Three Card Monte
Battle Mountain, Nevada - 1875

This incident happened in Battle Mountain but the game was played around most railroad stations in the American West. Card sharps and crooks set up shop and waited for victims to arrive on west bound Central Pacific RR passenger trains. Various scams caused many travelers to arrive at their final destination without a cent to their names. Gamblers stripping people of their money was a large problem and railroad companies hired detectives to shut them down. They were seldom successful.

This is the way Three Card Monte works. After showing the victim the cards, the dealer spread two aces and a queen face down, He bet the player he couldn't pick out the queen. The victim knew where the queen was - he watched carefully while the dealer manipulated the three cards. He pointed to a card with confidence only to find he had picked one of the aces.

A variation of the game used a couple of confederates called "cappers." They befriended a sucker and told him they would bend the queen making the choice a cinch. This, of course, appealed to the victim who didn't know that the dealer would take the bend out of the queen and put one on an ace. Sometimes the dealer, to attract players, offered to ante up for the first game. The cards went round and round. The sucker won. The instant winner couldn't resist making another bet. He lost. He then bet some of his own money and won. The hook was set. The excitement of winning took over. He bet again and lost. He put down more money and lost. We all know the end of the incident. His cash was soon gone. Too late he learned a valuable lesson of life. 

Now to Battle Mountain in 1875. The Central Pacific train stopped for water and to take on wood. Passengers had time to eat - and be taken to the cleaners. 

Cappers quickly spotted a short, fat man with a carpet bag and knew they had found their perfect victim. The little man had to be an immigrant and "greenhorn." One handed him a $20 gold piece and asked him to join their game and make a bet.

Reluctantly agreeing, the man, a German, walked over to the game and put down the gold piece. He picked the queen and now had $40. Instead of making another wager, the man picked up the money and walked away. The cappers immediately confronted him. They insisted he return to the game and make more bets so he could win a fortune.

He shook them away, stepped back and pulled a huge Dragoon pistol from inside his coat. The little fellow cocked the gun, aimed it toward the gamblers saying, "You speak mit me, I put you so tam full of holes, you don't know what yu are! I am an old Californian and I know all about your tam tricks. You take me for an immigrant, you make fools mit yourselves!"

Scamming of all kinds in railroad towns became such a great problem in the state that the Nevada Legislature soon passed several bills outlawing the practice. Probably didn't help the situation. Do laws ever completely solve shady or downright illegal activities?

Source: Pioneer Nevada - Volume Two, published by Harolds Club, Reno, 1966, Fourth Printing, copyright 1956.

©Copyright 2006 by Howard Hickson

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