TECHNICALLY SPEAKING
WHERE TO LOOK

Looking online for con artists can be difficult.

Actually, that’s not true. Look through your spam folder, and you’ll find dozens of them, but finding one that’ll provide good information is another story. Of course, there’s the standard Wikipedia entries and a cool article from the North American Securities Administrators Association on how to spot a con artist, but if you really want to capture the color of the world of the con, you might have to get a bit old school in your reading.

Your first stop should be The Big Con by David Maurer. “It’s pretty damn good,” admits Robbins. “A lot of stuff is dated, but it’s good. It would be a great book to look through and imagine how the cons from the past would be applied today.”

If you’re looking for the 411 on short cons, check out How to Cheat at Everything: A Con Man Reveals the Secrets of the Esoteric Trade of Cheating, Scams, and Hustles by Simon Lovell, who is currently a consultant for the USA Network show White Collar. “It’s a pretty good encyclopedic thing,” says Robbins, “mostly about short cons.”

And, of course, there’s Robbins’ own tome, The Modern Con Man: How to Get Something for Nothing, a sort of Con Artisty 101 covering various parts of the game that the author describes as “a fun little book.”

Money for Nothing
Written by Denis Faye

Hollywood has always loved flimflammers. From W.C. Fields, to The Sting to current cable shows White Collar and Leverage, we make such a point of portraying them as lovable rogues that it’s easy to forget they’re criminals. But when you really think about it, are they really worth all the love?

Todd Robbins seems to think so.

“A con man is someone who paints word pictures in the minds of someone who has a little too much money and will relieve that person of that burden through finesse,” rhapsodizes Robbins, the glass-eating, sword-swallowing Coney Island showman and author of The Modern Con Man: How to Get Something for Nothing.

“They’re considered sort of the aristocracy of the criminal world because it’s not a violent crime,” he adds. “There’s usually no weapon involved. If anything, they have to throw a punch to get the hell out, but other than that, there’s just a real level of finesse to it, of artistry, that’s why they’re called ‘con artists.’”

Robbins recently took some time to chat with Technically Speaking about confidence men, excuse me, artists. Although he’s been hard at work on Play Dead, a new show with Teller (of Penn and Teller fame), he’s taking a little time away, so we were forced to contact him in an undisclosed location in Mexico. When pressed regarding the reason for his little trip south of the border, Robbins responded flatly, “You don’t want to know.”

Fortunately, he was a little more verbose when it came to this month’s topic.

Why do you think Hollywood tends to make con artists into lovable rogues?

Part of the reason we like con men is that they are charming. They’re often colorful and full of character and they often are conning someone who “deserves” to be conned, playing on someone’s greed. The Sting [Written by David S. Ward], is the quintessential con artist movie in that these two lovable, good-looking cons are trying to take down a really bad guy. They have a personal vendetta because this guy killed a friend of theirs who was another really good guy. It’s a perfect example of a Hollywood con artist story.

The irony of it is, is that you could dramatize legitimate stories in the world of the con and people wouldn’t believe it because it’s too far-fetched.

For example?

There was a guy who was the king of the short cons named Titanic Thompson – I know a number of people are trying to dramatize his life because he had numerous exploits – and for some reason Al Capone took a liking to him. He would set up things a long way ahead. He would take a lemon or lime and load it with lead shot and put it in a fruit stand he knew he’d be walking past later that day with Capone. And as he’d be going along, he would brag about his physical prowess that would make Al Capone go, “Aw, you’re full of shit, lay your money!” He would say he could take a piece of fruit and throw it over a 10 story building, and he’d time it so that he’s at that spot where he had salted in that leaded piece of fruit – because something heavier is easier to throw than something lighter. So he’d throw it on that 10 story building. Al would go, “What the fuck?” and pay him that 500 bucks or whatever they bet. Titanic would also have to know how much was in Capone’s pocket because you don’t want Al Capone feeling indebted to you.

But if you tried to write something like that, people would say it could never happen.

Sounds like a cool movie scene to me. Anyway, what does Hollywood get right about con artists?

What they often get right is that a con artist will often play upon someone’s greed. It’s not true that you can’t cheat an honest man, but it’s a lot easier to cheat someone who has a little larceny in them. The mark will often be someone who thinks they’re getting the best of the con artist, whether it’s a short con like the Three-card Monte, when the money card “accidentally” gets a little bend in one of the corners and the guy who’s tossing the broads doesn’t see that, and the mark throws down that 100 dollar bill because he knows exactly where that ace is, but when it’s turned over, it’s not. What is he going to say? “Hey, there was a bend in the corner of the ace, and now it’s a queen! You cheated me!” Then the dealer will say, “So you were trying to cheat me?” You can’t win.

And what do they get wrong?

The other side of it, what they get wrong, is that if you really want to get your hook into someone and get more than a short take of money out of them, then you really have to make it so it’s just the opposite of what people think it’s all about.

