Proposition bets

13th September 2008 – 4.53 pm

I have a keen interest in confidence tricks, with the social engineering and clever scams required to make them work. This interest led me to the book The Big Con, which is an enlightening read about the long cons of the early twentieth century, documented by a professor who managed to gain the trust of the con artists. The book forms the basis of the plot of the film The Sting and was required reading for writers of the Mission: Impossible TV programme, both of which I also enjoy. It is this interest that draws me to the current TV programme The Real Hustle on the BBC.

The Real Hustle follows some modern-day con artists who pull real scams on the public to show how the cons are performed, before those who are conned get their money or items back. One of the features in the programme is that of the 'proposition bet', where the scammers make bets with people in pubs to get free drinks. The bets they make are generally 'trick' bets, like in trick questions. For example, the one I watched recently had the scammer bet that he could drink champagne out of a new bottle without breaking the seal, uncorking the bottle, or tampering with it in any way. When taken up on the bet he turned the bottle upside down and poured a little of the champagne left in his current glass in to the depression in the bottom of the bottle and drank that, claiming that he drank champagne from the bottle and thus won the bet. It was clever, in a trick question way, and most of the proposition bets are similarly based on lateral thinking.

But it got me thinking. People don't ask trick questions if they don't know the answers; that's what makes them trick questions. In the same way, a person won't make a bet on being able to, for example, drink from a shot glass without touching it or dropping coins balanced on its rim without being sure he could do it. So when a stranger approaches a group of friends in a pub and confidently states that if he achieves something apparently impossible they will pay for the privilege why is it that they agree to the bet? However unlikely it looks that this challenge will be successfully met there must surely be a reason that the stranger made the bet in the first place, and it's not likely to be because he likes giving away money.

My reluctance to gamble money probably colours my impression of events and I imagine that simple human curiosity plays a large part in the process. Even though there is perhaps a good chance that we are setting ourselves up to be tricked we have this desire to see just how we are going to be tricked. It is still remarkable to me how likely we are to agree to being scammed, as long as we can trust it is an 'honest' scam!

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