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April 29, 2013

Flat Joint
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 03:12 PM *

From today’s Manchester Union Leader comes this story:

Epsom man says he was taken for a $2,600 ride at carnival in Manchester

The title of this entry comes from this marvelous page of Carny Lingo put up by Wayne Keyser:

Flat Store or Flat Joint — Generally, gambling game, a game at which money is the prize rather than goods. The game at a flat joint is always entirely unwinnable. So called because the “wheel of fortune” or whatever other rig is played there, once set vertically for all to see, is now set flat horizontally so that only the player and the agent can see it. After you lose a bunch of money they might throw you some sort of prize to get rid of you. “Almost all of the carnies don’t like the flatties because you can’t win at their game and they take people for lots of money. I have seen a flattie take people for a week’s pay, their car, sometimes even their home. There is no way any other type of agent comes close to making the money a flattie does.” (Anonymous) “Always leave the mark with a dollar for gas”, say some carnies.

Part of Making Light’s beat is fraud, and that’s what we have here. This is the story:

MANCHESTER - An Epsom man says all he wanted to do was win his kids a prize at a carnival on Saturday. Instead, he ended up embarrassed, angry and out $2,600.

“You hear about stuff like this, but you don’t expect it at a carnival like this,” said [Name redacted—JDM] of Epsom. “The two guys at that game knew what they were doing, and they were very good. I know I fell for it. I was feeling good and I never recognized what was happening, but you just don’t think about that at something like a carnival like this.”

Yeah. The guys were good at it. It’s what they do for a living. You do the cigarette-through-coin thirty times a night, table-to-table at a restaurant, you get good at it. You do the short-change swindle four times an hour, hitting every store on every Main Street you come to, you get good at it. You run a flat joint all day every day, town to town, you get good at it. Naturally the townies don’t expect it. If the guys dressed like crooks with striped tee-shirts and black masks, or like villains with little waxed mustaches, frock coats, tall silk hats, and spats, you’d be on your guard.

This isn’t about blaming the victim: There isn’t anyone I know, including me, who can’t be taken by the right pitch on the right day.

[Name redacted] attended a Kids Carnival, operated by Fiesta Shows, at the JFK Coliseum on Beech Street Saturday afternoon, when he decided to try to win his kids a prize at a $5 game called “Tubs of Fun.” The goal is to toss two softballs into a large tub - also known as the Bushel Basket Toss. [Name redacted] said he came close to winning a prize, but fell just short. That’s when he started receiving encouragement from the two carnival workers to keep playing. “They said they would double my money if I could get 10 balls in the bucket,” said [Name redacted]. “I was loud and into it, and they said I was helping to draw a crowd over to the booth. They said I would win my kids an X-Box Connect, which are like $400 I think. So I gave it a try.”

Yep, you get into the moment. This speaks to situational awareness. It’s why a lot of the people at the Station nightclub fire didn’t try to leave until it was way too late. You’re in the zone, you’ve got tunnel vision, and … bad things happen. This guy eventually laid down enough to buy six X-boxes with enough left over for dinner at the best place in town.

The story doesn’t stop there. When he got home, he got to thinking … that he’d been had. Which he had been. He went back to the show the next day:

[Name redacted] said he returned to the carnival Sunday and complained to management. He said a manager gave him $600 and an oversized, dread-locked stuffed banana for his troubles, but was told that was “all they could do” for him.

A two-thousand-dollar stuffed banana. With dreadlocks.

From Carny Lingo:

Mark — A townsperson you focus on as a victim. When a carny spotted a towny with a big bankroll, he would give him a friendly slap on the back leaving a chalk mark so other carnies would know that this customer had lots of money. Often the ticket seller would mark the ‘mark.’ The booth would have a high counter, above the average person’s eyesight, and the ticket seller would short-change the customer, leaving the change on the counter. If the customer didn’t notice or didn’t count his change, the ticket seller would lean over to give him some “friendly” advice about the best attractions, putting his hand on the customer’s shoulder to point him toward the show he simply must see, simultaneously dusting his back with chalk from a hidden supply. If the customer instead complained about the wrong change, the ticket seller could always push the remaining change to him and say “I told you to take it.” And what do you do when you spot a mark? You “play” him - that’s right, just like you play a fish. But a carny truism is, “Always leave the mark a dollar for gas.” With gas money he can go home (you don’t want him stuck there growing angrier with you every minute).

The mark informed the police and the newspaper. The newspaper investigated, and discovered….

On Sunday night, a woman working the guest services booth at the carnival who gave her name as “Chrissy” said she was aware of the claim, but that the workers involved were not there. She attempted to reach a manager, Dan Delisle, who oversees the game booths, but he did not answer his cell phone.

“He’s already broken down a few rides and games, and is probably headed off to the next spot,” said Chrissy. The Fiesta Shows schedule has carnivals in both Sharon, Mass., and Derry later this week.

A call to Fiesta Shows’ New Hampshire Sunday night seeking comment was not returned.

Apparently Chrissy didn’t give a last name. What a surprise. Yeah, the guy you want to talk to “probably headed off to the next spot.” Bet this isn’t the first time she’s told that story. It isn’t even technically lying. She didn’t say that he had left, just that he’d probably left. And she didn’t say when he’d “already” broken down a few rides and games. Maybe she was referring to the the games and rides he broke down last week. You know how one day blends into another. Three gets you seven that the name on the young lady’s birth certificate isn’t anything even close to “Chrissy,” either.

The police don’t offer much hope:

“It will be assigned to the detective division, but where it goes from here is uncertain right now,” said Manchester police Lt. Mike Hurley. “It may be difficult to track the people down, because I believe they may be from out of state, but the detectives will get started on it this week. We’ll see how it plays out.”

Me, I have a bad feeling.

From AARP’s Scam Alert
7 Rigged Carnival Games:

“It’s not that every carnival game is rigged, but any can be, and many are,” says Bill L. Howard, who’s been investigating carnival games since 1978 and wrote Carnival Fraud 101, a guidebook for law enforcement officers on tricks of the trade.
5. Tubs of Fun

The goal is to toss two softballs into a large tub. You may remember this as the Bushel Basket Toss. But farming baskets have been replaced with plastic “muck” buckets from home improvement stores so that the ball gets extra bounce.

The real trick: “From inside the booth, the carny tosses a softball and from his vantage point, it stays inside the tub,” says Howard. “Then he gives you the second softball for a practice throw — and it stays in for a win.” Why? The carny’s first ball remains inside the tub to deaden it and prevent your toss from bouncing out. But once you hand over your money, he removes both balls and hands them to you. Without a deadening ball, guess what? Your first toss bounces out.

“You might as well throw your second ball across the midway because no way it will stay inside the tub, either,” says Howard..

The next two places this particular carnival will play, this week, are apparently Sharon, Massachusetts, and Derry, New Hampshire. Seven gets you ten that the particular guys that Name Redacted saw won’t be anywhere to be found on either lot.

I don’t think Name Redacted will get his money back. They gave him the old razzle-dazzle.

From Carny Lingo:

Razzle or Razzle Dazzle — Usually dressed up as a “football” game in which the player must scores a specific number of “yards”. Played by spilling 8 marbles from a cup onto a game board with about 120 numbered holes. The numbers are added up to a total which the jointee compares to a conversion chart to determine the number of “yards” scored. The numbers most likely to come up are worthless or only indicate that the player must add to, or even double, his cash bet. The chart is incomprehensible to the player, who must believe the flattie’s constant patter claiming that a win is almost within reach with just one or two more bets. The cost per game builds up exponentially and the winning score is claimed to almost within reach for a big payoff. This game can empty a mark’s pockets quickly and completely, and some marks might even get ‘put on the send’ (q.v.) to come back with more money. A definite swindle covered in the “Games” chapter of my book “On the Midway”.
Comments on Flat Joint:
#1 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2013, 03:38 PM:

On the streets of London about 30 years ago, on the odd occasions my parents and I visited, one would sometimes see games of Three-card Monte being played by shady individuals huddled against walls. I think this was near King's Cross; maybe Islington. Quite a crowd would gather round and watch some poor sap get distracted and not notice two cards' being exchanged very quickly... and it's literally only just this moment that I've started considering the possibility that the 'loser' was a shill. Surely I must have been watching a con that was not the con I thought I was watching. Something to do with fooling a victim into helping with the 'con' for a share of the winnings? Or was there straightforward pickpocketing of the spectators? Incompletely-gentrified London held such mysteries.

#2 ::: Nangleator ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2013, 03:48 PM:

Did Name Redacted just shrug when $50,000 was taken out of his 401(k) in 2008? Did he then vote for McCain? And then Romney?

Lots of marks in this country. And they don't yet know the real game.

#3 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2013, 04:00 PM:

Three Card Monte is an old scam -- completely dishonest. No matter how many times it's exposed people keep falling for it ... a great bit of street theater.

The basis of three-card monte is a sleight of hand move. It's entirely possible that the mark was the only person in that crowd you saw that wasn't in on the con. If any pickpocketing was taking place, that would have been on the side.

The move itself is undetectable. If you saw the cards being switched you were meant to see it. Which means you were being groomed as a mark -- to give you the idea that you were smarter than the operator and could win the game.

You can't win this game.

See also the three shell game and fast and loose.

#4 ::: Laura Runkle ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2013, 04:06 PM:

As far as I can tell, the games haven't changed at all since that day in the early 1970s that my father took me to the games area of the National Dairy Cattle Congress, and spent about 15 minutes talking quietly to me about each game, and how it could be rigged. I have no idea where he learned it - the best I can think of is that the town he was young in in housed a state penitentiary.
The words he said then still ring true. "Don't put it down unless you're willing to lose it."

#5 ::: Trey ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2013, 04:19 PM:

Thanks. This is why I periodically re-read Games You Can't Win and similar things. And I hope to get my daughter to read them as well.
Also, thanks for the AARP scam alert link.

#6 ::: beth meacham ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2013, 05:21 PM:

The games haven't changed for 200 years. Just the price and the prizes. You can't win. If you go to a carnival, and play the games, assume that this is part of the entertainment. You aren't going to win anything.

#7 ::: Sylvia ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2013, 05:33 PM:

My first trip to New York, I must have been eight or so, we're walking down the street and there's a guy doing a shell game, double or nothing. I stopped to watch, fascinated.

"Come on, c'mon, have a go," the guy says and my stepfather laughs and hands me a dollar. We play, I win! Awesome! I hand over both dollars to go again. We play, I win. WOW! I'm a natural! I tried to bet all four and my step-father argues. I was so angry, I knew I could win again! "Nope, we have to go now," he said, and dragged me away through the men crowding around us. As we backed off, they all started waving twenty dollar bills. "If that little girl can do it, well, I sure can," was written all over their faces.

My step-father let me keep my winnings, said I'd earned it.

#8 ::: Sylvia ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2013, 05:35 PM:

I think the guy was totally right to go back and totally right to report it - he was clearly scammed. But part of me still can't make sense of how he managed to play over 500 games of throwing two balls into a tub without his kid dragging him away.

#9 ::: Steve Downey ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2013, 05:43 PM:

Unlikely that he played 500 games. They probably got him to up his bet. There was probably also a gaff that let him have a chance of getting one ball in, so he thought he was making progress and on the verge of winning for real.

#10 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2013, 06:10 PM:

For anyone interested in crooked games, don't forget John Nevil Maskelyne's Sharps and Flats.

And here is Paul Daniels demonstrating Three card monte on YouTube. He had a regular spot on his TV magic show where he demonstrated such trickery.

#11 ::: Pfusand ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2013, 06:15 PM:

I don't think that's the correct origin of "flat" for a mark. In Georgette Heyer novels, the dishonest person running a card game was called a Captain Sharp. So his victim was a flat.

#12 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2013, 06:16 PM:

For anyone interested in crooked games, don't forget John Nevil Maskelyne's Sharps and Flats.

And here is Paul Daniels demonstrating Three card monte on YouTube. He had a regular spot on his TV magic show where he demonstrated such trickery.

#13 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2013, 06:49 PM:

I'm a little surprised that no new games have been added for a century or two. Have all possible good games been invented? No incentives to experiment with new games? There's been a drop in a type of intelligence not measured by IQ tests?

#14 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2013, 06:56 PM:

I'd also recommend S. W. Erdnase's The Expert at the Card Table.

BTW: How to tell the difference between a magician doing Three Card Monte and a street hustler doing Three Card Monte: The magician will probably be using a Bicycle or Tally-Ho deck or some other deck where the back pattern has a white border, while a hustler will probably be using a Bee deck or something with an all-over pattern.

The basic Three Card Monte idea has been adapted into some really neat magic routines. E.g. Garrett Thomas's Stand Up Monte, Daniel Garcia's In Visible Monte, Steve Valentine's Three, Greg Wilson's Flat-Out Monte, David Blaine's Two Card Monte.

When I was a young man about to go out into the world, my father says to me a very valuable thing. He says to me like this... "Son," the old guy says, "I am sorry that I am not able to bank roll you to a very large start, but not having any potatoes which to give you, I am now going to stake you to some very valuable advice. One of these days in your travels, a guy is going to come to you and show you a nice, brand new deck of cards on which the seal has not yet been broken. This man is going to offer to bet you that he can make the jack of spades jump out of that deck and squirt cider in your ear. Now son, you do not take this bet, for as sure as you stand there, you are going to wind up with an earful of cider."

-- Guys and Dolls

#15 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2013, 06:58 PM:

My ex and I got taken, to a very modest extent, something over twenty years ago, at a carnival booth. I forget the game entirely. After we'd laid out over twenty bucks, the operator decided to take pity on us, or else just thought he'd had enough, because he let us choose our prize.

Which is what we'd been after. Because the booth had very amateurish, teddy-bear-posture STUFFED TIGERS. That looked remarkably like Hobbes as everyone but Calvin saw him.

The tiger probably cost the carnie less than a buck. But, you know, I don't think I regret paying over 20 dollars for a Hobbes!

#16 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2013, 07:39 PM:

I generally assume, as a matter of course, that any carnival game is going to be rigged. I've played a few of them, a couple of times, just out of curiosity; once I even won something. (A small goldfish in a bowl, which I won by getting a ping-pong ball to land in one of a stack of similar fish-inna-bowls. I had to carry it around for the rest of the afternoon!) But I never expect to win anything at all.

#17 ::: Konrad ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2013, 08:00 PM:

I'm wondering if the "dollar for gas" is less about avoiding violence and more about giving the carnies time to skip town before the cops show up.

And that made me think about Fridge Logic and Suspension of Disbelief and how tolerant we should be of story premises that don't make sense. (Before coming here, I was reading Abigail Nussbaum's reviews of half the Clarke shortlist.)

#18 ::: Kevin Standlee ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2013, 08:07 PM:

I was at a railroad festival in Old Sacramento once where among the various booths and people in period gear there was a guy playing three-card monte. The difference: you weren't allowed to bet anything. He'd been caught and convicted, and part of the conditions of his parole was that he attend street festivals and the like and demonstrate it to people to show them that it's impossible to win.

#19 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2013, 08:16 PM:

#15 : Rikibeth

Maybe the guy had a personal twenty-dollar limit. Someone loses twenty bucks, you've done well and no one makes a fuss. Someone loses twenty-five hundred bucks, there's cops and newspaper reporters coming around.

#20 ::: oldster ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2013, 08:46 PM:

When I was just out of high school I worked at a casual labor job with a guy who was an ex-carnie, only in his middle twenties. We talked a fair bit, the way you do on jobs, and I saw him in a variety of settings, and heard him on a variety of topics.

I can't remember meeting anyone more thoroughly depraved and devoid of moral feeling in the next five decades of my life. I have probably met a few others who tied him, but none who exceeded him.

He simply had no scruples, no conscience, and no empathy. I have seen more humanity in the eyes of a great white shark. He lived in a world that was filled with marks, and devoid of people.

Perhaps he had begun life as a psychopath, and only wound up working carnivals as a result of that. But I don't think his years with the carnies helped.

#21 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2013, 08:57 PM:

There are people like that, oldster. I've met a few myself.

More cheerfully, may I recommend the book Step Right Up! by Daniel P. Mannix? It was a favorite in my youth. I don't have a copy (it was a library book) but I read it several times and still remember the exact location on the shelf at the old White Plains Public Library.

(The old WPPL had a spiral staircase down to the basement children's room. That was mostly below street level; small windows high up obscured by foliage. I've noticed in years past that, in our novels, any time a character goes down a spiral staircase they will come to new knowledge.)

#22 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2013, 09:17 PM:

The best scene in Frederic Brown's The Dead Ringer is one in which several carnies are playing poker and one of them makes a huge bet against a hand that seemingly can't lose. It's a bet so inane that the other guy, a stage magician, figures there *has* to be an angle, except he can't figure out what it can possibly be. In the end he folds, unwilling to risk an earful of cider.

It turns out to have been a bluff; but a bluff that would only have worked on someone accustomed to trickery.

#23 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2013, 11:03 PM:

Jim, that sounds logical.

My teenager has Hobbes now, and treasures him. I'd say he was worth twenty bucks.

#24 ::: Dan S. ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2013, 11:11 PM:

"Epsom man"

Particularly soothing superhero*, or early North American hominid?

* And indeed, Wikipedia tells me that Epsom, NH is named after Epsom in England, which also gave its name to Epsom salts.

#25 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2013, 12:02 AM:

Jim @21 -- many copies of that available (paper and hardback) under $10 on ABE.

#26 ::: Henry Troup ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2013, 12:06 AM:

A moderate time ago, I remember a traveling carnival with a shooting stall, three shots for a quarter or so. I got two bulls, and a bystander jostled me at just the right moment to make the third a miss. Pretty sure that was no accident.

On the scam front, I once had a complete stranger hold out a payphone in a busy Toronto subway station and tell me "it's for you". I presume this was a setup for a pickpocket. I said something short and less than polite and carried on. Variants of that were done with ringing phones, when it was as possible to phone payphones.

#27 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2013, 12:23 AM:

Having thought a bit more, I remember 2 other occasions when I won something at a carnival game. Once it was at a "pop the balloon with a dart, win a prize" stall, which totally amazed me because I can't throw darts for shit and wasn't really aiming.

The other time was a bit of a fluke. It was at one of the little carnivals that set up in shopping-mall parking lots, and it was a slow night, and my date and I were the only two people at the water-jet race booth for a surprisingly long time -- which allowed us to tag-team it. We played until I had the prize I wanted and he had the prize he wanted (neither of which was one of the Big Prizes), and then we walked away.

Gambling games in general hold little appeal for me; I can walk into the bingo tent at the state fair, spend $3 on cards, play them all, and get up and walk out again. While I have no doubt that there are scams that would catch me, I don't think anything at a carnival is likely to be one of them.

#28 ::: Alan Hamilton ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2013, 12:23 AM:

@1: In reading about 3 card monte, one thing that came up was the nice-dressed shill. The dealer looks a bit scruffy, but up comes this clean shaven man in a suit, and he wins! He can't possibly be associated with this street hustler so it must be a fair game... or that's what you're supposed to think.

But Jim's right, even the shills have to rely on signals to tell which card is the winner. In theory you'd win 1 out of 3 if you just ignored the shuffle and randomly picked one, but they can handle that too.

#29 ::: Alan Hamilton ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2013, 12:43 AM:

@19: I suppose there's levels of risk/reward the carnies consider. If they're trying to drum up business, they may let you win a minor prize with a loud "WINNAH WINNAH WINNAH!" I had this happen to me with a balloon-dart game. I didn't quite win it actually, but there was a big group of people walking by and it was a slow night.

Someone that spends $50 on a $1 stuffed animal may not be happy, but he's not going to go to the cops either.

But you're NOT going home with that XBox.

#30 ::: Naomi Kritzer ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2013, 01:18 AM:

Many years ago I was at a Six Flags with a Temple Youth Group and there was a game with enormous stuffed cows as a prize. Someone from the group wanted one of the enormous stuffed cows as a mascot.

Rather than trying to play the game to get one, he walked around looking for someone who had one an enormous stuffed cow and looked like he regretted it, then offered him $10 for it. And voila! Mascot!

#31 ::: Ingvar M ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2013, 04:56 AM:

Yep, my personal approach to gambling (I include "carnie games" in that category) is that it is entertainment I pay for. If I happen to pay less than expected (that is, I "win"), that's fair and I won't complain. If I pay as much as I expect, no one is sad. But the only safety valve there is me and I know I am not infallible.

Some of the classic games are winnable by skill, there's one where you roll a bowling ball on a hilly track, having to get it to stop in a given place, without hitting the end. I used to be able to position the ball in the right place roughly 9 times out of 10 and since I quite liked comic books and that's what you won, I was happy.

The operator was less happy when I'd spent somewhere in the region of 60 SEK (then, roughly $10) over a week and taken home roughly 20 comic books (at RSP of ~200 SEK). Turns out that that booth developed malfuctions whenever I was close...

#32 ::: CircusFreak ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2013, 06:52 AM:

Brilliant stuff!

While we're doing book recommendations on how not to get scammed at the carnival, may I recommend Daniel P Mannix's "Memoir's of a sword swallower."

Per this post, it has much information on carnival scams, a thoroughly brilliant story of a young lad becoming a sword swallower, and, to my mind, one of the greatest opening lines I've ever read:

"I probably never would have become America's leading fire-eater if Flamo the Great hadn't happened to explode that night in fromt of Krinko's Great Combined Carnival Side Shows."

#33 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2013, 07:00 AM:

William Lindsay Gresham's Nightmare Alley is one of my favorite carny novels, but it has less on the games than some others. Asbury's Sucker's Progress is quite good on the various games of the early 20th century, and has a great cover in the original edition which didn't show up on the first page of my Googling with any sort of permalink.

#34 ::: Ken Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2013, 08:21 AM:

Three-card Monte falls into the category of it's fun to watch, if they're really good it's decent entertainment, and you only play it when you can afford to lose all the money in your pocket.

I had an assistant once who thought he could make the trading desk. The head of the desk took the team to San Gennaro and he got to playing the basketball version of the game described above. Made the first couple really easily. Guy calls down to his cohort and tells him "I've almost got a winner here." Cohort nods and reaches behind his backboard, as if in the normal course of business.

The next ball bounces off the rim. He tries again. Same result.

He doesn't walk away at this point, even though we tell him to. Three balls and several dollars later, he finally gives up.

A few weeks later, he transfers to Operations, where he has a long, successful career.

#35 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2013, 08:48 AM:

And then in the other direction:

About a week and a half ago, Saturday evening, the doorbell rang, and there was a fellow standing there, a guy probably about my age but with a lot more miles on him, if you know what I mean. He's with a paving company and they were doing a neighbor's driveway, so they were looking for other business. As it happened I was already contemplating the work since the apron was in the last stages of complete disintegration. So this guy (name of Larry) gives me a quote for fixing the apron, and for doing the whole driveway: and the latter is half what my wife had been quoted by someone else. My wife stalled him as he continued to romance the blarney stone-- I haven't come across so unrelentingly smooth a salesman in my life. Meanwhile I ducked back inside and pulled up the BBB website and looked at the company website. And it all looked clean, but needing to have a brief talk over the family finances gave me a chance to continue stalling over the weekend. So the guy gave me his phone number-- not the company number-- to call back.

Well, I called the main phone instead, which was answered by the owner's mom, who didn't know about Larry, but on the other hand she said she didn't know much about the employees. Some hours later the owner himself called, and I explained things and how I needed to check things out, and he was understanding of my caution, and we settled on doing just the apron repair because while I would have liked to do the whole thing we just didn't have that much money to spare at the instant. So the day arrives, and I come back from work and pass the company pickup heading out of the neighborhood, and arrive home to see a very neat job on our driveway and several of the neighbors with fresh asphalt. Fifteen seconds later the pickup reappears, with Larry in the passenger seat and the owner, it turns out, driving. We shake hands and Larry points out the new pavement and how nice it looks and how much I would have liked it having a whole new driveway and so on. And I made agreeable noises and lamented that our finances did not permit it and promising to keep them in mind for the future and so on, and eventually they headed off. I had never before encountered so perfect a salesman, pushy but without seeming the least so, with such a gift for a pitch. It was like stepping into the deep past. Curiously, for all his way with words, he seemed to have a profound dyslexia: it took him several tries towards shaping the first letter before he could write anything down.

