The Shell Game

12 July 2009

We’re walking along Vasterlenggarten, the quaint, narrow, cobbled street that runs through Gamla Stan, the heart of Stockholm’s Old Town.

It’s Sunday, there are three cruise ships in port today and the Old Town is packed with tourists who have eight hours to “do” Stockholm. By lunch time, most seem to have found their way here.

Vasterlenggarten runs in a long, gentle curve from one side of Gamla Stan island to the other. There are many side- and cross-streets. It’s an interesting, lively warren.

It’s lined with countless, souvenir shops, cafes, restaurants, snack bars, coffee shops, art galleries, jewellery and ceramics shops, fashion boutiques and tourists traps of various sorts.

Half way along, there is a small, excited crowd clustered round something on the ground. I go a bit closer to see what it’s all about.

It’s the Shell Game!

This is the last thing I expect to see in prosperous, law-abiding Stockholm. That’s because the Shell Game is one of the world’s greatest short-cons.

You see, a short-con is a fraud – a confidence trick that can be completed in a few minutes and is designed to cheat the victim out of his or her money – in the Shell Game it’s usually his.

And this team is good! It’s a four-man crew plus muscle. They have set up their pitch on the corner of one of the central cross streets, giving themselves four separate getaway routes.

Today, the Shell Man – or Operator – is using three upturned matchbox trays and a small wooden ball about the size of pea. Maybe it’s a small sponge ball – I don’t want to get too close. He is working on a thin mat not much bigger than a man’s handkerchief placed on the sidewalk.

The game is simple. The Shell Man shows the three empty trays, turns them over and carefully places the pea under one of them. He shuffles them around, not too quickly, then asks the mug to bet on which one has the pea. He offers even money – that is, if you put down $10 next to the “shell” that you think hides the pea and you guess correctly, you pick up your $10 and win another $10 from him. If you are wrong, he takes your money.

Gentle reader, please engrave this message into your soul and wallet: you cannot win the Shell Game.

The Operator can make the pea appear or disappear at will. He can take it out of one shell and put it under another whenever he wants. He can do it right under your nose and you will never see him do it.

Today, the Mark – the intended victim – is a 60-something year old American tourist.

The Shill is urging him on. He’s easy to spot. Tall, late-40s, neatly cropped hair, leather sports jackets and an expensive, well-travelled leather satchel over his shoulder. He speaks with a slight American accent. He looks like just any other anonymous tourist enjoying a bit of local colour.

His job is to demonstrate to the Mark how easy it is to pick which matchbox hides the pea and encourage him to place ever larger bets.

Now I have a dilemma – I am looking at a nice, unassuming American who has come to Europe to experience some of its history and culture and is about to be cheated out of a couple of hundred dollars if he’s lucky – more if he’s unlucky or a slow learner. Do I warn him?

I check out the rest of the team. One lookout is about 25 metres away at the entrance to an alleyway. The second is about the same distance in the other direction, on the corner diagonally opposite the game. Between them they have every exit and approach covered.

They are both in their late 30s, wiry looking, smoking nervously and twitching like greyhounds waiting to be let off the leash.

Of the six people clustered around the Operator, one is the Mark, one is the Shill, and two, maybe three, are muscle. I’m not sure about the sixth – he could be just another mug tourist. But then again, probably not.

As a group they hem the Mark in, making it difficult for him to back away until he’s made – and lost – a sizeable bet or three. They isolate him from friends and passers-by and make it impossible for anyone else to enter the magic circle. The Mark is on his own, and under pressure.

The muscle are also the team’s protectors and enforcers. They will not hesitate to take you up an alley and kick the shit out of you if you threaten their safety or profits.

So, I’m afraid the Mark will have to stay on his own until the team decide they’ve screwed as much as they can out of him.

While I watch, the Shill wins five dollars and the Mark wins five. The Shill then makes a clumsy “mistake” and loses his five. His mistake reveals a clue about how to pick the correct tray and the Mark wins another five. Now the Shill is excitedly whispering in the Mark’s ear. No doubt he’s pointing out that the pea is under the tray with the little crease that the Operator hasn’t noticed and this is the Mark’s chance to put on a big bet and make a killing!

It’s like watching the umpteenth re-run of an old movie. Sure enough, out comes a hundred dollar bill and down it goes.

Suddenly, the first lookout gives a single, shrill whistle. A cop car has appeared at the far end of his cross-street.

Instantly the muscle elbow the Mark away and close ranks between him and the game. In a single movement, the Operator scoops up the mat, shells and pea, grabs the $100 bill and dumps the whole lot into the satchel that the Shill holds open.

The lookouts have already vanished down side alleys. The muscle melts into the crowd. The Shill casually walks away up the other cross street, peering into shop windows like any other tourist while the Operator strolls away along Vasterlenggarten. He’s the only one that the Mark might be able to finger, but if he gets picked up, he’s clean.

This time the Mark has been lucky. He has got away only $90 down.  It was a cheap lesson. If it wasn’t for the cop car, he might not have been allowed to extricate himself until his wallet was enpty. At least it will give him something different to talk about when he gets back to Tampa.

And the Shell Game will be back on that corner again in half an hour or so, and the Shill will be encouraging the next Mark to bet his shirt on the tray with the little crease that the Operator hasn’t noticed.

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One Response to The Shell Game

  1. nigel morley says:

    Amazing how confidence tricks transcend societies? Some members of Wall Street have recently been playing their own “shell game,” which reminds me of the geological metaphor of Pumpelly’s Rule, which states that what happens at the small scale also happens at the big scale. Thank you for the Stockholm insight (smiles).

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