The lone voice of horticultural reason

My Shell Game Story

9-8-08 —The other day, the topic on a talk-radio station was scams and scam artists, and it got me thinking about my shell game story, something I’ve told friends over the years, but have never shared on this site.

In 1987 I was a suit-wearing thirty-something with a job as the trade show manager for a large Minneapolis magazine publisher. One of their national business magazines sponsored an annual trade show in New York City, and I managed it. Most of the exhibitors were in New York, so about once a month I’d fly out and spend four or five days in Manhattan. Expense account, knew the city, stayed in good hotels, single, I had hair. Great job.

One Friday afternoon I was done for the day and strolling back to my hotel, The Penta, on 7th Avenue. Walking up along the side of the hotel I encountered a small crowd gathered around someone or other facing them with his back to the brick hotel wall.

As I drew nearer I saw a slender guy about my age, standing behind a little table, more like a felt-covered TV tray, and as I nosed in closer and peered over the shoulders of the five or six people clustered around the table, I saw that he was deftly sliding three overturned, opaque plastic cups across the felt with his hands. A real-live, three-cup “shell game” artist! Working the street in New York City! How could I be so lucky?!

Standing smack dab in front of the table was a short, younger man of Latino descent excitedly bobbing back and forth on the balls of his feet. I was able to see the surface of the table just as the purveyor of the game, whom I shall call the artist, dropped a small, red, Styrofoam ball on the table, and covered it with one of the cups. “Just pay attention, you’re not doing something right, this isn’t very difficult, watch closely and you can’t lose,” said the artist in an assured, friendly manner.

The smooth, simple shifting of the cups began, no more than three or four repositioning slides of each cup, and then they were stilled. “So which cup covers the ball?” the artist asked the young player. I had easily been able to follow the cup that covered the ball, so was stunned as I watched the man point to the wrong cup! The artist turned over this cup, which of course had no ball beneath. “Ooh, sorry, not there,” said the artist, who then flipped over the middle cup, the one I would have chosen, to reveal the small red ball.

“One hundred bucks, hand me a mere one hundred bucks, guess the correct cup and you get your hundred bucks back, plus a hundred more from me,” announced the artist to the crowd. The man who had just lost one hundred dollars handed five more twenties to the artist. The artist folded the bills twice in half lengthwise, secured the narrow wad around his middle finger, placed the ball in the center of the table, and slowly covered it with a cup. After three or four simple sweeps of the three cups, he again asked the player to choose.

The ball was clearly beneath the center cup, which had been shifted only twice before returning to its original position. The player pointed to the right-hand cup. The artist ruefully shook his head, raised the appointed cup to reveal nothing but felt, turned the cup over so all could see it was empty, pocketed the player’s five twenties, then lifted the center cup, the one I would have chosen. This act of course revealed the red ball. “You’re just not paying attention,” said the artist.

By this time, I’m starting to think. Dimly aware that it just can’t be this easy, yet even more aware that it certainly seemed to be (had the player been me, I would have been up two hundred bucks), the impulse quickly emerged in me to play.

The Latino youth mumbled something in Spanish, and dejectedly left the scene. “Alright, probably good he’s gone,” sighed the artist, “because that was getting weird. Maybe he just got out of the hospital. Anyway, who’s next, who wants to try, simplest game in the world, watch the cup that covers the ball, choose the correct cup, win a hundred dollars.”

At this point, my heart is beginning to race a bit. While I believe a thorough and proper psychological personality evaluation would fairly describe me as a bit of a gambler, I’m a shrewd and careful gambler. I’ve never been comfortable with risk at first blush, but give me time to evaluate a situation, and I’m generally a shrewd gamer.

Still, I hesitated. And appeared to blow my chance. A businessman about my age in a sharp suit nuzzled past me and dropped one hundred dollars on the table. “There we go,” said the artist, counting the money and folding it to his finger. “You have to do better than that other guy.”

I watched the simple routine for a third time, the center cup placed over the red ball, the deft sweep-sweep-sweep of the cups as the artist changed their locations, finishing with the three cups in a line, as they had begun. This time the red ball was under the right-hand cup.  The slick in the suit pointed to that cup. Upon removal it revealed the red ball.

“Hey hey, lookie there, sanity has returned,” said the artist as he took the guy’s hundred bucks, added another hundred from his pocket, and handed over the money. “Thanks for your time!,” said the slick, as he quickly moved out of the crowd and back into the current of pedestrians behind us. “Hey, wait a minute!,” said the artist. “That’s hardly fair!” Over his shoulder, the slick shouted back, “All I wanted was a hundred bucks!”