#36 ::: Adam Lipkin ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2013, 09:51 AM:

It's not a carny novel, per se, but Westlake's God Save the Mark, a book I read some twenty-five years ago, remains my favorite work of fiction about scammers and being scammed.

I suspect I'm not the only ML person who was a huge fan of Leverage, too.

As for the scams themselves, I tend to think of carny games in the same way I think of casino games. "The House Always Wins" applies, and any game that isn't set up to give the "house" (whether a roulette table, a ball throw, or one of those machines in the mall where you can slide dollars in and attempt to win an iPod) a distinct advantage isn't worth their time to set up.

#37 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2013, 10:01 AM:

Michener's The Fires of Spring had quite a bit about how to shortchange people at a circus.

#38 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2013, 12:29 PM:

C. Wingate, #35: You got lucky -- that's one of the classic fly-by-night scams. I got a call for one of those about aluminum siding once, back when I was living in the condo in Nashville. I couldn't believe they were still trying that same tired old trick!

#39 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2013, 01:42 PM:

#32 : CircusFreak

Memoirs of a Sword-Swallower is the reprint edition of Step Right Up!.

That is a brilliant opening line.

#40 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2013, 02:11 PM:

We have a video interview with the unfortunate gentleman here.

To play a Martingale even on the toss of a fair coin is unwise; to do so with one's life savings on a game presumed to be profitable to the operator and whose mechanics are incompletely revealed to you is more so.

#41 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2013, 03:08 PM:

Believe me, Lee, I was extremely cautious about it; if it hadn't been a company truck with a name and URL on the side, it would have been 'no go' from the start. As it was they had a positive BBB listing as long as my arm, plus references from some pretty substantial projects. I was actually a bit more concerned by that point as to whether Larry was scamming his supposed employer.

#42 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2013, 03:21 PM:

C. Wingate @ 41:

I was actually a bit more concerned by that point as to whether Larry was scamming his supposed employer.

My thought exactly!

#43 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2013, 03:55 PM:

From the story Steve with a book linked (#40):

He dropped $300 in just a few minutes, then says he went home to get $2,300 more and soon lost all of that as well.

It does answer the question of how he came to be at the carnival with close to three thousand dollars in his pocket. Normally that isn't something you'd do.

From the main post (quoting from Carny Lingo):

This game can empty a mark’s pockets quickly and completely, and some marks might even get ‘put on the send’ (q.v.) to come back with more money.

Applied psychology, with the spell lasting long enough to drive from Manchester to Epsom and back. You can't overlook how powerful it is.

#44 ::: little pink beast ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2013, 05:02 PM:

Was it Moist von Lipwig who had the trick of being Very Obviously Bad at running a three-card monte game, so that people would come bet and hurry away with their winnings without noticing that they'd been paid out in counterfeit money? I'm pretty sure it was from Discworld somewhere.

#45 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2013, 05:26 PM:

re 42: ... which is why I called the main office instead of calling him on his phone.

#46 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2013, 07:44 PM:

Nancy Lebovitz @ #13:

My guess is that anyone with an ambition to invent an entirely new trick is at heart a performer, rather than a grifter; and is going to become a success as the former or a failure as the latter.

#47 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2013, 07:56 PM:

I recently had a very odd experience that rather worried me. I'd dropped my engagement ring off at a local jeweler (old well-established family business) to have it resized; ever since I broke the ring finger on my left hand and the bone acquired a lump, it's been difficult to get the ring on and off. After I'd dropped it off, I got a call from someone who only identified himself by his first name, and said he was the jeweler working on my ring, and did I have any other side jobs for him, because he could do them cheaper for me than the jewelry store would charge.

This was really, really scary, in a way that it's difficult to put words to. He had my phone number, which meant he had my address (on the same billing slip) and he knew I'd dropped off a ring to be resized. But he was clearly trying to scam his employer. And he was in possession of a not-inexpensive piece of jewelry with a considerable sentimental value. I hemmed and hawed and was non-committal. When I hung up the phone, I was actually shaking.

I wrote down his name, the caller ID number for the number he was calling from, and did NOT contact him or tell his employer until I picked up my ring a few days later. When the ring was safely in my possession, I asked for the store manager, who was also the store owner. I explained what had happened, in detail, and gave him my notes on the conversation with name and number. And described the voice (male, Eastern European accent).

The owner fell over himself apologizing. I later got a call from the store letting me know that the man who'd called me had been fired.

I felt a little bad about that, but not too bad. The man had made me feel threatened and paranoid in my own home.

#48 ::: Cassy B. has been gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2013, 07:57 PM:

...while describing a possible jewelry scam. My husband is making beef stirfry even as we speak; I'm sure we can spare some for the gnomes...

