Why Did The Policeman Cross the Road?

By Stevyn Colgan

Not so much police intelligence as intelligent policing

The Wizard of Waltham Forest

‘Roll up! Try your luck! Find the lady and win big money!’

I follow the voice. I’m not familiar enough with the various accents of Eastern Europe to tell if the speaker is Polish, Romanian or from the Ukraine. Maybe he’s Russian? There is a smile that comes with the voice, a big toothy nicotine grin that makes him sound like an affable Bond villain delivering an expository soliloquy before yanking the secret handle that sends 007 sliding down into the shark tank below.

‘Try your luck sir! Madam! All you have to do is find the lady!’

He’s standing behind a makeshift table made from two stacked milk crates and a sheet of corrugated cardboard. On the desktop lie three playing cards face up: two low denomination red suit cards and the Queen of Spades. He deftly flips the cards face down and shuffles them about. All you have to do, he explains, is identify which card is the Queen. Simplicity itself surely? After all, even blind luck would give you a one in three chance, wouldn’t it? But then our eyes meet and they momentarily lock. He sees something in me that sends alarm bells ringing inside him. I’m trying to look like an interested punter but maybe my interest is isn’t on the money. He’s sensed that I’m checking him out just a little too thoroughly. In an instant, the cards are whipped off the table and he’s off, running pell mell into the crowd of Wembley Market. I circulate a description on my radio but there’s little chance he’ll be caught. Every street gambler I’ve seen today is wearing non-descript clothing and there’s nothing stand-out about any of them. They know what they’re doing. They are masters of deceit.

Street gamblers are a significant problem in London. Despite the impression they give of likeable rogues trying to make a dishonest bob - like Del Boy and Rodney in Only Fools and Horses – very few operate in isolation.[1] Most are part of larger crime syndicates and the money they earn is used to fund other, more serious crimes. I’ve known teams that were funding drug deals and pirate DVD factories. And there was at least one that was involved in human trafficking under-aged girls into London to become involuntary sex workers. The saddest aspect of it all is that we, the great British public, pay for it albeit unknowingly.

Street gambling is an easy way to earn big money for little outlay. Using variations on the classic Three Card Trick – also known as Chase the Lady or Three Card Monte – a good card sharp can fleece upwards of £2000 from the punters on a good day. All tax free of course. And they’re buggers to catch because they’re well-organised and they pick their pitches with skill. A good pitch, like you’ll find on a busy shopping street or in a retail park, has lots of escape routes and the gamblers have lookouts posted. They can all disappear in an instant, having little or no equipment with them.[2] But, frustratingly, even if you do catch some of them, there’s not much incentive for them to quit. The fines they receive are easily affordable and just a small percentage of how much they can make on the street. Even short prison sentences don’t deter them. The risks are hugely outweighed by the spoils.

The Problem Solving Unit was asked to look at the problem of street gamblers in Northwest London and we were keen to get started. We knew that by cutting off these very lucrative revenue streams we’d be helping to prevent more serious crimes in the future. But, for me at least, putting them out of business was something more personal than just preventing illegal activity. I wanted them shut down because I can’t stand people who take advantage of others, especially when the victims are already having a tough time of it. After all, there is a reason why the Three Card Trick is called the Three Card Trick and not the Three Card Game. It’s a scam. And I really dislike scammers.

Officer Glenn Hester from the Glynn County Police Department, Brunswick, Georgia, is both a police officer and an expert magician. He’s been studying con artists and scams for many years and has written three books on the subject. He told me, ‘In gambling, there is a chance you can win. With this, there is no chance of your winning. Anyone found winning this game can be considered a secret player or a shill [3].’ He also explained to me that it’s a much more common crime than you’d think. ‘A lot of people feel ashamed and stupid for having been conned and therefore don’t report it. That’s frustrating because the crime goes unpunished and the offenders are left free to take others down the road. Even when people do report it they often lie about the details to save face. I remember one person reporting that they were robbed but the elements of a robbery just weren’t there when we looked. It turned out the victim was taken in by a Three Card Monte scam and had lost all of the company's money.’

The way that the scam works is that the street gambler will let punters (or a shill) win small amounts at first and then start to encourage higher and higher bets before cleaning up by way of sleight of hand and clever psychological trickery. It is loaded 100% on the side of the performer. Whatever you think, you are never going to win. However, the fact there are just three cards and all you have to do is pick the right one makes it look like the easiest game imaginable. We are taken in by the apparent simplicity.

There is a theory that every idea has its day. It’s called the Multiple Discovery Hypothesis and it says that very similar but entirely independent discoveries tend to happen around the same time. For example, chloroform was discovered in 1831 by three different scientists in three different countries, all working independently.[4] And Charles Darwin was pushed into publishing On the Origin of Species in 1859 because he found out that Alfred Russell Wallace had formulated the same theory at the same time. As Farkas Bolyai, the 18th century mathematician once said, ‘When the time is ripe for certain things, they appear at different places in the manner of violets coming to light in early spring.’

Why do I mention this? It’s because, in 2008, I experienced that very thing.

I was looking into the street gambling problem; traditional policing methods hadn’t worked and new thinking was needed. So I approached the problem as I always do, by stripping away the rumour, innuendo, supposition and guesswork and honing in on the root cause of the problem. And in doing so I discovered an uncomfortable truth; the problem with street gamblers isn’t just the gamblers – it’s the punters too. If there are no punters, there is no street gambling. But sadly there are legions of punters, many of them on desperately low incomes and hoping against hope for a big win to lift them out of debt, and they queue up daily to be victims. These are the people who suffer the most devastating losses. I wanted to protect them but in order to do so, I’d need to convince them to stop gambling, which would be no easy task. But then that I discovered that someone who’d had the same problem had already found a way to tackle it.

He’d hired a wizard.

Emanuele ‘Manny’ Faja is an extraordinary young man. Originally from Venice in Italy, his family moved to the UK when he was 10 but you’d never guess that from his pristine accent. And the reason I call him extraordinary is that he is so annoyingly good at so many things for someone so young.

When I first met him in 2008, he was still a teenager but he was already an accomplished musician, a talented photographer and a deep thinker. But it was his skill at sleight of hand that was a wonder to behold. Or not to behold, to be precise.

I’d arranged to meet him at a coffee shop in Leytonstone for a chat about his gambler-busting activities. But first, I asked him to demonstrate his skill with the Three Card Trick. He happily did so, firstly with the traditional playing cards and then with three black coasters, one of which had a white dot on it. He proved to be almost supernaturally good at it. We played for close to an hour and I failed on every single attempt to ‘find the lady’. Had we been betting at standard street gambling rates I’d have lost around £500. It was quite humbling to see how I easy I could be manipulated by a 19 year old. It made me appreciate how good professional card sharps are; some of them had been street gambling longer than Manny had been alive.

The reason we were meeting was because, six months previously, Manny had received a surprising letter from Waltham Forest Council asking if he would publicly demonstrate the Three Card Trick to shoppers at Leyton Mills Retail Park, a very large and very open plan shopping centre in Northeast London. ‘It came completely out of the blue’, he told me. ‘Apparently a police officer had seen me doing table magic in a pub and was impressed enough to suggest to the council that I demonstrate to shoppers that the Three Card Trick is a con trick.’ [5]

