The Confidence Game, by Maria Konnikova


The Confidence Game includes numerous anecdotal accounts of cons perpetrated throughout history, but it’s not really itself a history. Those stories are used as examples to illustrate various points about how cons work, and more importantly why (in the sense of human psychology) they work. Author Maria Konnikova discusses many social science findings about how people come to think, feel, and do what they do, how they can be manipulated, etc.

The first example Konnikova goes into at length is that of “the Great Impostor” (as he was known in the book and movie versions of his life story) Fred Demara.

Demara’s specialty was changing his identity to fit whatever circumstances he wanted to place himself in. For example he joined multiple monasteries or religious orders under various aliases, typically claiming to be some kind of professional or academic who was experiencing a midlife crisis and needed to seek truth and spiritual growth in a new way. His most extreme impersonation—and maybe the one it was most surprising he pulled off—was when he joined the Canadian Navy as a doctor, though he had had zero medical training. But he learned what he could as he went along—reviewing medical textbooks at night, tricking real doctors into writing up a layman’s guide to certain basic medical techniques (in case, he told them, he was ever incapacitated on board a ship and a non-doctor had to fill in for him), etc.—and got to where he could do a fair amount, including minor surgeries.

One reaction I had to Demara is that he doesn’t seem to fit all that well what I think of as a con artist. That may be even more true of a later example—Australian Samantha Azzopardi.

As an example of one of Azzopardi’s ruses, when she was in her mid-20s, she flew to Ireland, and shortly thereafter showed up on a public street emaciated and seemingly disoriented, unable or unwilling to talk. She had no identification and nobody knew who she was, though they assumed she was about 14 years old. She communicated minimally by drawing pictures, and seemed to be trying to convey that she had been kidnapped and somehow involved in sex trafficking. Irish law enforcement spent a great deal of time and money trying to figure out who she was and where she belonged, as well as attempting to investigate any crime she may have been involved in. They eventually publicized her photo nationwide and then worldwide, only after trying everything else, and even then with reluctance since she was (they thought) a minor. They found out her identity when someone in Australia recognized her.

But I think of a con as some slick character dishonestly separating victims from their money. I don’t get the point of some of Demara and Azzopardi’s “cons.” They sound like just a manifestation of some kind of mental illness, pranks, an attempt at fame (like the guy a few decades back who specialized in doing impersonations at sporting events, e.g., he walked onto the field in full uniform at a Major League Baseball all-star game and passed himself off as one of the players, and another time he even dressed up in a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader outfit and came onto the field and participated in a routine—for literally just a couple seconds before he was tackled by security), or maybe just a love of the risk of possibly getting caught and getting in trouble. But what they don’t seem to be is crooked moneymaking schemes.

These are more Andy Kaufman than Bernie Madoff.

Konnikova notes that psychologists generally categorize con artists like Demara as psychopaths, narcissists, Machiavellians, or some combination. I can see why these categories could apply to this broader sense of cons rather than just the narrower sense I originally had in mind. If you do outlandish things just for the challenge of seeing what you can get away with, without it necessarily benefiting you in any direct way, especially if you do so with indifference toward anyone you might be harming or inconveniencing, then that does indeed sound quite narcissistic, and maybe psychopathic and/or Machiavellian too.

But I still kept expecting these stories to have a punch line where the con artist stole something. Like when Azzopardi misrepresented herself so as to obtain employment in foreign countries as a live-in au pair, I figured the culmination of the anecdote would be that she disappeared after emptying the bank accounts of the family she was living with or something. But no, often there’s nothing like that—the cons are pointless in that sense.

Moving on, it is said that “You can’t cheat an honest man.” (I thought that line originated with W.C. Fields—it’s the title of one of his movies—but Konnikova reports that it’s actually an old carny expression from much earlier.) The idea being that conning someone involves tricking them into thinking you’re conspiring with them to somehow cheat or steal from someone or get something for nothing (think of the “wire scam,” like was depicted in The Sting, where the con artists convince someone that they’re in cahoots with a crooked telegraph operator who will get them horse racing results just before they are officially communicated, so that they can place bets on events that have already concluded).

Is the expression true? Not really. Getting someone to participate in a crooked operation they expect to benefit from is how some cons work, but not all or even close to all. Plenty of cons take advantage of people’s better, more charitable, natures, or exploit various other weaknesses of theirs other than dishonesty.

