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.
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.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.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.
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.