Three-card Monte, also known as the Three-card marney, Three-card trick, Three-card shuffle, Triplets, Follow the lady, Find the lady, or Follow the Bee is a confidence game in which the victim, or mark, is tricked into betting a sum of money that they can find the money card, for example the queen of spades, among three face-down playing cards. In its full form, the three-card Monte is an example of a classic short con in which the outside man pretends to conspire with the mark to cheat the inside man, while in fact conspiring with the inside man to cheat the mark.
It should be noted that even if the game is played without the usual sleight of hand, it is unfair to the players, as the payout is invariably even money, whereas the true odds are 2/1.
This confidence trick has a great deal in common with the shell game.
The three-card Monte game itself is very simple. To play, a dealer places three cards face down on a table. (The table is often nothing more than a cardboard box, providing the ability to set up and disappear quickly.) The dealer shows that one of the cards is the target card, for example, the Queen of Spades, and then rearranges the cards quickly to confuse the player about which card is which. The player is then given an opportunity to select one of the three cards. If the player correctly identifies the Queen of Spades, the player wins an amount equal to the amount bet; otherwise, he loses his stake.
Usual card selection
Since there are only three cards, the Jack of Spades and Jack of Clubs often complement the "money card", which is usually a Queen. The Queen is often a Red card, typically the Queen of Hearts. Sometimes the Ace of Spades is used as the money card, since the Ace of Spades is viewed as lucky, which might lure the mark into playing the game.
Drawing a player in
When the mark arrives at the three-card Monte game, it is likely that a number of other players will be seen winning and losing money at the game. The people engaged in playing the game are invariably shills
, confederates of the dealer who pretend to play so as to give the illusion of a straight gambling game.
As the mark watches the game, they are likely to notice that they can follow the queen more easily than the shills seem to be able to, which sets them up to believe that he can beat the game.
Eventually, if the mark enters the game, they will be cheated through any number of methods:
- An example of a simple scheme involves a dealer and two shills, all of whom act as if they do not know each other. The mark will come upon a game being conducted in a seemingly clandestine manner, perhaps with somebody "looking out" for police. The dealer will be engaged in his role, with the first shill betting money. The first shill may be winning, leading the mark to observe that easy money may be had, or losing, leading the mark to observe that he could beat the game and win money where the first shill is losing it.
- While the mark is watching, the second shill, acting as if he is a casual passerby like the mark, will casually engage a mark in conversation regarding the game, commenting on either how easily the first shill is winning or how he is losing money because he cannot win at what appears to the mark to be a simple game. This conversation is engineered to implicitly encourage the mark to play, and it is possible the second shill could resort to outright encouragement.
- If the mark does not enter the game, the dealer may claim to see police and will fold up his operation and restart it elsewhere, or will wait for another mark to appear on the scene.
- If the mark enters the game, they may be "had" (cheated) by a number of techniques. A common belief is that the operator may let the mark win a couple of bets to suck them in, but this is virtually never true. In a true Monte scam, the mark is unlikely to ever win a single bet; it is simply not necessary. There are just too many ways for a well-run mob to attract the marks, suck them in, and convince them to put money down.
- When the dealer and the shills have taken the mark, a lookout, the dealer, or a shill acting as an observer will claim to have spotted the police. The dealer will quickly pack up the game and together with the shills will disperse.
How it is done
Dealers employ sleight of hand and misdirection to prevent the mark from finding the queen. Several moves are in common use.
In the throw, the dealer holds 2 cards face down in one hand. The top card is held between the thumb and second finger; the bottom card is held below it, between the thumb and third finger. The dealer then sweeps his hand down and throws one card on the table. The mark naturally assumes that the dealer has thrown the bottom card; however, the dealer may throw either the bottom card, by releasing his third finger, or the top card, by releasing his second finger.
Done properly, the throw makes it virtually impossible for an observer to tell which card has fallen; even shills can't reliably follow cards through the throw. Three card Monte crews use secret signals so that the dealer can tell the shills where the queen is.
The throw accounts for the characteristic sideways motion of the dealer's hands as the cards are moved around on the table.
The Mexican turnover
If a mark should happen to pick the queen when the dealer doesn't want it, the dealer can use a Mexican turnover to exchange it with another card. First, the dealer picks up another card—not the one that the mark has chosen. The dealer holds it by a corner between thumb and forefinger, and slides it under the chosen card—ostensibly in order to turn over the chosen card. In fact, as the two cards come vertical, the dealer shifts their grip from the unchosen card to the chosen card, taking the chosen card away in their hand and leaving the unchosen card to fall face up on the table. Like the throw, a properly executed Mexican turnover is virtually undetectable.
- It was taking a victim with three-card Monte, on July 7, 1898, that caused the shooting death, two days later, of infamous con man Soapy Smith .
- After revealing the secret behind the trick on British television, American illusionist John Lenahan was expelled from the Magic Circle.