Manny told me that things didn’t go terribly smoothly on the first attempt. Flanked by council staff and uniformed Community Support Officers giving out leaflets, he had spent an entire day at Leyton Mills dressed as a wizard and proving to people that they couldn’t win. Unfortunately no one had thought to tell the local police so there was some confusion at first. And the arrival of camera crews and reporters eager to find out why a wizard was doing card tricks in a shopping centre only added to the chaos.[6] However, this was soon resolved and the day went on to be a big success. Manny didn’t once reveal to the shoppers how the trick was done, of course. But he did demonstrate very clearly that the whole thing is a scam. ‘People thought they could get one over on me but they couldn’t’, he told me. ‘If I don’t want you to win, you never will. I guess if you shut your eyes you could win by blind one in three chance. But, even then, I can usually steer you towards choosing the wrong card or disk. Even when people are shown how it’s done they still think that they can win because there are only three choices. Nobody thinks they can be fooled every time. But they can ... which is great news for magicians like me. It’s the perfect scam. You’ve effectively handed your money over before I even start.’[7]

He had since repeated the same performance (in less exotic attire) at a number of other popular street gambling venues on Walthamstow and Tower Hamlets boroughs. Everywhere he’d performed there had been a significant drop in the number of street gamblers and embarrassed punters who’d lost their shopping money. The obvious thing to do in my case was to swamp the area with wizards. Which is exactly what I did.

It proved to be just as successful as Manny’s efforts.

I recently read that a similar action took place in New York City back in the 1990s. On 42nd Street and Times Square as many as 120 ‘Three card Montys’ would set out their stores every morning to try to fleece the public. Eventually, a group of angry and law-abiding professional magicians decided that enough was enough. They set up their own stalls and, working alongside the NYPD, set out to educate the public. Local businesses funded the printing and distribution of some 50,000 leaflets warning people not to throw their money away. At the same time, a banner was hung from lampposts bearing the same message as the leaflets: ‘You can't win, you won't win, you will never win, so don't play the game.’

This ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’ approach to tackling crime can be used in a variety of ways. In 2013, a campaign called ‘Put-Pockets’, developed by Crimestoppers and advertising giant OgilvyOne,[8] saw Rob James and James Brown, professional magicians, and Richard Young, an ex-pickpocket, spending their working days in busy Bristol streets secretly popping leaflets into shoppers’ bags, jackets and even trousers. Later in the day these ‘victims’ would discover the leaflets – deliberately printed to look like life-sized smartphones – which said, ‘If someone can get a smartphone into your pocket they can get a smartphone out.’ Similar leaflets were created for tablets and mini tablets too. It’s a clever campaign that seeks to undermine something called Normalcy Bias; the thing that causes us to underestimate the possibility of an event occurring and its possible effects on us. [9] It’s that ‘It’ll never happen to me’ thought that goes through our heads as we take the next puff on a cigarette or download something illegally from the internet. Good crime prevention affects our Normalcy Bias by making us realise that anyone can fall victim to a pickpocket.

Or, for that matter, a wizard with some playing cards.

[1] There are still a few but they tend to get bullied off prime pitches by the organised teams.

[2] In 2012, police officers used a London bus to sneak up on a gang of Romanian street gamblers on Westminster Bridge. Normally, the lookouts alert the gamblers well in advance but, on this occasion, they hadn’t anticipated the 30 police officers who jumped out on them as the bus came alongside.

[3] A shill is person who pretends to be a member of the crowd and gives onlookers the impression that he or she is an enthusiastic customer, seemingly enjoying small wins and encouraging the audience to bet higher.

[4] Samuel Guthrie in the USA, Eugène Soubeiran in France and Justus von Liebig in Germany.

[5] It transpired that the police officer in question had attended one of my problem solving training days. Which was good to know.

[6] It probably didn’t help that Manny wears glasses. Harry Potter fever was running high.

[7] Emanuele now runs a successful web design business and encourages people to think differently at his popular AndBeThere site - http://www.andbethere.com.

[8] As you’ll discover throughout this book, marketing and advertising people have much to teach us about influencing people and I was keen to learn as much as I could from them. Consequently, I met and interviewed many of them. It was of mutual benefit; Rory Sutherland of OgilvyOne went on to write a book about it called The Wiki Man. I’m proud to say that several pages of the book feature the work that I did with the Problem Solving Unit.

[9] We’ll be looking more closely at Normalcy Bias in a later chapter.

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