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Shutting down the Shell Game

I'm sitting quietly on the Red Line, heading home on a Friday afternoon after a long work week. Then I hear a commotion behind me, and turn to see a guy sitting with his legs in the aisle, his knees propping up a piece of cardboard covered with a felt, holding three bottle caps.

Shell_game The Shell Game is on!

Except I wouldn't allow it.

I get up, walking past him saying, "You're not doing that here."

I walk up to the customer assistance button and press it twice. I tell the motorman about the shell game, and give him a description: Tall African-American man in his 50s wearing a red Kangol cap.

As I walk back to my seat I see he's gone, already having moved to the next car.

At Belmont, I see him exit the train and strut down the platform in his red cap. The motorman comes down to the car, and I tell him what happened and reiterated the description. He radios it in, moves back to the lead car, and we proceed to Addison.

I wave good-bye to red Kangol man on the platform as we roll past him.

(Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org:  "The Conjurer" by Hieronymus Bosch. The painting accurately displays a performer doing the cups and balls routine, which has been practiced since Egyptian times. The shell game does have some origins in this old trick. The real trick of this painting is the pickpocket who is working for the conjurer. The pickpocket is robbing the spectator who is bent over.)


Uh, what was the big deal exactly?

Soliciting on CTA trains is prohibited. Violators will be arrested. (That's the big deal. :)

He ALWAYS gets off at Belmont or Fullerton. I once watched him take $100 from a lady and she started crying. I don't feel sorry for people who play his game...they are just asking to be robbed. But his "system" is quite easy so he doesn't need a pickpocket, although he does have a "partner" that he works with to fool people.

Josh, I trust the two comments after yours answers your question... it's illegal. Period.

Good for you, Kevin!!

I find it amazing that people still fall for this even when there is a shill present. When I've seen them in action the shill is as horrible of an actor as the con.

I say let them play.

Anyone who falls for this would probably be gaffled by someone else later on, probably for even more money. Hopefully they learn something. As much as I have begun to detest the epidemic cynicism in our society, having SOME is usually a good thing. It's sometimes called 'street smarts'. Better to learn for $20 now than for hundreds or thousands later on.

Once, when I was a teenager, my friends and I bought 'gold' chains for $15 each on Maxwell Street. They HAD to be real right? They even had price tags to PROVE they had been stolen from Fields, just like he said! Of course it didn't take long to figure out we got hooked up by a petty grifter. Did it ever happen again? Nope.

Eating and drinking on the CTA is illegal too. Apparently, so is sleeping. I doubt anyone reading this has called the conductor on people engaged in these nefarious activities though. Personally, I find the behavior of many other riders more offensive than some small time hustlers. Just consider the hustlers like you would a vaccine. They build up the host's/sucker's tolerance against later invasion/swindling.

I completely agree with jk1...

I have been taking the Metra recently as opposed to the Brown line and I can't get over how nice it is. The conductors don't put up with anything from anyone and that is how it should be on the CTA. When I take the train I want to get from point A to point B. I don't want hustlers, preachers, salesmen, prostitutes and so on.

So jk1 and LadyDay you might be right that it might not be a big deal but even so we should not have to put up with it.

Sean: I take the Brown line 2x daily--where exactly do you see hustlers, preachers, etc on the Brown line? All I see are a bunch of sleepy white people who are really boring.

I second your praise of Metra. Well run system. That said, if you don't like a certain amount of chaos, may I ask why you still live in the Chicago, as you imply that you do? I don't mean this harshly, but you really seem unhappy with urban sleaze. I mean, if you find the Brown line unbearable, I can't imagine how you would deal with a walk through certain parts of Uptown.

Sean, you mention that the Metra "conductors don't put up with anything from anyone and that is how it should be on the CTA."

I think things might be a little better if the CTA *had* conductors. There's only the motorman now and he can hardly be expected to monitor the shell game on the 7th car.

As far as jk1's comments, have you heard of the "broken window" theory? That is, if you don't crack down on the small things, such as broken windows, then the whole system will come falling down.

Taat's my feeling too. No, I don't like it when people are slobs and drop food on the El, but there's no law generally against eating. There are general laws against gambling, so that's why I acted as I did.

a couple (of thousand) things:

i love the red line. yeah, if you can't deal with the brown line, you are in some *big* trouble! the red line has what i like to call 'character.'

however, and i just blogged about this on my own blog, there is a time to stop turning a blind eye and do a good citizen's duty. call people out when needbe. (why is the guy always wearing a kangol cap?!?)

when i hear fighting or shouting anywhere in the city, i get my phone out and ready to call 911. i'm not going to let someone get their ass kicked or beat because i just stood by and did nothing or did the big city ignore. most of the time i let people do their thing and ignore most of the stuff that goes on around me.

but if things get too out of hand (it's all a gray area), i'm going to do something, or better yet, let someone of authority do something. if we all take a little bit of responsibility for our city, it will be a better place to live in.

