Confidence Trick

Scams ‘R’ Us

In an episode of Dragnet from the late nineteen-sixties, Joe Friday is assigned to the “bunco squad,” where he and his partner, Bill Gannon, bust a woman running a “Ponzi scheme.”

We’re all too familiar with what a “Ponzi scheme” is, thanks to Bernard Madoff and his ilk. (Charles Ponzi ran a pyramid scene in 1919, forever lending them his name.) But thousands of senior citizens, churchgoers, and other fine upstanding people are involved in “bunco” without fearing a visit from a Sergeant Friday.

“Bunco” is a parlor game played with three dice, and its popularity has exploded in the past thirty years to the point that the World Bunco Association (formed in 1996) claims that more than twenty-seven million people play the game regularly. (It’s also spelled “Bunko.”

Until at least the late seventies, “bunco” was a generic name for fraud, including any number of “cons,” or “confidence games,” which the Oxford English Dictionary says is “a method of professional swindling, in which the victim is induced to hand over money or other valuables as a token of ‘confidence’ in the sharper.” (We’ve discussed “cardsharp” here .)

But even in its fraudulent state, “bunco” was a popular game: Particularly during the Depression and Prohibition, “bunco parlors” were dens of iniquity where all sorts of illicit gambling and drinking went on, including, of course, a fraudulent form of “bunco,” where almost no one won but the house.

The Dictionary of American Slang says that the word “bunco” may come from Banco, “the name given in the 1850s by a crooked US gambler to the older game ‘Eight-Dice Cloth.’” Banco, the dictionary says, was probably based on a Spanish card game, banca, “a card game similar to monte.”

“Three-card monte,” of course, is another “bunco” game, one particularly popular in places like Times Square. The only people who win “three-card monte” are the “shills” who are working the game with the dealer.

A “shill” is also a “shillaber,” though almost no one uses that word any more, and the venerable OED says it doesn’t know its origin. The Dictionary of American Slang says it may come from “Shillibeer,” the owner of a large British bus company in the 1800s, “the reference being to persons hired as decoys to sit in buses and attract passengers.”

All of these, of course, are names for “scams” of one kind or another. “Scam” is a surprisingly recent word: The OED traces it only to 1963. It’s another whose origins are obscure, though it may come from the British slang “scamp,” which meant a cheater or swindler.

Or you may call them “flim-flams” (also “flimflams”), which the OED says is “one of the onomatopoeic reduplications with vowel variation,” a highfalutin’ way of describing a word that’s fun to say. A “flim-flam,” though, implies a minor deception, costing, say, $20 instead of your life’s savings. The “flam” in “flim-flam” is “a sham story, fabrication, falsehood; a piece of deception, a trick,” the OED says.

And, of course, there is “the Think System,” so lyrically sold by Robert Preston, the Music Man, right here in River City. He’s the quintessential “flim-flam” man.

Hey, did you drop this wallet?

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , , ,