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Easy Pickings

It was once said that to play billiards well was the sign of a ill-spent youth. My own near equivalent is to know rather more about the techniques of conjurors and card sharps than might be expected. At university, I was an active member of a society for prestidigitators, magicians and other such unserious folk. (The two dominant classes of members were scientists and student priests. I used to say, but not too loudly, that for one it was a God-substitute and for the other it was all in the day’s work.)

One trick that was common at the time required a string of beads. You twisted it into a figure-of-eight formation and asked someone to put a finger into one of the loops thus made. If the beads snagged on his finger when you pulled them away, he won. The dodge was that there were two ways to make the figure-of-eight. In one, the game was genuine, with one loop snagging and the other not; in the other, neither did, and the victim always lost.

As we played it, this was just a party trick. But for centuries it formed the basis of a gambling game that was a staple in fairgrounds, racecourses and markets all over Europe, frequently using a leather strap or belt to make the loops. In Britain, from the eighteenth century onwards, it was often called pin and girdle or prick the garter, but it had been known in medieval times and afterwards as fast and loose, using fast in its sense of “fixed; immovable”. The expression to play fast and loose became an idiom sometime before 1557, the date of its first citation in OED2. It was an obvious progression from the name of the game to a sense of “inconsistent; variable” and from there to mean “trifle with another’s affections”.

This was not, of course, the only swindling game to be found where people congregated. Another was thimble-rig, also known as pea and thimbles (the shell game in North America, perhaps because the game was often played with half walnut shells in place of thimbles) in which you had to guess under which of three thimbles a pea was hidden. This seemed open, but the thimblerigger used sleight-of-hand to trap the pea under the thumbnail, inside the crease of a finger joint or at the base of two fingers and so ensure it was under an unexpected thimble when the punter came to make his choice. As with so many games, the sharper (a general term for someone living by his wits, especially through crooked games) often had accomplices who posed as independent individuals to work up interest, entice the mugs (or flats, as they were often called in Victorian England) to join in and perhaps also play a game or two to show how easy it was to win. This accomplice was variously called a bonnet, barnacle. sweetener, nobbler, jollier or buttoner. His job sometimes included actually working the fiddle, as with crooked roulette tables, to remove suspicion from the obvious source, the sharper himself. Another common name for this type of swindler or confidence trickster was magsman, originally the name for a man who ran a pitch-and-toss game, which was itself sometimes called magflying from the mags, halfpennies, which were used in it. The word also seems to have associations with another sense of mag, a colloquial term for “chatterbox”, good verbal skills being an important part of the process. The word here is possibly derived from the magpie, a noisy, chattering bird.

Charles Dickens evokes what must have been a typical scene at a smart urban racecourse in Nicholas Nickleby:

Here a little knot gathered round a pea and thimble table to watch the plucking of some unhappy greenhorn and there, another proprietor with his confederates in various disguises ... sought by loud and noisy talk and pretended play to entrap some unwary customer, while the gentlemen confederates ... betrayed their close interest in the concern by the anxious furtive glances they cast on all new comers.

Another gambling game was spin-em-rounds, usually played in the street; it was mentioned by Henry Mayhew in his London Life and the London Poor. It consisted of a board with a pointer balanced on a pin in the middle, with numbers around the edge. It was a crude kind of roulette: the bet was won by choosing the number at which the pointer stopped. The opportunity for cheating might seem less here, but, taking a line through crooked roulette wheels, there was no doubt some advantage to be got by the person in charge.

A game called Three-up is described in some detail by Mayhew. It was usually played in pubs:

“Three-up” is played fairly among the costermongers; but is most frequently resorted to when strangers are present to “make a pitch”, — which is, in plain words, to cheat any stranger who is rash enough to bet upon them. ... This adept illustrated his skill to me by throwing up three halfpennies, and, five times out of six, they fell upon the floor, whether he threw them nearly to the ceiling or merely to his shoulder, all heads or all tails. The halfpence were the proper current coins — indeed, they were my own; and the result is gained by a peculiar position of the coins on the fingers, and a peculiar jerk in the throwing.

Perhaps the most famous of such crooked games is find the lady or the three-card trick, which I have seen played in street markets in Morocco, on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, and in many other places. Three playing cards, one of which was often the Queen of Hearts (hence one name for the game) were shown face up and then laid face down and rapidly moved about on the table by the sharper. Somehow the mark never found the Queen. One way to disguise the final position — the way I learned, anyway — was to collect the three cards in an open stack between the joints of thumb and second finger. With a little practice, you could release whichever card you wanted as you flicked your hand across the table and so confuse even someone watching closely. This game is often called three-card monte in America, a name taken from monte, a Spanish game using 45 playing cards, which was once common in Mexico and California.

Incidentally, though the compound monte-bank was sometimes used for the table where the game of monte was played, this has only the loosest connection with the more common expression mountebank for a cheat or swindler. The game was so called because of the “mountain” (monte in Spanish) or stack of cards on the table during play; the mountebank was someone who mounted a bench (monta in banco in old Italian) to harangue a crowd and so sell quack medicines and the like. As a further aside, the mountebank often had an accomplice, a comic character who clumsily or foolishly imitated his master’s actions to get laughs, and who was called a zany, a name which is a corruption of the Italian Gianni, Johnny, and which was also the name of the clown-servants in the commedia dell’ arte. From this we get our modern adjective. In Britain, the person taking the role of the zany was sometimes called a Merry Andrew (deriving in part from the use of “Andrew” as a generic name for any male servant, in a similar way to “Abigail” for a female one) or a Jack Pudding.

The title of this piece might seem to be no more than a comment on the ease with which the flats, mugs, suckers, punters, marks, gulls, or coneys could be relieved of their money. But the term itself comes from an old sense of pick meaning “to steal” (the term pickpocket comes from the same source). So easy pickings were things it wasn’t difficult to thieve.

And the moral of my story is to be very careful around such gamesters. Don’t take any wooden nickels, now!

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 28 Sep 1996; Last updated 03 Nov 2001