~ Posted on August 16th 2008
Over lunch with Simon Lovell, a fascinating former card shark, Allison Schrager learns all sorts of things about how swindlers operate
"I can spot someone's weakness a mile away. In any room I can pick out the best target," says Simon Lovell, reformed con artist and famed magician, when asked over lunch about the root of his talents.
"Take that woman over there." He motions across the room towards a lady speaking to a man engrossed in his menu—"vulnerable, needy, looking for attention from the man she is with, but he won't give it to her. She even lacks the social skills to get the waiter's attention."
"Or that man over there, over-dressed, too neat, over-confident, thinks he is too smart to be taken." He says, pointing to a middle aged man in a neat suit, with excellent posture.
"But ultimately, anyone can be conned, if you have the balls to do it."
Simon Lovell should know. He spent many years pulling cons, indulging in everything from swift bar games to more elaborate schemes. A fascination with magic as a child eventually led Lovell to hone his skills as a sleight-of-hand expert, and then as a professional card cheat.
Presently, instead of subjecting people to cons, Lovell stars in a one-man off-Broadway show, "Strange and Unusual Hobbies". The performance consists of a mix of comedy, anecdotes from his card-shark days and elaborate card tricks (I once saw him pull a missing card from his mouth). He's vaguely English, 50-ish, handsome (in an ageing Peter O' Toole way), and very slight—the result of a balanced diet of beer and cigarettes. With his young, blonde girlfriend in tow, he explains what it takes to be a successful con artist.
"I could sell shit at an anti-scat party," he says, "you have to figure out someone's wants and needs and convince them what you have will fill their emotional void." A con man is essentially a salesman—a remarkably good one—who excels at making people feel special and understood. A con man validates the victim's desire to believe he has an edge on other people.
It requires avid study of psychology and body language. It's an amazing paradox—a con man has incredible emotional insight, but without the burden of compassion. He must take an intense interest in other people, complete strangers, and work to understand them, yet remain detached and uninvested. That the plan is to cheat these people and ultimately confirm many of their fears cannot be of concern.
Lovell draws people in by mirroring their body language. He breaks their defences by entering their physical space.
Con men tend to be excellent conversationalists. "Many men kissed the Blarney Stone," Lovell likes to say, "a con man has swallowed it." A con man puts a victim at ease by telling a story that reveals his own rather similar anxieties, thereby forging a "mutual understanding" of sorts.
"Now you can prey on their emotions and do evil—because con men are evil, undeniably so," Lovell says. He smirks, admitting pride in past cons.
Just then we are interrupted by our waiter. Lovell notes his British accent, immediately parroting it. The waiter, it turns out, is from north-west London, and the conversation turns to a lively discussion of Watford football.
Once the waiter is out of sight, Lovell explains: "You must have an encyclopaedic knowledge of odd bits of trivia and use these facts to win people over. "
A favourite con of Lovell's is called the Cross. It is a fairly complex card trick that takes place over two or three days. "Go to a bar late at night to look for your victim," he explains. "Pick someone well-groomed, maybe a little dishevelled, but well-dressed. Someone who clearly has some money, but has something on his mind. He is vulnerable. Sit down next to him, have a few drinks, start to mirror his body language, get him talking."
As the conversation progresses, Lovell will start showing the man some card tricks. "They must be really good and impressive ones," Lovell warns. "After all, you have to know what you are doing."
At this point in the game he reveals that he is, in fact, a professional card cheat. A smart man will run in the other direction, but most are seduced. People love the idea of a professional swindler—they find it glamorous. They figure the world is full of suckers, but of course they are not among them. They are in on the game.
He then unloads his problems on the guy, perhaps something about a partner getting arrested for a small crime, leaving him without a partner for a big poker game the next day. The victim will then almost invariably offer to help. Lovell will question his toughness, but the man will insist he can handle it. With a touch of hesitation, Lovell will then offer to test the man's skill by taking him to a small game that very night. He will even put up the money.
At the game, Lovell explains, he will tell the victim to go all in when he taps the table. Lovell has allegedly figured out a way to determine the hand of each poker player as he deals the cards. It is a skill he spent years honing, and he displays it proudly in his one man show. (Rumour has it casinos in Las Vegas have banned Lovell.) With this gentle coaching, the victim wins the pot, about $500, and is elated. He's ready for the big game the next day.
That game, of course, is for much more money—a $15,000 buy in—and the man must pay his own way. But you agree to split the pot, and the victim by this point is very excited. He is feeling special; he thinks he's in on it. The game should take place somewhere dark and illicit, maintaining the victim's illusion that he is somewhere exciting and covert. At this point he will probably start mimicking the other players, speaking like them. Non-smokers will start to smoke, feel cool.
During the game, Lovell will give the signal (tap the table). The victim will have a strong hand, but someone else's at the table is better, and he loses. Lovell will then storm out angry, violent even. "You blew it—you should've waited for my signal. I should have never gotten involved with such an amateur!"
The next day Lovell will apologise for losing his temper. He might even invite him to another game that night. It bears noting that the money the victim earned the first night was counterfeit and everyone at both poker games is in on the con.
Back at lunch, our waiter returns with a complimentary round of drinks and free desserts, beaming.
At some point, Lovell realised he could no longer be an effective con artist. Perhaps he pulled one Cross too many. Once, when he visited a victim the day after to "apologise", he found the man crying about his mortgage, wife and kids. Mr Lovell actually felt sorry for him. Sorry enough to return some of the money: "Not all of it. I am not an idiot. But some."
This seemed to foretell the end of something. "If you feel sorry you are dead in the water," he warns.
He stopped earning his living as a card cheat about 20 years ago, using his skills to entertain and educate the masses (and turn a buck or two) instead. He also authored a book: "How to Cheat at Everything: A Con Man Reveals the Secrets of the Esoteric Trade of Cheating, Scams, and Hustles", which documents the scams pulled by him and his friends. I gleaned enough tips from my own copy to score a free round of drinks on my own, though Lovell claims he wrote it to make people more aware of tricks.
A conversation with a con man can't help but be confusing. Separating truth from fiction feels futile. Yet Lovell is genuinely charming, and I admire the interest he takes in others. His flawless ability to please people—I've witnessed others grow noticeably more comfortable, even happy, in his company—has inspired me to become more thoughtful and considerate of the needs and desires of others. And I have since found that this is also an effective way of getting what I want from people.
But I would make a poor con artist. Not only am I unable to divorce myself completely from feelings of compassion, but also it is thoroughly exhausting to be deeply aware of everyone's emotions at all times. Like most people, I am far too self-involved to make it as a cheat.
Allison Schrager is an economist based in New York. Her last column, called "Does one Abused Woman = 100 Abused Puppies?" was about the fundraising challenges faced by charities dedicated to helping battered women