“Well, some people,” said the artist, as he positioned the red ball to the center of the table. “Now who’s ready to play?”

This was my chance. I reached for my wallet and took out my cash. Counting it, to my horror I realized I had only ninety bucks. I almost always stayed the weekend in New York on these trips, the company I worked for encouraged it because spending a Saturday night in a hotel (that cost the company very little, paid for by magazine advertising trade-out points) greatly reduced the cost of the airfare and saved the company money. My ninety bucks was my play money for Friday and Saturday night in the Big Apple.

So damn. Free money just a few feet away, and I didn’t have the ante! “All I have is ninety,” I heard someone say, then realized it was I who had spoken. “Tut tut, my good fellow, it costs a hundred bucks to play. Have you checked your other pockets?,” asked the artist. “I have,” I pleaded, a bit embarrassed. “Well, you look like a decent guy,” said the artist. “For you, I’m going to make an exception.”

I handed him all my cash, four twenties and a ten. “Play for ninety, win ninety,” said the artist, as he looked me in the eye. I nodded, as if to say, well, of course. We’re both honest men.

The artist dropped the red ball in the center of the little table, covered it with a cup, scooted the other two cups to either side and began his simple, deliberate sweeps. Again, he only touched and slid the center cup twice, so that this time it ended up as the left cup.

At this point I’m already spending the ninety bucks. Oh boy! Remember, ninety bucks back in 1987 was some nice cash, and to be strolling around New York for the next few days with a fat wad of one hundred and eighty smackers was going to be fun. Maybe a really nice dinner instead of the cheap local joints, or a ticket to a hot show on Broadway! Of course, why quit there? After winning the ninety, I could bet one hundred on the next play!

These thoughts and more flowed freely across my magnificent Midwestern mind in the mere instant that it took for me to point my finger at the cup on the left. The artist smartly raised the cup from the felt…to reveal nothing but felt. Twisting his wrist he showed me the bottom of the empty cup, then with his other hand lifted the cup on the right. To my amazement, beneath it rested the red ball.

I don’t greatly recall what happened next, blurring is involved, the sidewalk twisted sideways, I’m quite certain I lurched, I do remember bumping into people, hard, as I staggered clear of the crowd and stumbled in the general direction of the front side of the Penta Hotel. The artist called out something to me, but I didn’t hear. Once in my hotel room, I shook, and believe it was the first time in my life that I understood the true meaning of the word, dumbfounded.

Of course, only an hour or so passed before the odd assemblage of eternal optimism and Norwegian humility comprising my peculiar persona enabled me to start chuckling over the incident. And by the time I’d phoned and borrowed ninety bucks (this was pre-ATM machines) from a buddy from high school who lived in New York and worked for Sony Records, I had worked most of it out.

The young Latino guy was a confederate, a shill, a partner of the artist, in on the scam. So too, probably, was the slick in the suit who played once and beat it. The five or six others in the crowd? I suppose they were the marks, like me, the whole point of the charade to entice one of us to play a game that was giving money away. I guess I proved to be the most assured of that crowd.

Flying home on Sunday I reasoned that after I left, maybe no one played, the crowd dissipated, the artist began his pitch anew, the Latino guy came back, a new crowd gathered, rube tourists like me, the slick in the suit arriving toward the rear, casing the crowd, looking for a cop, awaiting his cue. How many times could they work the scam in an hour, three, five, ten? Even three hundred bucks an hour split three ways was good money in a tough ol’ town like New York.

The ball magic had been simple sleight of hand, palming, misdirection, easy stuff, greed in the eye of the beholder making me see the reality I wanted to see without seeing the true reality. Something for nothing, except a brief loan of the literal “holding money.” The tried-and-true template of all successful scams.

Well, that’s my shell game story. I remain the only person I know who once lost money to a shell game artist. I’ve laughed about it a hundred times over the years, there are so many interesting lessons, it adds such a depth of definition to the famous quote by P.T. Barnum, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” By that, he didn’t mean that every fourth person is a sucker, or that a majority of people are suckers, what Barnum was saying is that we are all suckers, that anyone can be scammed. You just have to wait your turn.

So what does this have to do with gardening? Plenty. The Stella de Oro day lily remains the best-selling perennial in America.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener