Three Card Monte

I played the Three-Card-Monte game on the streets of New York.  

Ambling down Fifth Avenue one fine, spring day—in no hurry, just wandering, staring, listening to languages, and savoring the springtime smells of Central Park’s flowers mixed with the scent from the hot dog vendor’s carts. 

I stopped to watch the “game,” known as Three Card Monte, a slippery contest that one would think more likely played in some dark alley, but, in fact, 5th Avenue offered several spots for a con’s game. One shabby little fold-up table was set close to the curb —ready for a fast escape from the cops.

I knew the drill—three cards moving fast in the hands of the person behind the table. “Follow the cards,” he directed as he put them face-down: two Kings, one Ace. “Pick the ace.” I knew Three-Card-Monte was the biggest trick in the world. How could anyone fall for it. Didn’t people know: you win, you double, double again, you lose, maybe even again. Then they trick your eye, you lose, the sucker.

I got participation-close to the game. I watched the cards, keeping my eyes trained on the dealer’s hands. Excitedly I said to the man next to me, “I see the Ace, I mean I actually do see it,” I said subtly pointing at the card. “It’s so obvious....you saw it, right there,” I said to my neighbor.

“Yea, I saw it,” he yelled. 

The current player at the table slapped his money down on that very same card. A yell of joy went up. He won. Three other suckers approached, two winners, then a loser. Maybe the game’s more fair these days, I pondered. The crowd came in closer as I got pushed to the table.

Suddenly a shooting thrill went through me, my head went empty. The sentences I had just said: “Only fools play this game” disappeared. Every sane thought I’d had just five minutes before flew out of my rational mind, as if I had walked into another room—the room of hope with the big sign on the wall: “This is your lucky day.” I didn’t even know my hand was reaching, fumbling inside my bag. A $5.00 bill found its way magically from my wallet to my hand. “Okay, I’m ready. Let’s go.” My eyes remained steady on the three cards: “Yes, there’s the ace” Down went my five on the card, “That’s it,” By now I was practically yelling at the group. 

I was right, I won, I was hot

My $10.00 winnings were staring at me from the table. “I’ll put the full ten down on the next bet,” I said out loud. 

“Yea, you’re hot, bet $20” my neighbor, my new friend, screeched. His encouragement filled my beating heart. I muttered, “I’ve seen the game, I’m from New York, I’m street smart.”

The sudden rattling noise from the passing fire engines made us all stop. My lucky stars, The Three-Card-Monte Goddesses were with me, they spoke from their heavenly place, up beyond the tall buildings. I heard their demand to look straight at my insistent neighbor. His eyes were bloodshot; he had the shakes, my god, was he drooling

“Go on, bet,” he insisted as he pushed my hand.  

My slow recognition of this swaying drunk was stunning. I stood there hesitating, scrambling for clarity, but the Goddesses and I slowly made my fingers encircle the winnings. The $10 bill found my pocket.   

I didn’t leave. I stood back from the table studying the crowd to see who might be the coercing shills in the group. They weren’t obvious, of course, but for some reason I sensed it was  a suburban-looking housewife in a decent suit, with a conservative hair-do, carrying a Macy’s shopping bag, the perfect ploy.

She came forward, shyly approaching the table. “I’ll play, I’ve got $10.00 right here.”  

“Little Missus, okay, you know how to play the game?”

“Well, it’s my first time, but I think so,” she whispered.  

She put her $10.00 down on one of the three cards. “Bingo, there it is, you picked the Ace. You win. Okay, out there, did you see the little Missus win. Easy.” 

She gave an excited nod, said she needed to breathe, and turned to the crowd with a smile of achievement, dropping the $20 into her Macy’s bag, which I now realized —with my new detective’s eye—was dirty and empty.

I watched the Suburban Missus slip herself to the back of the crowd, searching for, then urging a new sucker, right here on easy street—smack dab on Fifth Avenue and 55th Street, directly in front of that nice Christian church.  

I heard him call out, “Yeah, I’ll try it.”

© 2020 Joan Brooks Baker. All artwork on site by Joan Brooks Baker

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