The three cards game, a classic street scam

a man playing the three cards game on the ground

It surprises me that the age-old three cards game (or three card monte) still tricks people today.

Let’s explore how it works and why it’s a street scam to avoid.

You can find this street “game” everywhere, whether you are in a tourist area or frequented only by locals. (I often see one stationed in the neighbourhood next to where I live. And we are well far away from any tourist area. -An)

Scammers challenge passers-by to bet and guess the location of a specific card among three faced down. In other versions, the goal is to guess which one of three cups or shells conceals a small object.

1) How it works

The typical setup usually features a table, placed on a walking street or sidewalk, on which the scammers play their game. There is often also a group of people around the table who are seemingly betting on the outcome.

As mentioned, the aim of the game is to guess the winning card out of three covered ones, or alternatively, to guess under which of the three cups or shells the hidden object lies

If you get close, you will likely see someone in that group winning and collecting prizes as well. If you watch one of their games, you will probably also be able to guess the correct position.

You might think that you should have bet on that last one. Why not to bet on the next then?

Because everything you are witnessing, including the group of players around you, it is a show made up to attract victims. They want to build up your confidence and entice you to bet on a blatantly rigged game.

Sometimes, the scam isn’t so well-orchestrated, and you might find just the scammer conducting the game on the ground.

a man playing the three shells game with a group of people on the street
A three-shell game scam on stage. (Credit - Jim Winstead via Flickr)

2) What you risk

If you ever win even one round, do know that it’s a ploy to entice you to bet more on the next one.

After you lose your money, some accomplices might correctly guess the next outcome, creating an illusion that winning is still possible and tempting you to try again.

You might be drawn to play again, either to recover your funds, out of pride, or simply for gambling. Yet, you’ll find yourself losing again. 

Remember, this is not a game you can win; it’s not a game at all, but a scam.

While you’re engrossed in the game, you could also fall victim to pickpocketing. Click here to read our main article about Pickpocketing.

two nut shells placed on a wooden table while one is taken by a hand revealing a small white ball
Top POV of the three shells game on a table. (Caption - Sue Thompson via Flickr)

3) How to avoid it

Do not bet on the three cards game, its variants, or other random rigged games. Don’t let strangers influence you or push you to do things.

If your travel companions fall into this trap, or are about to, stop them and make them understand that they are dealing with a scam.

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