Kudos to Thad. Try walking down Lawrence or Wilson in uptown and you'll see what (Thad) means. As for the shell players, I saw them several times on the Red line last summer while tons of suburbanites were headed to Cubs games....they, and others should have to learn the hard way!

maybe they should have a way for riders to text message the CTA about problems on a train. Easiest and safest way of communicating problems on the train with out bring notices to yourself.

Good for you for doing something about this. I'm disapointed in the attitude of some of you. Is it really that difficult to help each other out? While I agree that it is ridiculous that people are still taken by this game, is it so hard to pipe up and warn someone not to give up their money? Wouldn't you want someone to do the same for you?

Judging from the comments everyone has posted, it seems that a lot of people really don't like the shell guy.Seeing as these comments come from regular CTA riders I do respect everyone's opinion.

I myself ride the Red Line daily during off-hours, typicaly around 2:00 or 3:00AM, and typicaly only on the South Side.The bad characters I observe (smoking, littering, fighting, shouting or worse) tend to be much more disturbing than the shell guy.

So when I see someone like the shell guy conning suburbanites or selling socks or looking for "loose squares," I ask myself,

"Is this individual disturbing me or causing anyone non-consensual harm?"

If the answer is NO, I leave him/her (and the train driver) alone.

I think if you are an adult you should be able to decide for yourself to not get swindled by a hustler on the train...you shouldn't need other people to speak up for you...if you do you've got serious problems. No one forces anyone to play that damn shell game.

Don't get me wrong I'm quick to call 911 quite often if I see someone being harmed or about to be harmed. I'd never turn a blind eye to a person being a victim of a crime against their will...the shell game, on the other hand, involves voluntary victimization.

You might not like all those swindlers and hustlers, but the more you get rid of them, the more Chicago turns into a nice, white suburb. There is very little left in the city that is unique thanks to the Daley machine of "cleaning" everything up.

If someone falls prey to a shell game, it's their own fault.

Sean you are so right. I have to take the Metra sometimes.

Yesterday, I had to ride the Red Line from 95th to help a friend who is unfamiliar with the L train and make sure she got off at the right stop.

My stop (Monroe) was right before hers (Washington). She was so terrified by what she had saw riding on the L thus far that she was too scared to get off at Washington and insisted on getting off at Monroe and simply walking a few extra minutes out of her way to her destination. I tried to convince her that what she saw wasn't *really* how it is everyday, but I'm not that good an actress.

From a visitor’s stand point, I really think that’s just terrible.

To vxla: I hardly think getting rid of criminals (yes, the shell gamers are engaging in criminal acts) would turn Chicago "into a nice, white suburb."

On the contrary, once we get rid of criminals like them, we can focus all the more on the antics of the insane and other CTA cretins. I don't think they're going anywhere, despite Daley's best "cleanup" efforts.


I am a lifelong Chicagoan who currently lives in Ravenswood. I plan on raising my kids here and don't believe that I have to put up with all the nonsense on the trains.
I've been on the Brown line with gang bangers smoking pot, with a preacher telling us were all going to hell, with drunken college kids celebrating St. Patricks day, with a homeless woman urinating in the corner... I know the red line is worse because I take the red line too.

Thad, what kind of person are you that you embrace this kind of urban sleaze? I love chaos, the hustle and bustle of the city but I really don't like sleaze and I do everything that I can to make this place a better place to live. What, Thad, are you doing?

And finally, Thad, if you think really think Uptown is scary maybe you should leave the city. Wilson/Broadway is a bit shady at night but otherwise not too bad.


To vxla: Thanks for noticing that all those swindlers and hustlers are black. The plan to turn Chicago turns into a nice, white suburb will be complete once thye are gone. You are just a stupid, miss informed, and truly racist (but believes he not and feels pity on black man and that there is a master plan to destroy them).

Sean: You are a lifelong Chicagoan and you've just noticed there are bad things on the train? (Still want to see some of that stuff on the Brown line, but I guess morning and evening rush isn't really the most exciting times to ride).

Not sure where you got the idea I embrace "urban sleaze," but hey, no dig deal.

Also, Sean, I'm a bit confused: You don't think Uptown is too scary (neither do I, despite what you got out of my post), yet you can't handle the alleged bad stuff on the Brown line, which is probably the cleanest, safest EL line in the city? Something isn't really computing here.

I say bring on the hecklers, the preachers, the shysters, and the ranters! My commute is so BORING! As long as no one's getting hurt, I'm all for my ride being livened up a bit. Do you really need a tomb-like, iPod-induced silence 24/7 on the train? Try reading the blog Overheard in New York for just a day and see what happens on their buses and trains! I guarantee it's more than happens here!

Let the guy do whatever he wants to. Hell, don't play! You annoy me more than him. I enjoy watching the idiots playing his game. I don't enjoy people like you who get off on playing the cop. F*** yourself.

Now in the course of reading the comments on this blog I've frequently run into people wishing that the CTA was run more like METRA. Now lets think about this for a sec. On most runs from your starting location in the burbs to downtown Chicago you're going to pay more than a one way train or bus ride. So they have quite a bit of more money at least at first glance. And they have fewer trains that run less often with fewer stops per train line compared to CTA lines. Of course the distances covered are quite different. In the end though the comparison is apples to oranges. Just trying to put this in context.


