Big Friday sale

Billion Dollar Bunko by Simon Lovell

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii July, 2005)


The prolific Simon Lovell, having by now provided a video, lecture notes, magic lecture, and/or convention appearance for the equivalent of every man, woman, and child in the western hemisphere (or so it seems), now comes forth with this sizeable volume, a compendium of cons, hustles, prop bets and bar betchas, cheating methods with cards and dice, crooked carnival games, and other matters phony and fraudulent. Written in a fanciful style around the conceit of an obviously fictional character, Freddy the Fox, whose remarkable abilities and exploits are often included in detours from the various explanations, the lighthearted tone will be pleasing to some readers and grating to others. Since it will be obvious to any reader beyond the third grade that the character of Freddy is indeed a fiction a fact not formally announced by the author until the book's close I confess to finding my patience tested at times when reading the claims and adventures of an imaginary character. One wonders what purpose it serves, beyond preventing the reader from getting to the core of the facts, unless of course one finds such diversions entertaining which for some might certainly be the case.

The book tackles an ambitious array of material divided into seven sections: Bar Bets; Some Bigger Hustles; Unfairgrounds and Crooked Carnivals; More Street Cons and Others; Cheating at Cards; Cheating with Dice; and Sneaky Ways to Beat the System, with hundreds of individual items all told. A major highlight of the book is the full-page pen-and-ink panels of "sequential art" drawn (and mostly written) by Alan Wassilak, that separate the content sections; done in a mock-lurid pulp comic style, these marvelous sheets are beautifully done and constitute my single favorite feature. (The dustjacket design is also clever.)

The project certainly deserves some credit for sheer quantity. There are more than 30 entries just in the opening section on bar bets, including a lengthy discussion of how to compute odds. There are nine major entries in the next section, "Some Bigger Hustles," which includes fairly thorough write-ups on well known scams including the Drunken Paw (perhaps better known as the Drunken Mitt), Monte, and the Shell Game. The Carnival Game section covers many interesting items, and no doubt thanks to acknowledged expert Bruce Walstad, is mostly accurate; readers are advised to pay close attention to the real work he provides on the Bushel Baskets game, which is not widely known. And when we reach the section on cheating at cards, the book explodes into 19 broad items including dozens of specific entries. The book is huge.

But whether it is comprehensive is another question. Of course, for such a book to be a complete encyclopedia would likely require more than these 420 pages at hand. And then again, one must decide where to draw the line: How much detail do you provide in describing card moves? Should casino gambling (which Mr. Lovell explicitly excludes) be included? So the next question becomes, are the choices being made well organized and sensible? And, finally many would say, most importantly is the information accurate? The answers are fuzzy. One question to which I continually found myself returning as I read was: Who is this book for? And I was never able to come up with a clear and satisfactory answer.

The manner in which the prop bets and con games are described would suggest that the book is intended for the public. The whimsical style is not likely to go down well with serious researchers or experts in the field, nor is the relentless exaggeration. When I repeatedly am told about someone's reputed "god-like ability" I can only pray to be released from the god-like hyperbole. And what am Ito make of the deadpan claim that someone can do the shift "110 times in a minute without breaking a sweat," when not only do I not believe it, but I also know the claim is being made in the name of a fictional character!

Yet if the book is intended for the public, there is far too much detail in the explanations of, for example, the card and dice moves. Yet I also wonder for whom these explanations are precisely intended. There is too much detail for the layman, and not enough for the expert. Many of these explanations will, I believe, be virtually incomprehensible to laymen, especially in that there is a paltry quantity (and quality) of accompanying photographs. If you want to explain how a card move works so that a layman under-stands it, but you're not teaching him how to do it himself, then you need to provide photographs, and lots of them. This book does the opposite, providing lengthy text descriptions with a minimum of photographs, and often none at all. Imagine describing an overhand run-up to a layman without a photograph, when it's barely comprehensible to the average magician. Or how about a text-only description of the Up The Ladder Cut? Are you teaching us how to recognize it, or how to do it? If the goal is to recognize it, you need photos. If you're teaching it to magicians, you need an even more thorough explanation. The book often seems to me to be neither fish nor fowl—and at times I couldn't figure out what kind of beast it is at all. If you're going to describe the Pigeon Drop, why not describe the Jamaican Tourist, still a common contemporary scam right on the author's home turf of New York City. If you're going to talk about Internet scams, why is there no mention of the two most commons ones, namely the Nigerian or 419 fraud, and "phishing," probably the most costly and commonplace form of internet identity theft currently on the scene?

