consumers. To get that permission, pharmaceutical companies had to promise their ads would be educational, presenting the pros and cons in a fair and balanced manner.


How fair and balanced are they?

When prescription drug commercials come on, notice how they all show happy people enjoying active lives with families, friends and pets. While you’re looking at pretty pictures and smooth music, a calm and reassuring voice quietly and quickly reads the side effects required by law. Theirs is a con game that directs your attention away from the negatives, such as vomiting, bleeding, having seizures and dying. If ads were truly balanced, they’d include scenes like this:

Vioxx was a widely used treatment for arthritis and chronic pain

It was removed from the market after it was found to double the risk of heart attacks and strokes, leading to an estimated 60,000 deaths. Merck, the manufacturer, paid $4.9 billion to settle the lawsuits. NPR’s Richard Knox interviewed Dr. Catherine DeAngelis, editor-in-chief of the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association. Dr. DeAngelis said “What people should learn from this is you don’t believe anything, not one thing, put out by a pharmaceutical company. This one got caught.” The settlement was later dwarfed by Wyeth’s $21 billion settlement for selling Fen-Phen, a diet drug that damaged heart valves.

Last week

Last week’s article was inadvertently titled Look! Up In the Sky! It was a working title only, the real title being A Closer Look at Contrails. The corrections are in place and you can read the final version here.


Short cons take only minutes or seconds. Long cons are used when crooks are looking for big payoffs. They’re called long cons because they take a long time, lots of money and teams of swindlers to pull off successfully. Arguably the best long con in film is the one played on Robert Shaw by Paul Newman and Robert Redford in The Sting.


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