Yes I am a lifelong Chicagoan and no I haven't just noticed there are bad things on the train. Also yes bad things happen on the brown line too when you ride off hours.

As for the part about you embracing urban sleaze this is from your initial post --- I don't mean this harshly, but you really seem unhappy with urban sleaze.

Yes Thad, I am unhappy with urban sleaze. It sounds from your post that you are happy with urban sleaze - hence you embrace it.

Finally Thad, nowhere did I say I can't handle bad stuff on the brown line. I said I shouldn't have to put up with it. Keep making those assumptions Thad, they really don't make you out to be too big of an ass.


Sean: You are one of those people for whom any attempt at understanding your point of view just backfires on the skeptic (that is, me) as you take things far too pesonally. Lighten up, bub. I wasn't making any assumptions or attacking you, just trying to understand your view better. You remain extremely unclear and contradictory.

What you need to do is find the shell game guy on a really sunny day when he's sitting by the window. Position yourself so you can see the sun shining through his little bottle caps. With the sun shining through the caps you can see the ball everytime and take him for all he's got!! I've seen it done.


Here are just a couple of assumptions you make:
You are a lifelong Chicagoan and YOU'VE JUST NOTICED there are bad things on the train?

yet YOU CAN'T HANDLE the alleged bad stuff on the Brown line...

IF YOU FIND THE BROWN LINE UNBEARABLE, I can't imagine how you would deal with a walk through certain parts of Uptown.

Please tell me where I've said anything remotely close to what you are replying to.


Sean: I would suggest you get a friend to talk with instead of picking pointless fights with people on blogs. And if you think those are assumptions cut out of thin air, I urge you take a look at your own words a bit more carefully.

For instance, it was you, not I, who raised pesonal concerns about alleged bad things on the Brown Line, and it was you, not I, who stated you had switched from the Brown Line to Metra because of the bad conditions on the Brown Line. Assumptions I did not make, Sean. I ask reasonable question based on your own words, and sprouting from my own interests in the CTA and the quality of city life.

Shall I continue? I can come back at my coffee break this afternoon if you remain friendless.


Grow up.


How about if we have a moratorium on the Thad-Sean smackdown?

what's the old saying about arguing on the internet like being in the special olympics?

Former Chicagoan...there's a much much easier way to win that game if you really want to play it. Just don't EVER take your eyes off him or the board with the shells on it. I've watched him several times and his best move is to simply turn the board around so that the ball, once on the right, is now on the left. He does this when the naive little participants reach into their pockets or bags for money and aren't looking at him.

The Shell Game isn't the problem, the problem is when someone like Joe Schmoe who just lost $20 or $40 keeps playing and then when they 'win', Mr. Red Kangol decides "this is my stop" and tries to get off without paying off Joe Schmoe, that it becomes more than 'just a mild irritation'. It becomes potentially deadly when Schmoe grabs Kangol by the sleeve and demands his 'winnings' and Kangol whips out a knife or worse ,possibly a gun , and gives Schmoe a one way ticket to the hospital, maybe even the morgue. THAT IS what's wrong with the Shell Game on the CTA !! Like the saying goes: "It's funny until someone gets hurt". You want to blow $20 real quick? Walk up to some guy missing a leg, with a sign saying homeless veteran and give that guy your $20 bill. Watch his eyes go from glazed to surprised to sincerely thankful,maybe even teary at your generosity. REGARDLESS of HOW he came to that situation, if he is indeed a veteran , he DESERVES A SMALL TOKEN OF YOUR THANKS FOR HIS SERVICE to this GREAT COUNRTY. (if he is scamming that he is a veteran, he WILL burn in hell,and eventually karma WILL catch up with him...)- You'll walk away feeling a whole lot better than you would have after losing your money to Mr. Red Kangol!!


It moves them along. These slimeballs would rob an old lady. They don't deserve to be tolerated. They're not part of the "cool city atmosphere."

I'm w/ jk1. I got taken by a shell game on the 36 Broadway on my way to play pinball at the Century Mall when I was 14 in 1981. Never happened again.

The classic version of the con requires a team of four or five.

One - the huckster. He calls it out, keeps the patter up.

Two - the player. Usually in the same area as the huckster. Plays and wins. Plays and loses. Shows you really CAN win if you're smart.

Three - the spectator. Drifts in later, cheers on the player, encourages other people to play, may play himself.

Four - the lookout. Watches for cops. Comes in from another car usually. Also may play and win or may be a pickpocket.

All four will disperse to other cars and get off at the same stop.

I'll tell you the easiest way to get on their bad side - offer to pull the two caps where the ball isn't.

I see these guys everyday ... same folks ... and the CTA does zip about them. I've almost physically escorted the motorman back to the car and he just waived me off.

Right on about Metra beeing better then CTA. You are also right about the non nonsense from anyone conducters. As for the rest of you take metra it is the way to really fly

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