Yet again the BBC has been publishing a warning to anybody who will listen about the Cup and Ball scam. It looks like a harmless bit of fun. Some guy has 3 cups on the ground and all you need to do is to bet on which one the ball is under after he has shuffled them around.
You can’t win, because it is not a game of odds, it simply creates the illusion of being that …
Cup and Ball FAQ
I’ll repeat my warming – You can’t win, you never can. It might appear to be a simple game of chance that has 1 in 3 odds but it is not. It is by design an illusion.
But I saw other people win?
Nope, you did not. All you saw were some friends of the guy running the con apparently win, it is all part of the con.
It Looks popular
Again, all part of the act. It is a team game. The guy with the cup and ball often has a few pals to gather around and draw crowds in, and to also keep an eye out for the police or trouble.
How does it work?
There are various methods. It is generally sleight of hand and misdirection. The guy will palm the ball so that you think you saw him place it under a cup but it really went into his hand. Then for the reveal it is the reverse of that.
There is also Psychology in play
You give it a go for a modest bet … and he will let you win. Now that you have been hooked and have engaged and invested, he will offer to double your money. He will let you win again. You are being sucked in for the kill. On offer is yet another doubling up. When the moment is right and the bet is high enough, you will not win. It is not a bet, this loss is a certainty. Before you know what has happened, you are down $50 or more and he and his friends rapidly vanish.
Penn & Teller Show you how it works
Below is Penn and Teller doing the trick.
As a public service, because this is a popular scam and not a game of odds, they do it again, but this time with transparent cups so that you can see exactly what is happening. (They apparently got thrown out of the Magic Castle for revealing this)
What is truly mind blowing about the above is that they are telling you what they are doing, and with the transparent cups you can see that they are doing what they are telling you … yet you still can’t see them actually doing it.
Yes, they really are that good.
Teller devised this variation while fiddling with an empty water glass and wadded-up paper napkins for balls at a Midwestern diner. He turned the glass upside down and put a paper ball on top, then tilted the glass so that the ball fell into his other hand. The falling ball was so compelling that it drew his own attention away from his other hand, which was deftly and secretly loading a second ball under the glass. Teller found that the sleight happened so quickly he himself did not realize he had loaded the cup. He surmised he missed it because the falling ball captured his attention.
History of the Scam
It is very old. To illustrate that here are a few examples.
William Powell Frith’s encounter in 1856
The painter William Frith, who painted The Derby Day, describes what happened to him when scouting out the Derby for his painting as follows …
“My first visit to Epsom was in the May of 1856 — Blink Bonnie’s year. My first Derby had no interest for me as a race, but as giving me the opportunity of studying life and character it is ever to be gratefully remembered. Gambling-tents and thimble-rigging, prick in the garter and the three-card trick, had not then been stopped by the police. So convinced was I that I could find the pea under the thimble that I was on the point of backing my guess rather heavily, when I was stopped by Augustus Egg, whose interference was resented by a clerical-looking personage, in language much opposed to what would have been anticipated from one of his cloth. ‘You,’ said Egg, addressing the divine, ‘you are a confederate, you know; my friend is not to be taken in.’ ‘Look here,’ said the clergyman, ‘don’t you call names, and don’t call me names, or I shall knock your d — d head off.’ ‘Will you?’ said Egg, his courage rising as he saw two policemen approaching. ‘Then I call the lot of you — the Quaker there, no more a Quaker than I am, and that fellow that thinks he looks like a farmer — you are a parcel of thieves!’ ‘So they are, sir,’ said a meek-looking lad who joined us; ‘they have cleaned me out.’ ‘Now move off; clear out of this!’ said the police; and the gang walked away, the clergyman turning and extending his arms in the act of blessing me and Egg.”
He went on to paint that encounter. You can see it below. Note on the left a young country man in smock is being held back by his wife to prevent him from joining in.
Illustrated below is “The Conjurer,” which was painted by Hieronymus Bosch between 1496 and 1516.
It it you can see cup and ball being played. The real trick of this painting is the pickpocket who is working for the conjurer. The pickpocket is robbing the spectator who is bent over.
Within his 45th letter to Lucilius, Seneca is talking about tricky word-play. He makes a passing reference to the cup-and-ball game to illustrate the point he is making as follows …
Such quibbles are just as harmlessly deceptive as the juggler’s cup and dice, in which it is the very trickery that pleases me. But show me how the trick is done, and I have lost my interest therein. And I hold the same opinion about these tricky word-plays; for by what other name can one call such sophistries?
It is interesting to note that Seneca simply drops it out to make his point. He does not need to explain because it was perhaps a well-recognised reference for anybody reading the letter.
It is even older?
Probably. I can find various sources referring to it being played in ancient Egypt, but can’t find any direct references that verify that. The oldest reference I’ve been able to nail down is the Seneca one above.
The point is this. It is a very old scam and has been doing the rounds for many many generations. Given it’s longevity I suspect that it will continue to pop up decade after decade.
Be Aware: No matter how smart you think you are, you can be fooled. Misdirection and sleight of hand works.
- Wikipedia : Shell game
- Scientific American: Magic Revealed: Cups Trick Found to Be More Effective Than Thought
- Encyclopaedia Brittanica: Cups and balls trick