People think that con artists are trying to get the confidence of the victim, but with the great con artists, it’s just the opposite. The mark should work to get the confidence of the con artist, so in the end when it all came down, the mark was saying, “Please, take my money! I want to be part of this!” That’s the moment that makes con artistry hard, when they’ve just so played someone. You don’t see that very often in movies and TV. Usually, they’re a little too direct. But the thing is, it takes a while to do that. There’s this passive-aggressive sell on something. And when you’re writing some sort of screenplay, you need to move things on a little bit. It would be too talky, more of a stage play with half an hour of talking so you can see the finesse.

There was a David Mamet movie a number of years ago, The Spanish Prisoner [Written by David Mamet]. The irony of it is that it wasn’t the Spanish Prisoner con. It was more like the Bank Examiner con. Knowing Mamet, that was probably his inside joke. The real Spanish Prisoner, everyone is familiar with it now because it’s that Nigerian letter you know you’ve gotten. It actually goes back to the Crusades, that’s how old it is. There’s this person who’s been arrested, and they have a lot of assets and they need to go to a third party so they can ransom the prisoner and get control of the assets. Again, the greed comes in and you think you’ll get something for nothing, but you also feel like you’re helping someone, and you kind of feel good on that level.

What are some of your favorite con artist TV shows and movies?

The Sting was great in many, many ways.

David Maurer studied con artists and got their confidence. He wrote a book about them called The Big Con. It’s sort of a text book for cons. It was published in 1940, but what’s interesting is that Universal published it because they realized that there was a wealth of information there for screenplays, and they now own the rights to all this. It’s been used through the years in various movies. The best of them all was years later, The Sting. It’s fairly true to form, but a little cute on how neat and consolidated everything is – all the stuff wouldn’t happen in one place at one time.

There’s an old movie with George C Scott working short cons called The Flim-Flam Man [Written by William Rose]. That has very much a feel of Titanic Thompson. That’s really a good, fun movie.

A lot of these films are done as period pieces because the form has changed. The way things are done these days are not nearly as sexy. The big stores that were set up in the past – like in The Sting, the whole bookie, casino thing was set up. You don’t need to do that anymore. You can do the same thing online. You can set up Web sites that are password-protected and let the mark into something they “shouldn’t know about.” It makes it a lot cheaper to be a con artist.

Do you know many real con artists?

Yeah, I do. The thing about it is, when you do this stuff for real, you can’t show your work, and it gets very frustrating. There’s some credence to the idea that when a con artist gets caught, they want to get caught so they can be appreciated. Other than hanging with other con artists, no one can really appreciate how good you are.

So when someone like me comes along and writes about this stuff, you get fan letters – and they read you and decide whether they can trust you and tip you off. Of course, unless you really get into their world, you can’t tell if what they’re saying is real or not. And I’m not too interested in getting that much into it.

I know Harry Anderson. What’s interesting is that he did some street cons, in terms of shell games and Three-card Monte, in San Francisco and used to hang out with magicians, but he was not a good guy, and he got his jaw broken and had it wired shut to repair it. One of his magician friends said, “You’re good with your hands, you’re nimble with your mind, and can tell a good story. Why don’t you just do magic?” He did that and then he got to the point where he realized that there was a wealth of his own personal history he could put into it and stop hiding behind the character of a magician, so he created this character Harry the Hat, a con man. He did comedy clubs with it and was very successful and did a couple spots on Saturday Night Live back in the ‘80s. Then he got the call to do some of it on Cheers, and they incorporated some of the act, some of his cons, into the scripts. From there, he got Night Court and became beloved. So even through it was a sitcom version, the way things were structured were very sound as to the way you’d con someone in a bar. It was pretty legit because it came from a guy who knew what he was talking about.

What would you like to see in a movie about con artists?

The movies are always driven from the side of the con artists. It would be interesting to see things from the other side, from someone who thinks they’re getting into it and getting the best of it, and then they realize they’re complete idiots. You really haven’t seen it from that side. You see it from both sides, but I’d like to see them not even play up the con artist as a major protagonist. It’d be pretty powerful in that people could sympathize with this character. The only drawback is having the ups and downs needed for dramatic structure.

Also, you’re going to see, coming up, environmental scams. BP, this spill is going to fuel the world of the con for the next decade. Either dealing directly with the clean up or by saying, “I have a friend in Washington who knows some security measures are going to be put forth for oil drilling, and there’s going to be legislation, and I have an ‘in’ with this small company that’s going to be prime. They really need some capital to do what they’re doing on a bigger scale. As soon as this legislation comes down, they’re going to have more business than they’re going to be able to handle unless they retool right now. And we’re doing it low key to get past the big oil companies. But we need capital right now. I’ll show you the Web site. I’ll give you the passwords because I like you.”

Wow. That makes me want to invest!

Yeah. It’s completely plausible and based on one little fact and 10 big lies. There’s your next screenplay.