One surprising thing I learned from this book has to do with those Nigerian e-mail scams—you know, the ones where for some obscure reason some person in Africa is unable to access a vast amount of wealth they’re entitled to, but for some even more obscure reason they will be able to if a total stranger like you helps them out by sending them a vastly smaller sum of money, for which they promise you will be very generously compensated. Have you ever wondered why such e-mails are typically comically illiterate?

I figured that while the cons would much prefer for their crooked solicitations to be written in a more educated kind of English, maybe the people who can only make a living running these scams tend to be poorly educated and/or not have English as their first language, and so they’re stuck with what they’ve got. (Sort of like how I’ve always been struck by there being so many absolutely butt-ugly hookers in the world, whereas you’d think prostitution would be a field where physical attractiveness would provide an enormous competitive advantage. But evidently being desperate enough to have to sell yourself sexually for money is an even bigger prerequisite to being a hooker than being sexually attractive, and so there are many people with that first qualification but not the second in that occupation.)

But it turns out the writing flaws are, at least sometimes, intentional. What the scammers have found is that if they send out properly written e-mails that sound more like a possible prince—or whatever they’re pretending to be—than a dim-witted second grader, they actually work too well. That is, they get a flood of positive responses, with the vast majority of them coming from people who will balk at some point later in the process before turning over any money. Whereas if they start with only, say, 5% that many responses, but they are from the kind of morons who will fall for even the least believable, error-ridden e-mail, most of those folks will actually cough up some money later, and that’s more efficient.

I was speaking of unusually unattractive women a moment ago, so let’s move on to the opposite, and much more pleasant, topic of phenomenally attractive women. Actually author Konnikova herself is stunning, by the way, but no, I’m referring to the Denise Milani con related in The Confidence Game.

It’s one of the wilder stories. An American college professor on a dating website found himself in increasingly friendly and erotic communication with the lusciously mega-breasted model Milani. Their long distance romance soon led to the smitten Ms. Milani imploring the good professor to fly to South America where she was on a photo shoot so that they could finally meet in person—and act on the mutual passions they’d aroused or plan their wedding or whatever.

The professor immediately hopped a plane to the specified destination. (Do a Google image search of “Denise Milani” to understand why.) Soon after arriving he received a very apologetic message from Milani, telling him she had had to fly to Europe on short notice, and asking him to please join her there instead. Oh, and also, in her rush she had left behind her suitcase, which she would arrange for someone to drop off with him so he could bring it along when he came to her.

So the professor—after a stranger dropped off a nondescript suitcase—set off to yet another continent as instructed. (Again, go back to that Google search to understand why.)

Unfortunately he never made it, as he was arrested at the airport when the suitcase in his possession was discovered to be full of illegal narcotics.

So apparently the ruse was to trick into being a drug mule someone who was less likely to arouse suspicion and be searched than anyone else they had available. It just happened to fail.

My only criticism of Konnikova’s telling of the story (well, besides the lack of Milani photos) is that because she tends to tell her stories from the victim’s perspective, so as to convey what he thought was happening and to not give away the ending, it wasn’t at all clear to me if she meant Milani conned him or someone pretending to be Milani conned him.

Certainly the latter seemed far more likely. Milani—though Konnikova doesn’t acknowledge this and may or may not be aware of it—is quite famous, at least in certain circles. Not that that rules out her also being a con artist, but it would be like Ariana Grande or the like showing up on a dating site and scamming guys. You wouldn’t think someone so easily identifiable would risk involvement in something like that, especially given that she has other ways to make a lot more money anyway.

And a little online browsing reveals that, indeed, Milani had nothing to do with it, and in fact when she found out about it she was scared of the crooked drug dealers potentially coming after her. (Online browsing also turned up some fascinating debates about whether her tits are real or have been augmented. Interesting where researching these essays sometimes takes me.)

Often the cons involve letting the victim win for a while to better suck him in and get him comfortable risking more and more, and then lowering the boom on him when he’s most overextended. Think pool hustling.

But an upshot of that is that in principle you could time your pulling out of such a con in such a way as to come out well ahead of where you would be if you never had gotten involved at all. Most people don’t of course, but they could.