#49 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2013, 10:26 PM:

The thing about Three Card Monte (or one of the things anyway) is that, even if the operator never uses sleight of hand he's still paying off at incorrect odds.

Say that three people each bet ten dollars, simultaneously, one on each card. The operator would pay off the fellow who selected the money card with the bet from one of the losing cards, and pocket the third ten-spot from the other losing card.

To the original post: Starting with a wager of five dollars, and matching the pot each time, it takes just ten wagers to lose $2,560 dollars (which is the quoted $2,600 if you round it to the nearest hundred).

#50 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2013, 11:06 PM:

He's paying off at entirely proper odds if you look at it from his point of view!

#51 ::: CircusFreak ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2013, 06:24 AM:

Jim @ 39

Doh! Of course it is! I can't imagine how I managed to slide right over the author's name in your post.

If you're looking for a copy, it's still pretty easy to get hold of, I picked mine up only a couple of years ago.

#52 ::: CircusFreak got gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2013, 06:27 AM:

It wasn't even a particularly smart comment, alas.

But given the subject matter, would the gnomes like a sword to swallow?

#53 ::: Adam Lipkin ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2013, 08:10 AM:

A side note about the last time I ever used a Martingale system.

I play an online sort-of-mmg called Kingdom of Loathing. It's mostly RPG-esque, but there is a player vs player gambling minigame called the Money Making Game (or MMG). In that game, one player places a bet (say 1000 of the in-game-currency), and another player sees the list of avvailable bets and matches one. The game then does the computer equivalent of a coin flip, and the combined pool (minus 1% for the house) goes to the winner.

I'd used a variant of the Martingale for a while (tripling my bet with each loss), with the expected small winnings. Then one day, I won my first 1000 bet. And my second. And my third. And so on until my twelfth straight bet.

I did the math on what twelve losses would have cost me, and quit the in-game gambling that day.

#54 ::: Steve Downey ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2013, 01:13 PM:

This story, with video interview, confirms that he was betting double or nothing, so it wouldn't take very long at all to lose that extra $2300. Putting him on the send wasn't terribly risky since they were already up $300 of his dollars, and if he did cool out, at that point he probably wouldn't have complained.

Also, according to him, his practice shots were staying in. So there very likely was a gaff in addition to what the AARP piece mentions.

#55 ::: Brad Hicks (@jbradhicks) ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2013, 04:39 PM:

I know from first-hand experience that it is possible, for at least some parents and at least some kids, to raise kids so that they are immune to short cons and long cons, even variations they've never seen before.

But I'm not entirely sure that you're doing them any favors if you do. Assuming that every proposition that is offered to you is a scam unless you can prove otherwise is lonely, it's isolating, it's frustrating, and above all else it's exhausting. I've lived 53 years of increasingly severe caveat lector and I am sick and effing tired of it. I'm not even sure that I netted out any better than if I'd fallen for more scams, because the constant suspiciousness, the energy I exert on constant vigilance, and the general willingness not to go along to get alone (as a way of avoiding social pressure) has almost certainly hurt my job prospects and my long-term employment to at least the tune of as many dollars as I would have lost on scams.

That being said, I dumped out of both the dot-com bubble and the housing bubble years before the peak; I missed some upside by noticing, way earlier than most, that they were scams but I did miss out on all the downside. On the gripping hand, my incredulity that a smart and suspicious friend of mine didn't realize that Worldcom was a fraud probably cost me his friendship.

Google "guard labor costs." It's a thing. A thing we need to worry about as part of our global economy, not just when we wander onto the lot of a traveling carnival.

#56 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: May 02, 2013, 11:21 AM:

Brad: I feel grateful that I seem to have just enough paranoia. I chalk it up to the Boulder County school system. I've mentioned here before, we had a section on "advertising" in my seventh grade Government class. It was just a brief overview, but it did put me into the frame of keeping watch for "in whose interest is it that I believe this...?"

See also: having a minimal awareness of basic Thermal Dynamics.

So, when a coworker approached me to joing this "cool investment scheme," I mentally extrapolated out to the people I would be recruiting, and their recruits....

"So, wait. What happens to the last people who get recruited?"

"Er.... No! Really! It's fine!"

She very sheepishly came back to me a couple of weeks later, to report that my misgivings had been well-founded. I think she lost something on the order of a grand.

This was decades before I first heard the term "Ponzi scheme." It had been "cleverly disguised" as a multi-level marketing scheme.

Another (much wiser) friend quoted the investment algorithm used successfully by an acquaintance in his stock market transactions:

  1. "What are the possible gains?"
  2. "What are the possible losses?"
  3. "Can I afford the losses?"
#57 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: May 02, 2013, 11:37 AM:

In one of his essays, Martin Gardner described a carnival full of rigged games and how they worked. One of them beats you through a clever use of physics, and Gardner described an easy way to defeat the gaffe using another clever use of physics. Which is why I keep looking for one of those games whenever I go to a carnival: someday I'll find one of those games AND I WILL OWN THEM.

On a tenuously related topic, if you have an interest in scams I highly recommend "The Psychic Mafia" by M. Lamar Keene, who was an extremely fraudulent medium that quit the game and did an "as told to." According to him, the town of Summerisle (which was kind of the Yankee Stadium for psychics) was so thoroughly rigged that all mail entering town was read before the recipient got it, and that one seance-holder was thrown out when all the women whose late husbands "comforted" them during seances ended up with the same case of VD.

After he quit there were a few shooting attempts so he changed his name and left town: two years later someone pulled up in a car, emptied a gun at him, and managed to get the femoral artery (which Wikipedia can't spell). Fortunately he survived.

#58 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2013, 11:47 AM:

The martingale betting system is so common in carnival games that it even has its own name in carny lingo: Build up.

From the oft-cited lexicon:

Build Up -- A game offering the player an assured prize with continued play, PLUS all his money back, but each play costs twice the amount of the previous play. Since most people don't really grasp the amazing speed of exponential progression (2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64...) the cost grows huge. Most players give up and abandon their money, because even Bill Gates doesn't have the bankroll it would take to win. "Here buddy let me help you get even, we can play a little double-up-catch-up. Whatcha got ta lose? Remember, when you beat me you get all your money back and this beautiful Rolflex watch. The only way you can lose at this game is to run out of money or drop dead, and you look healthy to me." [By the way, the watch would be a knockoff marked 'Rolflex,' not a genuine Rolex.] As a verb, "to build up." It also refers to the type of agent you are: flattie, alibi, buildup. Sometimes this term is applied to games that let you trade several small prizes (won for a single play) for bigger prizes.

The gent who is the subject of this story would have taken seven throws to lose $300. It would only take him three more to lose the next $2,300.

#59 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2013, 03:52 PM:

"Rolflex" watch sounds like the extremely low-end violin I saw in an antique store last week labeled "Stratovarius". This was the sort of antique shop that labels pretty much everything "vintage" without even venturing a guess at the century or decade.

#60 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2013, 06:33 PM:

Lila, #59: Ah, yes. The kind of place that I think of as a Junque Shoppe rather than an antique store.

#61 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2013, 07:14 PM:

This thread provided useful background for a scene in The Greatest Show on Earth, which I watched yesterday.

#62 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2013, 07:29 PM:

Which scene would that have been, Allan?

(I loved The Greatest Show On Earth, even with all the ... problems ... that the plot had.)

#63 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2013, 06:54 PM:

The plot seemed to be secondary to making sure we appreciated that the producers could afford color film.

The scene is where Charlton Heston refunds some money to a customer on the midway and kicks out the carnies/pickpockets.

And come to think of it, your series on trauma shows that a critical turn of events near the end was presented with an unrealistically rosy outcome. (Do I have to worry about spoilers for something over 60 years old?)

#64 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2013, 07:24 PM:

I've already commented on some of the medical issues from the last reel of The Greatest Show on Earth. The Charlton Heston (ringmaster) character is supposed to have a very rare blood type, where the only other person on the circus train with the same blood type is The Great Sebastian, the aerialist, whom the ringmaster had wronged, and who was his rival in love.

Alas, the blood-type he had was rare, all right, but what it was was Universal Recipient: He could have gotten blood from anyone on the train; possibly including the chimps.

Falling in with some of my other favorite themes, disasters, the Ringling Brothers Circus used the money they got for appearing in this film to pay off the last claims against it from the Hartford Circus Fire (for they were "self-insured").

#65 ::: Michael Phillips ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2013, 10:55 AM:

Adam Lipkin I developed a martingale system for KOL myself back when the MMG was shiny and new.
I did it for fun and had specific limits, and over time lost about 2%.
I was the sort of kid (and am now still the sort of kid at 33) who wrote a qbasic program to simulate my system, run it a few hundred thousand times, and look at the results. Without the maximum bet constraint, the results were horrifying.

#67 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2014, 05:31 PM:


#68 ::: Cadbury Moose spots spam @ #67 ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2014, 05:29 AM:

Mary Aileen spotted it first but didn't raise the spam signal.

#69 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2014, 10:02 AM:

Thanks, Cadbury Moose. Brain-glitch on my part.

#70 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2014, 06:31 PM:

Thanks for posting, Not Really Important -- and on the whole, I'd say that kind of good information (from direct experience) has a fair amount of importance to it.

#71 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2014, 08:46 PM:

A few years ago, my wife and I got snowed in at Las Vegas airport, in mid-December, and were stuck in town a couple of days. (We'd changed planes in Vegas because the alternative was Chicago, which always has weather delays but does remember where they put the snow plow and de-icer the last time they used them. Oops:-) We splurged and spent $40 for a room at Circus Circus to be on the strip. It's designed to keep kids entertained with rides and games while the adults gamble, but we don't gamble and there were hardly any kids there so half the rides were shut down. The most fun activity that was open at night was arcade games, and we ended up playing some variant on a water-gun race game and won about four plush tigers before deciding that was enough of them.

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