I’d seen fighting cocks rip each other to shreds in Manila. Drank the blood of a cobra in Patpong. Fended off ferocious frauleins in St Pauli. I’d seen some of the best gypmeisting there ever was.

I really thought I was something.

But these crooks. Their variant of the shell game. They were pretty damn good. They looked like fellow compatriots. Folks from Romeville to be exact, across the big puddle. Americans.

It all happened on the Ramblas. In front of the Champions grocery store.

I couldn’t figure out what the hell the gypmeister was saying.

Einzweidrei … weeeesvall?

He was a swart individual with a greased back hairdoo. About my height, half my width. Silver lycra sport jersey clung to him like cellophane.

A square red mat, frayed at the edges. Three little white cups. The kind you get with your machine-made coffee. And a small foam ball.

The operator laid a cup over the foam ball and began shuffling. His two mitts a blur. Concentric circles. Figure eights. Retraced the figure eight. Switched.

I followed the cup with the ball easily. A lot of superfluous moves. To trained eyes the con is obvious. Don’t follow the fancy shapes.

So I saw some shmuck place a bet. He was the typical tourist. Or so I thought. Yellow T-shirt with I Love California printed on it. Blue jeans. Fanny pack. White Reeboks. He went:

“How much?”

Of course, another American. I looked around me and there were at least four more of them. American tourists, I mean. I thought, their tour bus must have dropped ‘em off for a nice stroll down scam central.

“Tventee,” said the shuffler.

The tourist unzipped his fannypack. From a money clip he peeled off twenty pavos. Handed the bill over and the shuffler placed it on the mat.

The shuffler did his magic on the cups. Swiping circles, switching cups, back again… I could easily follow this clown.

“Einzweidrei … weeesvall?”

I edged in. For a better look. The guiri pointed to the cup on the right. So obvious. A brat could do this. For that matter, a monkey! If this tenderfoot tourist could do it, so could I!

I couldn’t help it. I laughed out loud.

The shuffler lifted the cup on the right. Sure enough, the ball was there. The shuffler handed over the tourist’s twenty euros plus another twenty on top of that.

I stepped in.

“All right. How much?”

I figured I could use some extra scratch.

He said twenty. From my wallet I pulled out two tens. Like before, the shuffler placed the bills on the mat. The crowd was getting dense. Habia murmullo. He started shuffling.

I crouched down, closer to the mat. He slightly tipped one of the cups and I saw, in a flash, his middle finger dart under the cup. So, the gypmeister was trying to palm it. I didn’t realize it was a lose-lose kind of game. Heads he wins, tails I lose.

I grabbed his clammy wrist and wrenched it. The little foam ball bounced on the red mat.

The guy with the “I Love California” t-shirt bleated something. Only it wasn’t English. It was Slavic sounding.

I realized then. The cup shuffler had some shills in on the con. Dressed American-tourist-style to reel in the genuine guiris.

I twisted his wrist even more. His eyes got watery, bloodshot. I picked up his little foam ball.

“The breakfast of gypmeisters!”

He was about to say something when I flicked the ball past his gold-capped teeth.

“Eat it!”

His fake American buddies-cum-shills scattered like spilled marbles. I roared:

“I’ve seen faster fingers than yours on a Todo a Cien cashier!”

His eyeballs were practically popping out. He swallowed the foam ball. Dry.

“You can tell your fake American ringers to go back to charm school. Now get out of here before I start shuffling your brains!”

He scurried off, direction Plaça Catalunya. I swiped my bills and pocketed them.

I heard a smattering of applause. General jubilation. Then I noticed a crowd of guiris and kids around me. Camcorders poised. Flash flash flash went their digital cameras.

A little girl in a pink summer dress minced towards me. Shy like. One of the gypmeister’s plastic cups was near my left foot. The little girl turned it upright. Put five euros in it. Someone in the crowd cried, “Bravo! Bravo!” Another lady took a fistful of change from her purse. Placed that on top of the fiver …

It was nice. The adulation. The tips. I genuflected. Tipped my hat.