One situation I was personally involved in that’s kind of like that involves sportsbetting. Since betting on sports is illegal in most of the United States (sort of—it’s complicated, and not worth getting into the nuance here), many bookies have set up shop offshore, where they take wagers by phone and online. I made a (modest) living betting sports with such entities for many years, so I’m very familiar with that world, or at least I was back then.

One of the major problems you deal with as a bettor, as a sportsbook customer, in that situation is that these sportsbooks are almost entirely unregulated. You have to trust them, and especially if you are a newbie to this world, you know very little about who has what reputation and such—they’re all pretty much total strangers to you.

Not to mention, unlike the bulk of traditional neighborhood bookies, they rarely allow you to bet on credit; you can only bet up to whatever amount of your money you send them to hold in your account.

And really it wasn’t at all uncommon for these sportsbooks to pull up stakes and disappear, meaning any money you might have on account with them was gone as well. My read on the situation is that the majority of the time they went broke and so were unable to any longer pay their customers, but I’m sure a certain percentage of them were out-and-out scams from the beginning and made off with plenty of money. But in either case, you’re screwed.

OK, so let’s say you get to know that world fairly well, and you know the handful of sportsbooks that are—by all evidence—solid and therefore highly unlikely to ever be unable or unwilling to pay you money they owe you, and so those are the places you primarily play. And along comes one of the many, many new sportsbooks that pop up. Is there any reason to deposit money with this new sportsbook?

The obvious answer is of course not, as the likelihood is much higher you’ll be robbed there than at one of the established sportsbooks where you’re already playing. But consider a number of factors:

One, all else being equal, the more accounts you have the better, since it enables you to shop betting lines and such. (If you don’t know what that means, just think of it as different sportsbooks having different betting opportunities available—some more advantageous than others in various circumstances.)

Two, new books especially are apt to offer a lot of perks to generate business. They often offer the highest deposit bonuses—e.g., send them $1,000 and they’ll credit your account with $1,200 instead—a 20% bonus. Or maybe they’ll reduce the vigorish that bettors have to pay on their wagers—for instance, instead of putting up $110 to win $100 on a standard wager, perhaps you only have to put up $107 or $105. Some of these perks can really add up if you know how to use them.

Three, even if you think a given sportsbook is a higher risk than certain others to be crooked or incompetent enough to eventually disappear into the night leaving their customers high and dry, you can still be pretty confident of when that is most and least likely to happen. It’s not a guarantee, but a sportsbook will almost never close up during a time of year when customers tend to make a lot of deposits in expectation of wagering. For example, lots of deposits tend to come in during August and early September just before the start of the NFL season, since that’s such a huge betting sport. You’ll also see a lot of deposits around December and into January, as people load their accounts in order to be able to bet the NFL playoffs and especially the Super Bowl, and the college football bowl games and playoffs. A sportsbook going belly up on August 25 or December 28 is highly unlikely, as they would then miss out on many of those deposits. Whereas if it’s the day after the Super Bowl and the bulk of the customers want to withdraw their money, or it’s April or some time when there’s comparatively a lot less going on sportswise, that’s when there’s the highest risk you’ll call your offshore sportsbook and discover the phones have been disconnected.

So if you put all that together, you could potentially do pretty well by hitting the startup sportsbooks as early as possible, and getting out before a time of year when a sportsbook is likely to be facing far more withdrawal requests than deposits. After all, a sportsbook, no matter how incompetent or crooked, is highly unlikely to shut down a month or two after opening its virtual doors, when it hasn’t even yet received the bulk of the deposits it can expect as it becomes established and better known.

And in fact, I knew plenty of people who played precisely that game. Sure, they’d get burned here and there, but if they opened 50 accounts at various shaky or obscure sportsbooks over a certain time period, made an average of $1,000 from each one through their various perks, and got robbed of an average of $5,000 each by the three out of 50 such sportsbooks that went under before they succeeded in getting their money out, they came out substantially ahead. (Insert, “Don’t try this at home” disclaimer here.)

One other quick point I wanted to be sure to make—because it’s something I thought about many times as I read The Confidence Game—is that Konnikova comes across as far more forgiving than I toward “legal” scams.

That is, she often contrasts allegedly legitimate and illegitimate uses of some of the same skills and tactics. So she’ll point out that con artists engage in criminal deceptive behavior that overlaps a great deal with legal behavior like campaigning for political office or marketing.

Yeah, the overlap is close to total, in fact. But to me that doesn’t mean that there are objectionable and unobjectionable uses of our ability to manipulate each other; it means that plenty of folks and plenty of behavior that is legal and that much of society looks upon as perfectly respectable is in fact utterly reprehensible.

Damn right advertisers behave like con artists. That’s because they are con artists, con artists who happen to be fortunate enough to operate in a corrupt society that doesn’t realize how odious they are compared to certain other con artists.

There are many keys to a successful con, Konnikova points out. One is to have an emotionally compelling story. If people are caught up in the story, they tend not to examine it as closely for logical consistency, plausibility, and such.

Another key is to know when to strike, and to strike fast. You want people to make impulsive decisions, in the emotion of the moment. So you typically want to set it up to where there’s no reasonable opportunity to reflect—you must act now or miss your chance.

In general, psychologically, emotions like preferences and loyalty are more locked in than beliefs. It’s generally more important for the con man to get you to like him than to believe him. If he can manipulate you into liking him, seeing him as “one of you” rather than “one of them,” perhaps perceiving him as resembling yourself in certain respects, the beliefs will follow.

In fact, once the victim is won over emotionally, even when the evidence becomes overwhelming that they’re being conned, there’s a very good chance they will remain loyal to the con man. Time and time again, those who have been ripped off—e.g., by somebody running a Ponzi scheme, by a phony faith healer pretending to be of their religion, whatever—remain the con artists’ most fervent defenders to the end.

Though here, as Konnikova points out, there’s an additional psychological factor at work besides the personal connection they might feel with the crook. This factor has to do with our natural tendency to overrate ourselves, and to not want to admit mistakes.

Consider phenomena like the “Lake Wobegon Effect” (named for Garrison Keillor’s fictional town where all the children are above average).

You’d think with all the handwringing about low self-esteem, and all the exhortations to somehow get people to think more positively about themselves and have more confidence about their capabilities and the future that is possible for them, that we must be a species mired in self-doubt and unrealistically pessimistic self-assessments. But it has always been my observation—and the psychology research supports this—that people are far, far more likely to have overinflated opinions about themselves than to underrate themselves.

How many people are convinced they are stupid? Ugly? Lack a sense of humor? Unkind? Even if someone does acknowledge a weakness, it’s very rare their assessment is anything worse than that they are “average” in that area. (And if they do regard something about themselves that way, they are immediately assured by their family member, friend, therapist, whatever of just how mistaken they are. “Heavens, Eleanor, you’re certainly not ‘average looking’! You’re a lovely woman!”)

Actually, in thinking about it a little more deeply, I wonder if the research slightly overstates this tendency. That is, when people say what they say about themselves, is that truly a reflection of what they believe, or are they just saying what they’ve learned is advantageous or considered appropriate? Konnikova notes, for instance, that when people are asked something like “What do you regard as your greatest flaw?” they typically struggle to come up with anything, or they identify a “flaw” that’s more of a humblebrag—e.g., “I’m too much of a perfectionist,” “I care too much about people,” etc. But it strikes me that the contexts for questions like that—a political debate, a job interview, whatever—are ritualistic circumstances wherein people say what they think they’re supposed to say rather than speaking sincerely.

But anyway, that aside, certainly in general we’re pretty full of ourselves. We exaggerate our good points, play down or are unaware of our bad points, assume we deserve credit when things go well, and easily find explanations other than any failings in ourselves when things go poorly.

One upshot of this is that we overrate how savvy we are about cons. We assume we’re wiser in our decisions than most, better at spotting liars, etc. There are precious few people who ever respond to a con with, “Well, this sounds really good, but I’m frankly not very bright, and I’ve gotten burned in the past, so chances are this guy is trying to get over on me in some way I’m not able to understand. I better pass.”

Then once a person has been taken, even if the evidence mounts that they’re dealing with a crook, it’s human nature not to admit it, including to oneself. Realizing that they’ve been had doesn’t fit their rosy self-assessment, so the idea doesn’t compute.

It is a truism that rapes tend to go unreported to an alarming degree due to victims anticipating that they’ll be mistreated by the court system and such, but while there’s something to that, I think a lot of it is explained instead by the broader psychological phenomenon that people tend to be embarrassed when they “allow” themselves to be victimized in general. One of the best things con artists have going for them is that even the few victims who finally admit to themselves that they’ve been cheated often will not then admit it to anyone else.