And then, at last, there is the issue of accuracy. While there is undeniably a great deal of information in this book, and some of it is certainly accurate, much is also not. A tremendous amount of the material has clearly been culled from the existing literature, much of which is decades, and sometimes a century or more, old. Do we really need to see those pages from the K.C. Card Co. catalog, now going on half a century old, reproduced yet again? The popular literature is rife with misinformation and legend, much of which is endlessly recycled and repeated, and this book does little to separate the wheat from the chaff. Not only is much of the con man's lingo outdated, but to further complicate matters, the author appears to make up his own terms at times, without informing the reader. And what's more, there are simple statements delivered as fact that are, equally simply, wrong.

You might "ring in a cooler" or "cool a deck," but you do not "drop" a cooler. A shiner or glim or other reflecting device has never, to the best of my knowledge or any other expert I've spoken with, been called a "twinkle," other than by this author. I have never heard of "spinging." Are some of these Britishisms? If so, readers deserve to be told as much, but in fact, I believe they are mostly pure invention by the author in which case we should certainly be told as much. "Capping" the deck means to both hustlers and magicians to secretly add cards, not to take them away; "copping" means to take cards away. The carnival game commonly known as "Swinger," here called "Swinging Times," is a kind of "alibi game," a common bit of jargon that nevertheless doesn't even appear in this book. (An alibi game is one in which the operator or agent will use an alibi to explain why the player didn't win, or to avoid giving a big prize; the Bushel Baskets is yet another example.) Cutout work is not referred to as "cut outs" or, for that matter, "dandruff." The term "mechanic's deck" precedes John Scarne; most of his published work came after 1940, the year the term was used (but not introduced) in Hugard and Braue's Expert Card Technique. In monte, a shill may ask a mark to bet his money for him, but only at a more elaborate monte operation, such as "truck stop monte," but this does not happen at simple street-side games; the author does not provide the distinction, however, and in fact, the truck stop version, a distinct cur-rent variant, is not mentioned. The manner in which players are roped into a "count store" like razzle is described incorrectly; the operator does not merely stand there calling with balls in hand, but will offer a free toss and get the count going quickly, demonstrating that the player is headed toward a win. The operator most often does not know the number by rapidly counting the balls, but instead knows the number he intends to get to, and then false counts rap-idly regardless of what is actually rolled.

What the author refers to as "ruse entry" is, in law enforcement circles, generally known as "home invasion" or "residential burglary." But let's move far beyond the jargon: The author states unequivocally that this is a federal offense. In fact, there is simply no such federal statute.

Then there are the unsupported assertions. The Bank Examiner con is one of the "top ten cons being played today." Okay. According to whom? There's that old chest-nut about finding loaded dice in Pompei. There's speculation about heavier spot paint possibly influencing the roll of a die, and don't forget that when flipping a coin, "the tail side has stronger design giving it more weight." Uh-huh, sure, and you betcha! Who's the mark here—the reader? The author? And there's the statement that the author once witnessed "over a thousand dollars lost at" the 10-Card Poker Deal. Well, okay. If you believe everything else in the book, I guess you can believe that as well. But under the circumstances, that's a mighty big if. For that matter, the author is always ordering coffee.

I don't really mean to beat up on Simon Lovell here; I'm a longtime fan of his work as a performer, writer, and all around great character (and one of the sharpest eyes for performance notes I've ever known). But neither is this mere pedantry on my part. Yet there is also plenty in this book that is fun to read and handy to have. The tips and recommendations at the end of each section, on what to look out for, are generally cogent and on point. Although there are lots of sources for bar betchas and proposition bets, if you're looking for the kind of stuff you can use, this is a first rate source. Some of it you'll already know, of course, but if you're hanging around poker players (and who isn't, these days?), you'll want to read Mr. Lovell's ready supply of quite useable poker-related prop bets. If you have a light interest in the world of scams and con games, this is a handy broad reference guide, especially if you garnish some of the commentary with an occasional grain of salt. Unfortunately, the book lacks an index, which severely limits its use as a handy reference, although the table of contents is fairly detailed. If you're a magician who wants to learn how to do these techniques, there are other sources more tightly aimed at that purpose. If you're a knowledgeable person about these subjects, or you're more interested in the meat without the frou-frou pota-toes, you'll want more rigorous and straightforward source material, intended for the law enforcement community. Classic titles like The American Confidence Man by David Maurer, and many others, are available from the Gambler's Book Shop in Las Vegas, and law enforcement materials are available from, for example, Professionals Against Confidence Crime. (The aforementioned Bruce Walstad is a board member of PACC, and I have had the privilege of lecturing on street scams at their annual conference.)

My advice: If you want a scrupulous up-to-date reference, this is not the book. If you want to be entertained, and learn something about cons and cheats along the way, and get some sound advice on how to avoid being a victim which is within the book's claims for itself then buy the book. But count your change, and don't take any wooden nickels.

Billion Dollar Bunko • Simon Lovell • 8" x 11" hardbound w/laminated dustjacket; 456 pages illustrated with photographs plus 7 full-page pen-&-ink panels by Alan Wassilak • L&L Publishing