They must have appreciated my expertise. A world class sleuth.

In all, I made about thirty-eight euros. I celebrated with a box of puros. Farias, to be exact. And a couple bottles of Mascaró. Ammunition. Kovaks’ style.


  1. Hi Larry,
    I got taken by this scam in Paris, in Montmartre on a main street leading up to the Sacre Coeur. I did not see it coming; felt like a complete jackass afterward. Funny thing though…I actually admired their skill in decepting me. Taught me a good lesson.

  2. A lot of gypmeisters have admirable skill. That’s what makes their activities so despicable. They could apply that skill elsewhere. That is why I show gypmeisters no mercy.

  3. Hilarious site and true too.

    You must do a segment on the apartment scam in Barcelona where an empty or furnished apartment is rented and when the Americano returns he finds all this luggage, valuables, passport, and the money for the apartment, deposit etc all gone forever. With no landlord in sight. Nice.

    RE. the shell and ball game.

    I have seen the three card monte scam done in NYC and San Francisco.

    Here is the variant I saw. The crook has two black cards and one red queen. He moves the cards very slowly and says, “find the lady and win double your money” It is easy to see which card it is.

    When explaining it to the crowd he turns up a card and pretends not to notice that he bent the card up so a corner is sticking up, the red card.

    Then a confederate bets on the red bent up card and wins. You say to yourself, “A sure thing, a blind man could see that. I am going to win big.” When you bet and the card is turned up, the bent card is black, a loser.

    Now I saw this close up on a near empty BART train car in Oakland. The guy set up a green felt on the floor and started slowly moving the cards as if to practice. A kid of about 15 was across from him.

    The guy explains the game and the card was bent and the kid bet. I whispered to my companion, “watch for it. The red card is bent but he will switch it.”

    Sure enough after the bet was down the bent card was turned up and it was black and there was an unblemished red queen next to it.

    The guy had no sleeves, he moved the cards so slow it looked like he was new at it. I knew the trick, two of us were watching and we could not see how he did it.

    Also the red card was so bent initially that even if he unbent it, it would have still showed a crease. Yet the red card he showed was not creased at all.

    Truly amazing.

    Another scam in NYC. The three card monte guys have confederates, lookouts and bodyguards.

    So three magicians, experts in slight of hand, go to NYC to beat these guys.

    The get a three card monte game with no bent cards but slight of hand. They can easily see the trick and can pick out the red card which is very hard for the untrained eye to see.

    They put down the money and point to the card. The guy reaches for the card to turn it over. As he is reaching another guy, his confederate, pops down a larger amount of money and points to another card, a loser.

    The dealer says, “high bet takes the card” turns over the losing card and collects the money. And returns the money of the magicians.

    The magicians do it again but when the confederate puts down a larger amount of money and points to the wrong card they trump it by putting down a larger amount and point to the right (red winning card) the cards are still face down, the confederate puts down a larger amount of money, the magicians respond and back and forth till the magicians run out of money.

    The next day the magicians return with lots of money and do the same thing except this time the confederate runs out of money.

    The dealer calmly turns over the winning card and says, “red card wins” and hands over some very large sum of money, say about $1000 and the magician’s $1000 they originally put down.

    The magicians leave the circle of people watching and on the outer edge they are accosted by a 7 foot tall black guy (most three card monte guys in NYC are black) who weighs about 350 lbs and is packed with muscle. He says. “you give me that money back and I won’t stab you in the heart with this knife”

    The magicians return the winnings and leave a bit wiser. They won’t be back and most likely will not be complaining to the police as this type of gambling is illegal in NYC. Also these guys can pack up a game and disappear so fast it is like a magic trick in itself.

  4. what a great tale – i saw this trick in Stockholm and nearly took part except my wise wife told me to never trust a gypo!! how true….

  5. These jerks got me too in barcelona. I can’t say they looked like American tourists (I’m American) but they did look like tourists. Only solace is that two other tourists were scammed at the same time so I wasn’t the only sucker lol.

Leave a Comment