Konnikova emphasizes that any of us can fall prey to a con—the reader just as much as anyone else—that it happens to rich or poor, educated or uneducated, young or old, male or female, etc. If anything, thinking you’re too clever to be vulnerable is a major red flag.

No doubt that’s true in a sense, that people of all types get taken in. But I tend to think she’s overstating her case, and indeed not taking fully into account what she herself implies about certain traits that can make people more prone to being victimized.

I still say stupidity, naiveté, etc. are big factors in the likelihood of one being conned.

Konnikova gives at least as much emphasis to trustfulness and optimism. And the interesting thing, as she points out, is that while traits like these might be disadvantageous as far as vulnerability to con artists, they may well still be advantageous overall.

There is reason to think that being trustful and optimistic (more trustful and more optimistic than the evidence favors, that is), and succumbing to the Lake Wobegon Effect and the like, has been favored by evolution. Studies have shown that on average, not only do people who are very cynical and pessimistic and assume everyone is looking to screw them over tend to be less happy and do less well in life than cockeyed optimists, but so do realists who have a more or less accurate view of the world and their fellow humans.

How can they be more prone to being ripped off by con men, and yet still come out ahead? Think of it like this: You have a choice between accepting a $50,000 a year job with a company that has certain red flags that indicate they might be crooks who will ultimately rip off their employees, or a $35,000 a year job with a company that does not have such red flags.

If you are good at spotting the red flags you might well go with the second job. But let’s say there’s a 15% chance of losing a few thousand dollars when the first company goes under and doesn’t pay you whatever money you still have coming from them, and only a 5% chance that something like that will happen with the second company, and that the difference in pay is sufficient to outweigh the higher risk. In that case you’d actually be hurting yourself by taking the lower paying job instead of the job with the company that seems more likely to cheat you.

But don’t think of it as a cost-benefit analysis like that, because really that’s no different from the shady offshore bookie case I described earlier. The point is not that the optimist is good at doing cost-benefit analyses and so determines that the second job is the better prospect, but that the optimist is blissfully unaware of any red flags and any reason to do such an analysis. It’s just that the result is the same. If you were a naïve optimist like that, you’d make the same decision about which job to take as the person doing the accurate cost-benefit analysis.

And then you go through life, and you multiply that example by all the similar situations that arise (even including those where taken individually the cost-benefit analysis would favor the safer course that avoids the potential con), and in the end the optimist has been cheated more than the realist but also has received more benefits, with the latter outweighing the former.

I’m not sure how much I really believe that research, by the way. I mean, in some narrow sense I suppose it’s more likely accurate than inaccurate, but I still am skeptical of the value of false beliefs, especially collectively and especially in the long run. That is, I could see, maybe, an individual being happier if they have some comforting belief in God, a lack of awareness of their spouse’s infidelity, and on and on, but I suspect being an uncritical thinker like that is still apt to bite you in the ass one way or another in the long run, plus I think however it works out for a given individual, the world as a whole is better off the more people base their behavior (such as how they vote, etc.) on reality and not on comforting fictions.

Not to mention that even if it turns out that taking all that into account the deluded folks tend to be happier, I’d still favor realism, because I don’t think truth has only an instrumental value (or disvalue) insofar as it promotes happiness or some other desired consequence. I agree with Bertrand Russell, who both asserted that having true beliefs and avoiding false beliefs has intrinsic value, and who when asked if he would prefer to be more intelligent or happier, unhesitatingly responded that he’d much rather be more intelligent.

But, yes, while it may be true that in some sense everyone could potentially fall victim to a con artist, there are certainly traits people have that make them vulnerable to that to different degrees.

Konnikova points out, though, that if anything circumstances are more important in determining such vulnerability than are any individual traits like that. Who is most likely to be conned? Who do skilled con artists tend to pick out as the most promising folks to go after? Those who are in financially panicky circumstances, depressed, lonely, stressed, distracted, etc.

Finally, given all that Konnikova says about how we all naturally overrate our ability to avoid being conned, how we all think we’re so much more savvy than we really are and all that, how would I rate myself in this area?

