Much like Occam’s razor if something seems too good to be true then it probably is. For those of us brought up in big cities we are used to people coming up to us on the street and asking for money. Some are simply pan handlers but others are more clever, concocting stories of broken down cars, pregnant girlfriends or just needing change to make a phone call. Occasionally one stumbles upon one of the older and more classic cons, the shell game.
The Shell Game
There are many variations of this old standard which by some reckoning goes back to Ancient Greece. It reached its peak in the 1800’s but is amazingly still used today in crowded tourist areas of large cities to cheat the unsuspecting (let’s face it naïve) tourist. As a tour guide I have seen these people cheat so many unsuspecting people out of there money as I walk through the city every day. In Berlin the con is usually played on the Schlossbrücke (Palace bridge) built by Karl Friedrich Schinkel connecting Berlin with Museum Island. When one becomes aware that this is not a game of chance then the idea of giving someone 50 Euro to make a bet seems willfully ignorant, which is why I am going to explain how this works in the hope in the future less people will be conned out of their money. In the video below only the African American with his back to the camera is a legitimate tourist. The other three people watching are part of the con.
The game is played by a group of at least three but more commonly up to around six people. Here in Berlin there are usually two look outs to make sure there are no police in the area. If they do see the police coming he gives the high sign and the whole operation packs up and disappears in seconds. There are also two or three people who are pretending to be innocent passers-by who are also interested in playing the game. The main character (we will call him the operator) in the scam is the one shuffling the “shells”. He will have a flat surface upon which he will have three “shells”. Here in Berlin the shells are replaced by match boxes but you will often see shells, thimbles or plastic cups used as well.
Step one; the operator will find a person to play the game with him (a target or mark). He will then get 50 Euro from the mark. Step two: a ball or pea which will be placed under one of the “shells” and the operator will proceed to shuffle them around. Step three: he will then allow the mark to guess where the shell is. Now had this been a game of chance the mark might have a chance to guess correctly thus winning 100 Euro (the 50 Euro he invested initially plus 50 Euro from the operator). The way to con is carried out however is the operator will palm the ball so in reality it will not be under any of the shells. In most cases the operator will let the mark guess correctly one or two times to build up his confidence, or one of the “innocent passers-by” will give him a tip which will allow him to win one or two before starting to lose. But at the end you will lose when playing the shell game, so do us all a favor and don’t do it!
Police are helpless to stop this kind of con because due to the lookouts they are never able to get close enough while the con is taking place. Another word to the wise, DO NOT attempt to call out the con men and/or catch them in the act of palming the ball. It is important to remember that they are a group of around six unsavory characters and they will stop pretending it is a game if they are backed up against a wall. Remember, a thief becomes a whole lot more dangerous when backed into a corner. The best solution to this problem is to simply not linger when seeing it and most importantly do not play!