— You Can Not Win a Shell Game

On October 19, 2013 by travelogueblog

Westminster Bridge
I can’t say what got into me, exactly, as I strolled up the Queen’s Walk along the south bank in London that early August evening. Maybe it was the excitement of the crowds swirling around the London Eye, or the feeling that my money was burning a hole in my pocket. Probably it was one cask ale too many. Whatever the reason, I decided it would be a great idea to bet money on a shell game on Westminster Bridge.

There’s no surprise ending, here. I lost an embarrassing amount of cash. The only positive outcome to the situation is that now you can read about how the scam works, and remain convinced that there’s no need to figure it out yourself one day.

London Eye
Up and down Westminster Bridge there were several cup and ball games happening at once. Three cups, a foam ball, a pad of carpet, and a guy. A small crowd of people stands around him, presumably playing or watching. Another dude stands across the street as a lookout, and collects the game in a snap if he thinks the police are going to come through.

Stand and watch the game if you like, join the crowd in calling out the answer if you want, but understand one thing: you’re the mark.

First things first, watch your pockets. It’s way easier to take the money out of your pocket than to try and make you hand it over. Unless you’re me.

One too many?

One too many?

Despite the evidence to the contrary, I’m really not an idiot. It was fairly obvious to me that all of the people standing around were in on the con. Yes, even though the dealer has a really thick accent, the white people standing around are in on it, too. I was aware of the fact that I was the one they were trying to fool. I watched a few rounds to see how the game was played.

Slide, slide, slide, slip, slip, slip, one hand over the other and guess. It is obvious where the ball is, and there are several “bystanders” who want to play. The first one to fork over 40 euro gets the privilege of turning the cup over. There it is! So easy, they doubled their money. If only it was really that easy.

Slide, slide, slide, slip, slip, slip, one hand over the other and guess. The next “player” calls the cup, but when he goes into his pocket to pull out cash, exaggeratedly taking his eye off the ball in the process, the dealer quickly yet theatrically switches the ball from one cup to the other. The loser hands over his money as the crowd shouts, “No, no!” but he doesn’t listen, and he flips the cup over. So sorry. It actually doesn’t matter to him, though, because he’s also in on the con. They do this to make you think that’s the trick.

Shell Game

Where’s the ball?

Next – slide, slide, slide, slip, slip, slip, one hand over the other and guess. A new mark like me walks over. This was a slow slide, and it was obvious where the ball was. Who wants to play? Who wants to play? No one wants to play? You? (He points at me). No thank you. He turns the cup I would have chosen over and there’s the ball. This is the kind of turn, I think to myself, that I’ll play. Wait for another mark, and play.

Slide, slide, slide, slip, slip, slip, one hand over the other and, yes, a new mark! I lean in, money in hand. I want to play! But one of his partner bystanders bullies his way in front of me and the dealer takes his money instead, ball right where it should be. I should have known then and there that they would never let me win. I should have walked away. But that’s not how this story pans out.

I said to myself, it’s because I didn’t put my foot on the cup. That’s an automatic play. I’ll wait for a good turn and put my foot on the cup like I’ve seen others do. Slide, slide, slide, slip, slip, slip, one hand over the other and FOOT. I want to play. I give him the money, and no one shouts “No!” I kick the cup over and… the ball isn’t there. He picks up another cup and there it is.

Big Ben
Hmm. Maybe this guy standing in front of me blocked my vision. Maybe I missed the switch. I moved to the next cup and ball game where I knew I’d be the mark walking up.

Sloooow slide, slide, slide, slip, slip, slip, I’m the mark and FOOT! I want to play! I turn the cup over and it’s empty. Of course it is. But what the hell?

At this point I was out of money – €80 is a little over $100 and I don’t usually carry around more than that while traveling. I was pissed, and I wanted my money back. The only way to do it, as far as I could see, was to get more money out of the ATM and play one more time, doubling down the bet. I’d either lose everything, or come back even-steven.

P.T. Barnum famously said there’s a sucker born every minute. The guy running the last shell game I played asked me, “Are you sure you know how to play this game? You want to find the ball.”

Traveling soon? Check out these other scams that happened to me in Europe.

9 Responses to “— You Can Not Win a Shell Game”

  • Liz Sheridan

    From Odysseus to modern-day shell game players: falling to hubris.

  • Eric

    You can win by declaring you will kick over the two empties.

  • Sarah Siering

    Your name, after all, is Mark.

  • Kathleen Neurohr

    And he was, the mark.

  • I was reading your text and it was like reading an account of what happened to me – exactly the same phases. I hope many people will read this and NEVER fall on this scam.

  • TJ

    🙁 Darn, that’s EXACTLY what happened to me at Westminister bridge in August 2015, my first day in London. I lost freaking 100 quids just like that.
    It’s so embarrassing. I should have known better – idiot me.

    Good thing that I could afford that money and was just playing for fun, God help the poor ones hoping to earn more for food.

    It’s so mechanical that the fake ‘audience’ played and ‘won’. They were really mixed races, few girls, few old men and few young men. Stupid me thought these all can not be together on this. I was the mark.

    Gladly after two rounds a kind traveller just tapped me on the shoulder and told me not to play and suggested that these all are together.

    But what-so-ever, these con-artists earned those 100 quids from me – they fooled my mind by doing illusion or by teaming up and pretending to be someone else or by whatever trick. They didn’t mug me, didn’t force the money out from me. They just advantage of my greed in a way that it was impossible for me to win. Essentially that’s all rich people, business men, traders try to do – being better at the game and ensure they can’t lose (or the other person can’t win).
    At least that’s how I console myself lol.

    A lesson learnt the harder way. If the path looks too easy and the awards look way too higher, there’s something you are over-looking.

    I am too ashamed of using my facebook account to comment on this – loser me 🙂

    Great article nevertheless.


  • JH

    Put my complaint on Westminster Trip Advisor for all to write to Mayor Boris Johnson. Copied the Trip Advisor message and sent it to Mayor’s Office. Everyone else do the same. This is an iconic national bridge being spoiled by the illegal gambling.

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