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Feb. 4, 2006

I fell for the shell game once in college. My grandfather had died that week and I was feeling cavalier and careless. Someone else in my frame of mind might have loaded a backpack with textbooks and walked into Lake Michigan, but I took to the Red Line and put $20 on the middle bottlecap. A 1-in-3 shot seemed like a risk worth taking. I hadn't noticed that the pitchman was slipping the ball into his sleightful hand, nor had it occurred to me that 1-in-3 is actually a terrible way to go about doubling your money.

I've never regretted it, however. Instead I've considered it a lifetime subscription to one of the best shows in Chicago. The shell game hustlers are con artists, sure, but artists nonetheless: magicians, actors and emcees. Thus it delights me to see action one or two Saturdays a year.

The con is a link to old Chicago. I'd even suggest that the game is an honest living. The players are not picking pockets, they are not panhandling. They are merely separating fools from their money. Such a transaction, writ large and writ billions of times a day, defines the capitalism that has made this country prosper. Where would we be without fraud and duplicity? We'd be in Canada. At peace, insured and modest. God bless America, and God bless its hustlers.

Either I am developing better street sense or the practitioners are losing their touch. Each time I see the game the confederates -- the pitchman's alllies who "win" in order to show that the game is on the level -- are getting easier to spot. Today's troupe had three: a surly, skinny guy, a jolly fat man, and a toothless woman who boarded the car after the others and put $40 on a cap without even hearing the pitchman run through the rules. She won, naturally, but appeared neither surprised nor thrilled. The pitchman, on the other hand, was in great form, full of wit and rhyme, although not enough wit or rhyme for me to remember any of his patter.

One can interact with the game without playing. Take a picture and hear the pitchman say, "What are you, the papparatchi?" Make the passengers laugh by saying, "Yeah, man, I'm Pavarotti." Or ask one of the confederates, "So how often does someone fall for this?" and hear him say, "Kiss my ass, little man."

And I am genuinely curious in how often the game works. I've seen these same people for years, so obviously it works often enough to make it worth their time and the risk of arrest.

When the game moved to the other end of my car I saw a suburbanite's eyes get big and it looked like they'd reeled one in. After the pitchman and his crew left the train I went down to inquire. No, not even close. The suburbanite and his friends were having a good laugh. "Duh," one wag said. "You'd think that someone with $40 to spend on the shell game would get her teeth fixed first. Ha!"

I got off at the next stop. Walking down the platform I saw that the game hadn't in fact left the train: It had just moved to the next car. I made eye contact with the jolly fat man and laughed. He smiled and waved discreetly through the window, like a child in the school play waving to his parents.

Photo taken: Feb. 4, 2006