What is Three Card Monte?

Modified by Julia Attard on March 03, 2021 in Casino Tips

Three Card Monte

If you have ever walked a busy street or carnival and noticed a group of people huddled around a dealer, and losing loads of cash, there is a good chance they were playing Three Card Monte. The reason the players were losing is because there is no way that this game can be won against a skilled dealer or crew.

Still, many people get sucked into this three-card trick because they do not know that it’s a scam. Luckily, after reading this, you will never be drawn into a game of Three Card Monte.

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Premise of the Monte Trick

Three Card Monte is actually a great little trick that anyone can learn to have some fun with their friends. There are many different versions of the game. In the three-card table (or surface) version, the dealer has three cards. Many dealers choose 2 identical cards, such as jokers, and one different card, such as the Queen of Hearts. There can also be three totally different cards in this game. That is irrelevant. What matters is that one of the three cards is designated as the ‘money’ card.

The aim of the game is for the player to correctly identify the money card after the dealer has shuffled the cards around a bit on a table. Before shuffling the cards, the dealer will show the player where the money card is. The dealer then places all the cards face down on the table and moves them around quickly. Players must focus on the money card to ensure that they identify it correctly when dealer is done shuffling. If you’re thinking that it sounds similar to the shell game, you are right.

The dealer puts an equal bend into all three cards so that they are slightly curved in the middle. The reasons why they bend the cards are quite simple; it is to be sure that all the cards are in the same condition so that the player cannot follow a card based on its appearance. It also makes it easier to pick the cards up quickly and efficiently on a flat surface. Skilled dealers learn to shuffle the cards around with a good ‘flow’ that mesmerizes players and keeps them enthralled.

Sleight of Hand

While the premise of the game sounds innocent enough, Three Card Monte is a trick because the dealer is always one-up on the player. The dealers in this game have perfected sleight of hand so that they can deceive the player. Dealers always know where the money card is, and they will never let players choose that card. They use tricky hand movements to switch the cards around while they are shuffling them.

In a way, Three Card Monte dealers are similar to illusionists that perform tricks using decks of cards. They have practiced and mastered the arts of holding cards, shuffling them, and moving them in ways that most people will not notice. The dealers can let players lose or win – whatever suits them in a particular round of the game. They might let players win a few rounds to draw them deeper into the game as they gain more confidence.

Dynamics of a Confidence Game

Speaking of confidence, Three Card Monte is a ‘confidence’ game. A confidence game is one in which the swindler – in this case the dealer – gains the trust of the player and gives the player confidence. Dealers use many different techniques to instill confidence in players. They use their knowledge of human psychology to trick people into playing the game and keep them playing. This is why dealers in confidence games are usually referred to as con artists. 

One of the confidence techniques that dealers use goes like this: players usually only have to place their bets at the end – once the dealer has finished moving the cards around. This is a confidence strategy that makes the player feel like they have the upper hand. If the players ‘lose track’ of the card, then they don’t have to place a bet, or they can place a small bet. Of course, they always lose track because trickery is involved.

Another way that they gain a player’s confidence is by letting the player win a few times. Or by letting someone else win before targeting their actual victim. Dealers may also enlist the help of another person who is working with them. This person is referred to as a shill.

The dealer will play a few rounds with the shill while incorporating no trickery when shuffling the cards. The shill will continuously choose the wrong card, even though the target (potential player) knows where the money card is every round. The potential player will become frustrated and think that the shill is an idiot. They then play the game to ‘show how it’s done’ and guess what – they lose.

Three Card Monte Crews

The last confidence technique we mentioned is usually incorporated by Three Card Monte crews that hustle on the streets and play to crowds. A crew usually consists of a dealer, a caller, and one or more shills. The dealer plays the game, the caller notifies everyone if the police are coming, and the shills are on the dealer’s side, but the crowd is totally unaware that they are. These crews operate in crowds of people and make large sums of money with their Monte trickery.

We discussed how the shills can pretend to be fools, continuously choosing the wrong cards to compel people in the crowd to play. Shills can also be used to win the game easily until another player is enticed to give the game a go. There are many other ways that Monte crews use shills to trick players and deceive the crowds.

Shills are usually skilled manipulators that are able to plant ideas into people’s minds without them realizing that they have been conned. Shills are very good at reading people. They can identify which people are likely to be pulled into the game. They can also identify people that might easily be convinced to bet high stakes.

The shill will act in ways and say certain things that will trigger the crowd and the players to do the things the crew wants them to do. Whispering in a player’s ear is an effective method that can be used on many people. It sounds too simple to be true, but shills are very calculating.  

Skilled Monte Crew Methods

A popular method used by Three Card Monte crews is when one of the shills in the crowd pretends to distract the live dealer. While the dealer is ‘distracted’ another shill will quickly make a bend in the money card, pretending to be on the player’s side.

This usually entices players into increasing their bets so they can win their money back. The player thinks the dealer does not know that the card has been bent, but of course the dealer does. Dealers simply use their sleight of hand once again to bend the card back and bend another card.

Sometimes, a crew is confronted with a player that knows the Three Card Monte con. There are many ways that they might deal with this. For instance, one of the shills might bump the table to void the game. The caller (the person whose job it is to look out for the police) might signal urgently that the police are coming – prompting the dealer to pack up frantically in order to ‘escape’ the cops. The list goes on and on.

Another thing to be aware of, when dealing with a Monte crew, is that the crowd will never be able to identify the co-conspirators. The caller might make himself known, but the crowd usually deems this person a logical necessity because they are essentially gambling on the streets.

However, the crew uses clever tactics to hide the identity of the shills. The shills will look nothing like the dealer. If the dealer is wearing a magician’s outfit, then the shills be wearing skateboard gear or summer attire.  

An Interesting Glimpse at the History

It is widely believed that this unassuming con game has been around for centuries in different forms. No matter what variation was played through the years, it always involved using objects such as cards, walnut shells, or cups to scam players by deceiving them using tricks, manipulation tactics, and sleight of hand. 

Many magic enthusiasts will remember Michael Skinner. An American Magician that was well known for executing unbelievable close-up magic tricks. He performed the Three Card Monte at the legendary Golden Nugget Casino in Las Vegas. The Golden Nugget drew large crowds when the magician performed his live shows at the casino for more than 20 years in the online gambling scenario in New Jersey. It is amazing that this trick has been around for centuries and continues to swindle people all over the world.

Closing Thoughts

We hope you’ve learned something from our explanation of Three Card Monte. Now that you know many of the aspects of the game, be sure not to get caught up in trying to outsmart the dealers, especially if they are playing for a crowd.

These crews spend years together formulating strategies – too many to cover in one article. For those interested in learning more about sleight of hand tricks and confidence games, there are many books written by experts that shed more light on the subject. Following, you can find a video to learn and better understand this trick:


What is three card monte?

Three Card Monte is actually a great little trick that anyone can learn to have some fun with their friends. There are many different versions of the game. In the three-card table (or surface) version, the dealer has three cards. Many dealers choose 2 identical cards, such as jokers, and one different card, such as the Queen of Hearts. There can also be three totally different cards in this game. That is irrelevant. What matters is that one of the three cards is designated as the ‘money’ card.

How can I learn three card monte?

There are many tutorials you can watch/read to master this trick.

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