I’ll start by describing my experiences with cons so far in my life. Like everyone I’m sure I’ve been ripped off in minor ways countless times, most of which I’ve long since forgotten, but I can think of two experiences that best fit the classic model of being cheated by a con artist. (Bear in mind, though, that as Konnikova says, the most successful cons are the ones you have no idea you fell victim to. By hypothesis I can’t tell of any of those I’ve experienced.)

When I was a teenager, one of my first ever jobs was at a bar and grill in downtown Cincinnati. There was a guy I’d seen hanging out at the bar semi-regularly, and I’d been told he was a bookie or worked for a bookie. I asked him if I could make some NFL bets with him. He agreed.

That Friday evening I sought him out at the bar. I had written up the bets I wanted to make, and I gave him the sheet of paper. There were something like a dozen plays, for $50 each. At the time my entire net worth was a few hundred dollars, so these were big bets for me. (Recklessly big in fact. Though I would later actually make a living sportsbetting, I was basically still a kid then, with no more than a reasonably well-informed fan’s knowledge of football, and really no knowledge or experience of the various skills necessary to wager successfully, such as money management.)

He looked over the sheet, and then asked me for the money. I was surprised, because my vague impression (which in fact is true) is that most local bookies like that do their business in credit—they pay you after you win, and you pay them after you lose, with neither party having to put up money in advance. I told him I hadn’t realized I’d need to pay up front in order to bet, and that certainly I didn’t have that kind of money on me. He said something like, “What are you talking about? I don’t know you from a tube of toothpaste! If you want me to put these bets in for you, I’m gonna have to see some money!”

He told me that if I brought him the money the next night (Saturday—the games were on Sunday), he’d place the bets for me.

So the next day I got what money I could—which wasn’t much since the bank was closed—and brought it to work with me. I figured I’d either cancel the bets or maybe pick the one or two I liked best that I had enough money for and just play those.

There was no sign of him. I asked around, but no one had seen him or had a phone number for him or anything.

Just as well, because those particular picks did really poorly. I went something like 3-9. I figured I’d dodged a bullet.

So I’m working a couple days later, and I’m told there’s a phone call for me. It’s the bookie guy. “I just wanted to let you know, I decided to trust you and put those bets in for you. I wouldn’t normally do that, but you seem like an OK guy and I know where you work and everything, so I doubt you’re just going to disappear. I’ll be down at the bar tomorrow night. Come see me and we’ll settle up.”

OK, even at that tender age I knew exactly what was going on, or at least I knew what was highly likely. He had purposely not shown up on Saturday so that he could create and exploit an ambiguity about the wagers. He waited to see how the games came out, and then if I won of course he could say the bets were never placed since we never connected in advance to exchange the necessary money, whereas if I lost then he could pretend the bets had been accepted—and in fact he’d gone out on a limb for me and trusted me—and so I owed him.

Strongly suspecting I was being cheated, I could have told him to pound sand and paid him nothing. But I chose to pay him (what, again, was a very large sum of money at that point in my life) for multiple reasons. I don’t recall thinking that as a bookie he might be connected with organized crime and so if I didn’t pay I might be at risk of violence or anything like that, so that really wasn’t a factor, or at most it was a very minor one. What I remember being influenced by was, one, he’d tell everybody I’d welched and that would be a terrible reputation to get where I worked (even though really I wouldn’t be welching, since there had never been any legitimate accepted bets), and, two, I wanted to be able to continue to bet football, and it’s not like at that time I had any other options.

So I paid him the money I really didn’t owe him, which was the bulk of my “bankroll,” and as it turned out I only lasted maybe two or three weeks beyond that before I was tapped out and had to quit.

Example number two: Shortly after moving to New Orleans—this is a year or two after the bookie incident, so I was still very young—I was walking down Canal Street and I came upon a classic three-card monte game. I watched for two or three minutes. The operator was slapping the cards around quickly, but not too quickly to keep up with. There were two people playing, putting down $20 wagers each time. They seemed to pick the right card half or so of the time, so they weren’t really winning or losing much.

Well, I knew it was crooked. I don’t recall if I also realized that the two players were almost certainly confederates, making it look like it was at least possible to win if one paid close attention, but I was familiar with three-card monte games (though this was the first time I’d seen one in person), and I knew quite well that it was set up to be impossible to win, that through sleight of hand the object card was removed and replaced such that whichever of the three you picked you were always wrong. (Obviously it wasn’t slipped off the table during the games I happened to watch, but that’s how you know those were confederates and so it wasn’t a “real” game.)

I decided to take a shot. Why in the world would I do that, given the preceding paragraph? Believe it or not, it was because of television.

One of my favorite shows as a kid was Lost in Space. There was an episode on that show where some alien was running a version of the three-card monte (I think the ball and cups version). The alien successfully enticed the protagonist of the series, the space colonist/astronaut/Robinson family patriarch John Robinson, to try his hand at the game.

Robinson agreed. What the alien didn’t realize is that Robinson planned to trick the trickster. When the alien stopped shuffling the cups and invited Robinson to guess which one the ball was under, Robinson smiled triumphantly and immediately reached out with both hands and placed them over the outside two cups, saying “The one in the middle!” Of course the ball was under none of the three since the alien had surreptitiously slipped it off the table, but he was trapped. If he turned over the middle cup there would be no ball there, but since Robinson was holding the other two cups down he would not be able to slip the ball under one of those, and so once Robinson then lifted them it would be revealed that the ball had been under none of the three and the alien had been cheating. So he angrily paid off the bet (or pulled a gun or something—I don’t remember).

So I figured that’s exactly what I would do. I would place my hands over two of the cards, call out that I was picking the other one, and the operator would be stuck just like the alien had been, since the object card wouldn’t in fact be any of the three but he wouldn’t want to reveal that.

I walked up to the table and put down my money. (The one good thing is I had almost no money on me. I think I had $8 or something, so that’s what I put down. He gruffly told me it was a $20 minimum. I shrugged and reached for the money, telling him I didn’t have $20. Before I could reclaim my $8, he said, “OK, OK, eight dollars!” and started maneuvering the cards.)

And it was then I discovered the flaw in my clever plan: The table was way too wide. It would have been difficult or impossible to reach far enough across it to suddenly cover two of the cards; I might have even had to walk around the table to his side to get close enough. It was just too physically and socially awkward or impossible to get at the cards. I realized I was beaten as the cards came to a stop. My only hope was that I was mistaken in assuming he’d slipped the object card off the table, and that maybe instead he simply had maneuvered it so that instead of the one it seemed “obvious” it was if you had been watching his hands at all closely, it was really one of the other two. I hesitated, and then meekly and tentatively pointed to one of those two cards that it hadn’t looked at all like would be the object card. He quickly flipped it over, showing it was the wrong card, then flipped a different one over—that he had just slipped back on the table I’m sure—showing that that was the object card, and there went my $8.

One thing that’s interesting about both cases is that I pretty much knew while they were happening that I was being conned. So in that sense I wasn’t even fooled. I lost my money because, in the first case I thought I was better off absorbing the short term loss because of other longer term considerations, and, in the second case, because I had a plan to defeat the con.

But anyway, in answer to the question of how vulnerable I think I am to being conned, in spite of the fact that I know of at least two cases where I was cheated like that, and in spite of the repeated warnings from Konnikova that it’s delusional to think we’re somehow too sharp to get taken, I would say my ability to avoid being conned is quite good. With 10 being the person least likely to ever fall prey to a con, and 1 being the most clueless rube who ever walked the Earth, I would put myself at about an 8.

Why? Well there are a number of factors. On the plus side is intelligence, and the ability to think critically and logically in general. I’m quite good at actually perceiving reality rather than succumbing to wishful thinking or related fallacies, which as noted above is good for avoiding cons (though allegedly at least mildly bad for having a happy and successful life in general).

On the other hand, I suspect IQ alone is a smaller factor than relevant life experience, and there I would give myself only a more middling grade. By now I’ve lived enough and observed enough in varied enough environments (including all those years dealing with bookies and gamblers and associated third parties as a sportsbettor, and significant time in a prison as a volunteer) that I’m far, far less naïve than I was in the two incidents I described above where I was cheated as a youth. Yet at the same time I recognize that in a lot of ways I’ve always been more shy than not, and less social than most people, and so really I haven’t interacted with nearly as many people and picked up on the “ways of the world” nearly as much as someone my age could have.

But put it all together and I still suspect I’m well above average as far as savviness about being conned. (And somewhere Maria Konnikova is smiling and rolling her eyes.)


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