by David W. Maurer
- reviewed by Cory Doctorow
"The Big Con" was published in 1940, and is widely
considered to be the definitive work on confidence tricksters (the
film The Sting was based on it). Maurer was a linguist, primarily,
who published definitive works on underworld argot (pickpockets,
fortune tellers, etc), but when it came time to do the same thing
for con artists, Maurer found himself unable to simply provide a
glossary of terms: the amount of explanation necessary meant that
he found himself writing a full-blown sociological study of con
While con-games have existed since the dawn of time,
until the turn of the century they were "short-cons" (cons in which
the mark is taken for any money he has with him), "played against
the wall" (performed without special props or groups of confederates).
With the advent of the "big con" (cons in which the
mark is taken for every cent he has, including the value of his
house and business), con artistry began to merge with stagecraft.
Big con men make use of a "big store" (an ersatz shop set up exclusively
for the benefit [?] of the mark), complete with a "boodle" (a small
army of confederates who impersonate police officers, customers,
managers, employees, bankers, security guards, etc). In the 1920s,
the big store was used to take off marks for sums in excess of $200,000
-- the modern equivalent of several million.
The big con is a operatic drama with a massive budget
and a cast of accomplished actors, played for a single person: the
mark. The three classic big cons -- The Rag, The Payoff, The Wire
-- have the archetypal quality of a classic myth. They're truly
works of art.
Maurer was a good friend to hundreds of con men, who
confided in him extensively. His verbatim transcripts of their colourful
boasts are utterly spellbinding.
The big cons are complex stories, ones in which the
mark is introduced to an opportunity to participate in a semi-legal
scheme (a fixed horse-race, insider stock trading) that requires
a certain amount of intelligence to grasp. The mark is given "convincers"
(substantial payoffs that are later recouped in the big score),
and is gradually led to a point where he is willing return home
(the "send") and empty his bank account, liquidate his assets, and
return, with the promise of taking off enough winnings to support
him in style for the rest of his life. This is done so skillfully,
so subtly, that the mark never suspects that he is being taken.
When he finally coughs up the entire sum, it is "lost" through a
piece of miscommunication ("I told you to bet on that horse to place,
not to win! We're broke!") that is again done so skillfully that
the mark never suspects that he has been taken. Indeed, a mark will
often go home, borrow all he can and return -- only to lose it again.
Crucial to a big con is that it is played with a mark
who is on the road. He is approached on an ocean-liner, an airplane,
a train, by a "roper" and gradually led into the scam. Once he steps
off the train, virtually every person he meets will be in on the
con. Imagine that! It's like The Game and other paranoid films in
which it develops that everyone except the hero is participating
in a giant conspiracy.
The question I'm left with, having finished this,
is where is the big con today? The classic big con mark is smart,
wealthy, on the road, and accustomed to earning large sums through
speculative ventures. Sure sounds like a dot-com millionaire to
b i o :
won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Writer
at the 2000 Hugo Awards. He is the co-founder and Chief Evangelist
of openCOLA, Inc.