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142 MIN READ TIME

Cons

BY MARIA KONNIKOVA

WHENEVER PEOPLE ASK ME IF I’VE EVER BEEN CONNED, I tell them the truth: I have no idea. I’ve never given money to a Ponzi scheme or gotten tripped up on an unwinnable game of three-card monte—that much I know. And there have been some smaller deceptions I’ve certainly fallen for—though whether they qualify as full-fledged cons is a matter of dispute. But here’s the thing about cons: the best of them are never discovered. We don’t ever realize we’ve fallen; we simply write our loss off as a matter of bad luck.

Magicians often resist showing the same trick twice. Once the element of surprise is gone, the audience becomes free to pay attention to everything else—and is thus much more likely to spot the ruse. But the best tricks can be repeated ad infinitum. They are so well-honed that there is practically no deception to spot. Harry Houdini, the magician and famed exposer of frauds, boasted that he could figure out any trick once he’d thrice seen it. One evening at Chicago’s Great Northern Hotel, the story goes, a fellow conjurer, Dai Vernon, approached him with a card trick. Vernon removed a card from the top of the deck and asked Houdini to initial it—an “H.H.” in the corner. The card was then placed in the middle of the deck. Vernon snapped his fingers. It was a miracle. The top card in the deck was now Houdini’s. It was, as the name of the routine suggests, an “ambitious card.” No matter where you put it, it rose to the top. Seven times Vernon demonstrated, and seven times Houdini was stumped. The truly clever trick needs no hiding. (In this case, it was a sleight-of-hand effect that is often performed by skilled magicians today but was, back then, a novelty.)

When it comes to cons, the exact same principle holds. The best confidence games remain below the radar. They are never prosecuted because they are never detected. It’s not uncommon, in fact, for the same person to fall for the exact same con multiple times. James Franklin Norfleet, a Texas rancher, lost first $20,000, and then, in short order, $25,000, to the exact same racket and the exact same gang. He’d never realized the first go-around was a scam.

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