Whatever happened to three-card monte?

Times Square may have been three-card monte HQ in the 1980s and early 1990s, but con men used to set up the game all over well-traveled corners of New York City.

You’d see them put a cardboard box or crate upright on the sidewalk, shuffle three cards, and then convince a rube to place a bet. 

The dealers haven’t been in Times Square for years. Was the game outlawed by the Guiliani administration? Did tourists finally realize they can’t win? 

Three-card monte’s presence in Manhattan may have waned, but it’ll be back in full force eventually.

It’s been here since at least since the 19th century; a New York Times article from 1874 details the sad story of a three-card monte victim, a rich out-of-towner.

It’s a remarkably simple con: A mark bets that he can pick the money card out of three face-down cards. A shill usually comes along and acts like he’s on the mark’s side. But he’s not, and the house never loses.

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12 Responses to “Whatever happened to three-card monte?”

  1. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    It was in the 80s, around Times Square, I’d been looking so intently I had it down to a science. The noise, the bustle, the chatter didn’t disturb me, by then I knew where the card was. I placed my $20 down, he flicked it over…$20 dollars down the drain, as all around vicious laughter. I never tried to beat a non-beatable card game again. That’s for sure.

  2. chas Says:

    just a simple slight of hand actually wherein one of the 2 cards that are held in one hand is allowed to “float” off the top position when you think it’s the bottom card being placed down…sounds a lilttle confusing but those that have seen it can probably visualize it…Let’s play!!

  3. Sean S Says:

    Rube? Me a rube?

    It was enforced out of existence. I forget the exact section of law. ‘Misrepresenting’ or something like that.

    They’d let you win a few small bets, and then coax you into a bigger bet, then perform the magic, a sleight of hand.

    I’ve also seen it used with a pea in a shell on Braodway. In old cowboy or Bowery Boys-type movies you’d see it but it got revived in the 80s. Hence the term ‘shell game’.

  4. Bowery Boogie Says:

    when i was a kid, my grandfather pointed out and showed me the hustle taking place during these games. i remember how times square had tons of them.

  5. Nabe News: April 12 - Bowery Boogie | A Lower East Side Chronicle Says:

    […] the three-card monte players who would pack Times Square [Ephemeral […]

  6. id Says:

    I actually saw a guy set up three card monte when I had the displeasure of walking through Rockefeller plaza on Xmas day. It was almost cute to see the setup between fake Guccis and cologne.

  7. chas Says:

    “Displeasure of walking thru Rock Center on Christmas…? You gotta be a Grinch!

  8. RyanAvenueA Says:

    Same here ID, my mom was visiting and we were walking past the windows near Bergdorf’s–couldn’t believe it since it was the first time I’d ever seen the game live. i thought it was just in movies about NYC. There must have been 5 tables set up. My mom joked about how could anyone fall for it, and sure enough a minute later we saw a mom and daughter crying about losing 100 bucks. it was pretty depressing for christmas day.

  9. D. Says:

    Heh. In the late ’70s there was a court ruling that three card monte was not illegal because it was not a game of chance. (If anyone wants to look up the specific decision, it’s in the New York Law Journal, somewhere between 1978 and the very beginning of 1980.)

    Presumably this situation has been changed.


    I was a three card monte player in Times Square in the 80’s and 90’s. I lost $40 (2 $20 bets) in May of 1980. I was 16 years old. I knew I had to learn how to deal three card monte after losing that $40. It took me about a month to learn the basics of dealing the cards. I practiced and practiced. I actually lost to a kid in high school the first time I dealt the cards in the high school hallway he “picked up” on me for 1$ in June 1980. I practiced at home with the 3 cards all summer plus I was going to Times Square and 5th Ave all the time and watching the pros work. In September I started winning all the kids lunch money in high school. Finally I cut into a few pro 3 card monte players in Times Square and made my debut on Broadway on Memorial Day May 25, 1981 and won $22 in Canadian money and $20 in US money from a Canadian tourist. I was now officially a professional 3 card money player at the tender age of 17. I would eventually get arrested dozens of times and usually plea bargain it down to disorderly conduct if I was lucky as disorderly conduct was only a violation and not a crime (a misdemeanor or felony is a crime in NYS not a violation) or in other cases I would plead guilty to the Class A Misdemeanor Promoting Gambling 2nd degree or Possession of a Gambling Device and a fine. Sometimes I would get really lucky and get the case totally dismissed. You would spend sometimes 2 or 3 days in the nasty Manhattan bullpen (holding pen) waiting to go to court after an arrest. You would usually get sentenced to time served or a fine if you plead guilty. They started giving out DAT’s (Desk Appearance Tickets) where you would get out in 2 or 3 hours after an arrest, booking and fingerprinting in 1990. This stopped the police from making overtime and then too many people started playing 3 card monte. Some of the police started allowing people who lost money to the 3 card monte players to lie and say you snatched the money out of there hand and charging you with robbery or grand larceny from the person. The police made overtime on all felony arrests so a lot of them trumped up the charge to a felony rather than charging you with a misdemeanor and giving you a DAT. I was indicted for a felony Grand Larceny in 1992 and was offered to plead guilty to a Class E Felony with a sentence of 5 years probation. I turned down the offer as I would have been a convicted felon if I plead guilty. The ADA assigned to that case was overzealous and wouldn’t allow me to plea bargain it down to a misdemeanor. So I fought it and got the indictment dismissed on a 190.50 motion and technicality. I beat the case outright. Some other 3 card monte player weren’t so lucky as they got felony convictions and some received city jail time and a few even went to state prison for something that was once a minor gambling offense. In 1994 Mayor Giuliani came in and really cracked down. No more DAT’s (Desk Appearance Tickets) and jail time for chronic repeat offenders. But I will say this Giuliani didn’t condone police allowing sore losers to lie and charging us with felonies. He simply enforced the laws on the books. They started giving out 15, 30, 60 and 90 day jail sentences and even 4 or 6 month sentences instead of fines and community service for Promoting Gambling Class A Misdemeanor especially if you were a repeat offender and didn’t have a legit job and/or was going to school. So you couldn’t get arrested 5-20 times a year and just get a few days in the holding pen and a fine. Plus in the 90’s they put more uniformed officers on foot patrol rather than having them ride around in patrol cars which made it harder to set up a game. I made on good day as much as a thousand dollars but on an average day $200-$500 which was good money in the early 80’s to early 90’s. I had got into some fights with some sore losers and got hurt but never seriously. Usually if you have a sore loser it is just best to refund the money they lost rather than fight with them or have them lie to the police and say you snatched the money out of their hand or lie and say you strong armed robbed them. It was a lot of fun having a gambling game you could win at 99% of the time unless someone “picked up” on you which is extremely rare. It was a helluva an adventure being a 3 card monte player in Manhattan especially Times Square. Most of the old players have either found a new hustle or got a legit job. A few still come out on the weekends to make a few bucks and work their legit job during the week. But very rarely does anyone play in Times Square anymore except on holidays. Those were the good old days wow how time flies it has been over 31 years since I made my debut on Broadway with one of the oldest street shows and hustles Three Card Monte.

    • poppy Says:

      Hi Real Monteplayer, I loved reading about your time as a Three Card Monte player. I’m doing some research for a tv company in the UK, looking at the history of this all and would love the chance to speak with you more. My email is poppy.chandler@zigzag.uk.com Hope to speak with you soon.

  11. The first confidence man was a New Yorker | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Naturally, all kinds of scammers began copying Thompson’s brilliant con—leading to the term con artist and continuing a long tradition of New York swindles, from bunco to the selling the Brooklyn Bridge to three-card monte. […]

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