A Con Man Reveals the Secrets of the Esoteric Trade of Cheating, Scams, and Hustles
It’s possible that my love for reading nonfiction on completely random topics was inherited from my dad, who is the same way. We are always reading books on obscure things and then recommending them to the other. Dad read How to Cheat at Everything quite a while back and really enjoyed it, and it’s been on my list ever since. It’s basically a back-stage pass to the world of swindlers.
Lovell sets up the book by introducing us to his friend Freddy the Fox. Freddy is an expert in the world of scamming, but is now retired (mostly) and is willing to share his tricks and tips to the public, purely to help them avoid getting swindled. Lovell emphasizes the foolishness (and illegality) of actually trying to perform these cheats yourself, and quite honestly while I think that you could learn and practice a few of things, like some of the bar bets (which also aren’t illegal), overall I doubt reading the instructions in this book would really enable you to learn how to stack a poker deck or load your own dice.
The book is divided into several broad sections: bar bets, street hustles, fairs/carnivals, cons, cards, dice, and beating the system. Some sections were more interesting than others. For instance, I was quite intrigued by how a bunch of the fair games work, but found myself growing bored with descriptions of multiple ways to stack/fake shuffle cards.
The overall premise is sound: con men consistently play on their victim’s greed. They will present you with “fail safe” opportunities to turn a profit, be it a bet that seems like you can’t lose, a game that seems so simple, or the promise of a later reward. Lovell repeated frequently that what will protect you from being a victim is your willingness to walk away from these types of “opportunities.”
It was super interesting to realize how swindlers really work, as far as gently leading their victims into the con with sweet talk. I really enjoyed the section on the bar bets, which are probably the most harmless of the lot (usually very low money, and people don’t mind losing as much when they get to learn the trick), because not only are they fun, they are really more about the verbal set-up, persuading people that this is just a casual idea that has just popped into mind and convincing them how impossible it would be to, say, predict which side a match is going to land on.
My personal favorite bar bet, which actually made me get out of my chair and grab a tape measure and a glass, is for “Freddy” to casually begin musing as to whether the circumference of a glass or its height is a longer distance – at this point, it’s pretty obvious that it’s the circumference, but this is just the hook. Pretty soon, Freddy slides a pack of cigarettes under the glass – what about circumference versus the entire height, including the cigarette package? Basically, Freddy gets his victim hooked by just getting them intrigued about the answer to the question – and by the time there are multiple cigarette packages under the glass, it starts to look obvious that the height has overtaken the circumference… which is when Freddy starts taking bets. The best part about this one is that there isn’t any trick – it’s just that the circumference of a glass is SO much longer than you think it is! The pub glass I pulled out of our cabinet is 5 3/4″ high… and 10 1/2″ around! Another glass I pulled out is less than 5″ tall, but over 11″ in circumference – so twice around as it is tall, which genuinely doesn’t seem possible. It’s enough to make me want to head down to the pub on Saturday night and see if I can pull in a few extra bucks…
A disadvantage to this book is that it is a smidge dated. A lot has changed since it was published 15 years ago, and it would be fun to get an expanded edition that talks more about internet scams (which weren’t touched on much in this edition) and doesn’t assume that everyone is carrying around a package of cigarettes (although maybe that’s just a sign of a con man).
Reading this book also really made want to watch The Sting again, as well as several other movies that Lovell mentioned in passing. I also have a deep love for the Oceans movies (George Clooney <3), so maybe I’ll pull those out again. These kinds of scams are always a lot more fun when you’re on the inside.
All in all, How to Cheat at Everything is a readable and interesting book that will help make sure that you’re the grumpy person everywhere you go, refusing to jump in on casual poker games, to attempt to win a stuffed animal for your child at the fair, or even to buy a train ticket for that nice old man who reassures you that he will mail you a check as soon as he gets home. 4/5 and recommended.