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What is Three Card Monte?

By Matthew F.
Updated May 23, 2024
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Three card monte is a con game similar to the shell game. It involves a set of three cards and usually a gamble of an amount of money. In three card Monte, a con man, known as an inside man, tricks a victim, known as a mark, with the help of an outside man. The trick is often executed on an unsuspecting mark through a sleight of hand by the inside man. It is also known as triples, three-card marney, three-card shuffle, and three-card trick.

A confidence game, three card monte is best performed when the mark gains confidence in his ability to win, or confidence in an outside man. The outside man is usually an accomplice of the inside man, a fact unknown to the mark.

Three card monte is played with three playing cards. Any cards can be used, though aces and queens are popular choices. The ace of spades, a card favored by many, is a card often used by dealers because of its lucky connotations. Accompanying cards may also be any cards, though they are also usually face cards, and a different face than the target card.

The "game" is performed when the dealer shows the mark the target card. It is then placed faced down on a table with the other two cards and shuffled on the table, in sight. The mark must then identify the face down target card correctly to win the game and the bet. However, through the sleight of hand, the card thought to be the target card by the mark is revealed as wrong, and the stakes are lost.

A three card monte game relies on the act of other people as well as the tricks of the inside man. The games are often performed on streets and in basements or bars by a dealer with friends. The friends pretend not to know the dealer, and act as winners or losers in the three card monte game. Winning will increase the confidence of the unsuspecting mark and losing will make the mark think he can outperform the losers in what seems to be an easy task.

The most popular type of three card monte trick used by the dealer to fool the mark is “the throw.” The throw is executed by a sleight of hand in which the selected card is revealed wrongly to the mark. When the mark picks a target card that he believes has won him the bet, the dealer picks up all three cards, two with one hand, and one card with the other hand. The hand with two cards must include the one chosen, which is generally the correct target card.

A losing card is picked up face down, and then a winning card is picked up face down with the same hand. The winning and chosen card should now be under a losing card. The dealer then flips the top losing card from his hand, face up unto the table. The trick is for the dealer to give the illusion that it was flipped from the bottom, and was therefore the card that was chosen. But the top card was a losing card, and the winning card remains in the dealer’s hand. The mark has lost the bet and is none the wiser.

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