Under the shell: A look at the world’s oldest scam

July 16, 2018

It is 2018, or whatever the current year may be as you read this, and people are still falling for shell games. All over the world, productive, rational, and otherwise intelligent people are losing money to the world’s oldest, and most famous, scam.

At this neat video from NewGreenShoe explains, it’s not the mechanics of the game that make it so effective – any idiot can learn a decent cup and balls routine given half an hour and access to YouTube. Instead, the nature of the game preys not just upon human greed, but on our innate desire to solve puzzles For example, it’s fairly obvious that a lot of these games use fake winners to demonstrate the game is winnable, but would you have guessed they also use fake losers? Seeing someone make an obviously logically unsound decision is not only irritating, it lights up parts of our brain that love to capitalize on the failures of others. The same part of your brain that encourages you to say, “actually, it’s pronounced…” on a date, despite every other part of your anatomy screaming that it’s a bad idea, will encourage you to fritter money away on an obvious scam.

So how is this useful to magicians? Well, aside from making sure you can earn your bus fare home after a bad gig (legal note: do not do this), the deceptive principles are sound. If you want your audience to really invest in a trick, appeal to their inner smartarse.