NEW YORK — In the heart of Times Square, where three-card monte dealers prey on tourists and natives alike, city officials Tuesday announced a crackdown on one of the world's most enduring con games.
Stern-faced bureaucrats commandeered a concrete island on Broadway and declared it was time for Operation Strong Hand.
City and community leaders, joined by a sinister-looking professional magician who demonstrated the illegal gambling game, said they plan to rid the area of three-card monte.
They made the announcement under a banner hung between 45th and 46th streets and said it was the start of a public awareness and law enforcement campaign. Posters and handbills warning about the game will be distributed. Police plan periodic surprise sweeps of dealers in the area.
Even the huge Sony Jumbotron TV screen overlooking Times Square will urge people not to play.
"The only way you win is not to play," said Bill Daly, who works for Mayor David N. Dinkins.
Three-card monte--the name dates from 1854--usually involves three regular playing cards, two black, one red, usually the ace of hearts. The dealer shuffles the cards and challenges the player to bet on one card's location.
Using shills and lookouts and patter like "it ain't no guess, just an eye test," the three-card monte gangs make thousands of dollars a day.
"Five'll get you 10, 10'll get you 20," goes the familiar lingo. "Red you win, black you lose, careful how you choose."
The key is illusion, according to Jamy Ian Swiss, a professional magician and card expert who demonstrated the game to reporters. Swiss said victims think they're tracking the crucial red card but in fact their eyes are a few seconds slower than the dealers' hands.
"This is a game of sleight of hand," Swiss said. "They've been playing it for 140 years and no one's won yet. If you do happen to win they'll mug you before you get off the block. It's a sucker's bet."
The three-card monte gangs lure customers with shills, usually dressed up as tourists or businessmen, who pretend to play the game and win.
But the dealers were conspicuously absent Tuesday.
Keith Bishop, 36, an intercom installer, joined the onlookers watching the three-card monte demonstration Tuesday. He said he was curious because he had once lost $60 playing the game.
"I just stopped once to try because it seemed like I could win," said Bishop. "Man, I felt real stupid all over afterward. I felt like a sucker."