Monday, July 31, 2006

Crime and Greed in Las Vegas

There is no such thing as a free lunch. Sometimes when someone is fast-talking and you get caught up in the moment, you forget this. It has happened to all of us. I witnessed this last week in Vegas, where some mark lost $100 to a 3 Card Monte dealer in front of Treasure Island.

The World Series of Poker is going on in Vegas right now. This is the world's largest poker tournament series (45 total events), with the main event consisting of a $70M prize pool. Needless to say there are lots of people in Vegas with money to burn. I have been to Vegas more than 50 times over the past 15 years and I have to say that this trip was the worst when it comes to witnessing crime.

Hookers were everywhere -- and I mean everywhere. The high-priced good-looking hookers hovered mostly at the Rio, where the WSOP events were taking place. They would show up around 10pm in the area outside of the tournament and be very up front about propositions. I saw a few negotiating their terms with tricks up in the food court. The skanky ones were right smack in the middle of the strip, in front of Harrah's and the Flamingo, walking up to cars that stopped.

A guy ran by me when I was outside of Ceasar's Palace. He was clutching a purse. A few minutes later, a woman with a bloody shoulder walked by in a daze asking where she could find a cop or a security guard. The purse was torn from her posession by the assailant. My brother and I almost got jumped by three guys trying to start shit outside of Harrah's at 4 in the morning.

One thing that I saw was a fishy 3 Card Monte game. This is a game where the con man shuffles 3 cards face-down in front of you and you try to pick a card (usually a queen) after he is done shuffling. If you get the card, you win! If you don't, then you lose. There is a team of people involved in the scam. The majority of the scam is based on sleight of hand and misdirection. What this con man was pulling was much less sophisticated.

There was a pretty large crowd around the con man. He would shuffle the cards and just ask a random guy to pick the queen. The random guy didn't need to put up any money, it was just for fun. The guy picked a card and the con man flipped it over, showing that the guy was wrong. It didn't really matter, because no money was exchanged. He did this a couple of times before he found his mark.

He shuffled one more time and had the mark pick a card. The mark picked the card on the right. The con man peeked at the card and said "You got it! Just show me the $100 and I'll let you have it! I can't pay you unless I know you were serious about the bet." At this point, the mark did two serious things wrong. The stupidest thing that he did was pull a wad of cash out in front of strangers on the Vegas strip. You should NEVER do this in Vegas. I am reluctant to let people know how much money I have even when I am buying in at the blackjack/poker tables. The second stupid thing that he did was pull out the five $20 bills and hands them to the con man. At this point I can tell the mark was second-guessing himself. The con man tugged the $100 and you can tell he was resisting. The con man gave one final tug and said "OK, now flip it." The card was NOT the queen and the mark was $100 lighter.

The mark seemed like a normal guy who just got caught up in the moment. There is a lot of craziness going on and first time Vegas tourists get lost in the lights, booze, money and scantilly clad women that they forget what how the real world works. I think there are a few things you can do to make sure you aren't getting ripped off:

  • Figure out how the con man is making money. No one ever gives money away. Sometimes they will lose a few bets in the beginning and hustle you for a ginormous bet at the end, but the con man went for the jugular right from the start.

  • Let someone else go first. Even though the other person might be in on the scam, it doesn't hurt to see someone else take the first punch.

  • Know that you are at the disadvantage in situations like this. This is like when you try to negotiate prices with a car salesman. They are in this same exact situation dozens of times every day and they know all the angles. Unless you spend a fair amount of time analyzing the situation, you should assume you are getting scammed.


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