Do you love Maverick? I grew up with this iconic bad boy, and James Garner played him perfectly. Watch any western and when they show a saloon scene, there are always men playing poker or faro. It's ubiquitous—and that's one of the few areas in these programs that are truly authentic.
Gambling was considered an honorable profession in the Old West, certainly not a vice as it's seen today. Of course, there was the seamy side, just as there has always been in any other profession. Part and parcel with gambling comes bilking, and there are several enduring methods that worked and are still being practiced today. Just go to YouTube and you'll see!
Before we talk about how bunko artists relieved people of their money, let's go over a few Old West terms:
- Fish—gullible persons with plump money bags
- Sucker—after the 1870s, sucker was sometimes used as well as fish
- Capper—scouted the area for a fish, reeled him in, then set the stage for the player (gambler)
- Player—the gambler
Now to the practical part—how to find a fish. All gamblers had to be good at reading people, as did cappers. The capper studied the crowd and found just the right person for the gambler to play. Three traits spelled a good take:
- The person must have money.
- He must be greedy enough to think he can outsmart the gambler to make even more easy money.
- He must be gullible.
If he met these three criteria, he’d make a great fish. Here’s how all this works in a good example from George Devol’s book, Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi:
After supper I got my men in the barber shop, pulled out my three cards [3-card Monte will be explained below], and began to throw them, at the same time telling the men I had lost $1,000 at the game, and that I was going to practice until I could throw equal to the man that had beat me out of my money. They all took a great interest in the game, and could turn the right card every time for fun.
About this time the “capper” came up, and said he was positive he could guess the card, and kept insisting on betting me $100; so at last I concluded to bet him, and he lost the $100.
Then the fun commenced. One of the chicken men [chicken farmers who had just sold their stock] saw the corner of the “right” card turned up; so he jumped up, and wanted to bet me $500 that he could pick out the “right” card.I told him I did not want to bet, but if he made it $2,000 I would bet him, and if I lost I would quit. At the same time I pulled out a large roll of small bills, with a hundred dollar bill on the outside, and laid it on the table.The chicken men held a council of war, and of course they all saw the corner of the “right” card turned up. They went for their sacks of silver, and planked down four of them, with $500 cash in each.I put up and said: “Gentlemen, you must all agree on one card, and select one man to turn it, as I must have the two chances.”They picked out their man; he turned the card with the corner turned up; but, of course, it was not the “right” card.
Mr. Devol and his capper beat a hasty exit off the boat at this time and then writes, “I was soon on my way back to New Orleans to catch some more suckers.”
So there you have it, a lesson from one of the best.
Lots and lots of money lined gamblers’ pockets in the late 1800s (and even now) from unsuspecting people on the game of 3-card monte, which is a take-off of the ancient shell game and requires skillful sleight-of-hand. George Devol, a Mississippi riverboat gambler, took huge bets of $2,000, $5,000 and more—and won. He often played with one of the best 3-card monte players of all time, Canada Bill Jones.
The first ingredient is to find a fish who is greedy and gullible. Remember, the only way a gambler could fleece a man out of his money is if that man thinks he’s fleecing the gambler.
3-card monte calls for a dealer, a capper, and three cards: two are often jokers, one is commonly a queen or ace. This card is called the “baby.” All three cards are slightly bent in the middle. The gambler tosses the cards, interchanging each with the other, while telling the crowd, “I have two chances to your one,” but making the fish believe he has a sure shot at picking the baby.
Three-Card Monte Tutorial
For detailed instruction on how to reel in a fish, toss or “throw” the cards (and cheat), and some typical patter, see The School for Scoundrels Notes on Three-Card Monte by Whit Haydn and Chef Anton. If you page down several times, you can read the section on “the hype,” one of the sleight-of-hand movements that guarantees the gambler a win.
In my latest release, Sleight of Heart, Burke O’Shaughnessy is a gambler and prestidigitator (sleight of hand artist) who isn't averse to throwing a little 3-card monte now and again to augment his next stake. Here's an excerpt where Burke raises some traveling funds. The heroine, Lexie Campbell, hasn't come around to his way of thinking.
Sleight of Heart
by Jacquie Rogers
“Three-card monte’s the game.” Burke threw the three bent cards on the table. “You have one chance to win to my two.”
Several gentlemen, some of whom looked to be prime for the picking, had gathered around but none had yet to place a bet. What he needed was a good capper. He hadn’t trained Lexie yet, and besides, she still had qualms about taking money from people who wanted to give it away.
“I’ll pick a card.” A familiar voice—Charity! He was sure glad to see her and that innocent look of hers. The gents appreciated her curves and low-cut gown.
“Place your bet. We’ll start low—how about twenty?”
“Hmm, I don’t know... that’s a lot of money.”
“Remember, you have one chance to win and I two.” He flicked the three cards around, then turned them over. “Two black kings and a red queen. Pick the lady you’ve won yourself some money.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea.” She turned to leave.
“How about a practice round, no money?”
Charity shrugged and moved back to the table, while Burke threw out the three cards, face down, happy to see his audience grow. “Why not.” She pointed to the middle card. “It’s that one.”
When he turned over the red queen, the gents grinned and nodded. “That was easy enough, and you’d have a fat bill in your pocket right now if you’d played for money. So why don’t you try it—your chance to my two.”
She placed twenty on the table. “Just this once.”
And of course she won. Burke paid, then suggested they play another round, which Charity agreed to. This time she purposefully picked the wrong card, working the gents up into a frenzy.
Burke asked one especially lucrative-looking fish to pick the correct card, which he did.
Charity ran her hand down his arm. “My, you have a sharp eye.”
The gent was duly hooked, greed in his eye, certain to win. But it was not to be, for the throw of the cards didn’t favor him, to the tune of several hundred dollars. Others were eager to win as well, and Burke took all the money they forked over. And then he bought them all drinks and cigars.
Before the hour was over, he had a fat wad of bills, which he’d split with Charity once they made it to another car.
“I’m surprised you threw so well with those skinned knuckles,” she said as the two of them headed to Lexie’s table.
“Skin cream from an old Indian lady. Thanks for helping out—we made quite a haul.” He pulled out a chair opposite Lexie and seated Charity, then he sat beside Lexie, who didn’t look at all excited that they’d won big.
Instead, she glared at Charity. “Yes, Mr. O’Shaughnessy is ever so grateful.”
There was that blasted “mister” malarkey again. By now, their kisses ought to entitle him to be called by his first name. He was sure she was as fired up as he’d been.
Charity’s gaze flicked from Lexie to him, and back to Lexie. She grinned, just like when they were kids and she used to foul the marks on his cards. “I can’t stay—have a fish on the hook so just slip me my share and I’ll see you later.”
He’d done it many times before. Charity placed her handbag under the table and while Burke took a sip of coffee, he secreted the money up his sleeve, and when he leaned back, dropped it into the bag. She left without a word, but he knew she’d catch up with him once she’d taken care of her own business.
He put his arm around Lexie and whispered, “Best we get out of here before those gents decide they didn’t want to give us all that money after all.”
is available at Amazon and soon at other online stores.
Available in print November 1.
Other books by Jacquie Rogers:
#1: Much Ado About Marshals
#2: Much Ado About Madams
#3: Much Ado About Mavericks
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