I was watching David Mamet’s “House of Games” the other day — more specifically, I was listening to the David Mamet/Ricky Jay commentary track. Jay’s patter is interesting; he’s presenting himself as an expert on confidence games, but 90% of what he says is straight out of David Maurer’s “The Big Con” (TBC). By this I mean that I believe that I could, based upon my knowledge of that single book, have stood in for him on the commentary track, and done as good a job of presenting myself as an expert as he does. That said, he does present one very interesting idea that I don’t remember reading in TBC: A con man should never take more than his victim can afford to lose.
Before we get to the new idea, a few words about the familiarity of much of what Jay has to say. As I see it, there are four possible explanations for the great similarity (down to the specific words) between Jay’s account of the con game, and the descriptions in TBC:
- TBC is remarkably accurate, and the essentials (and language) of the confidence game haven’t changed in over 70 years. Jay’s descriptions therefore match those of the book.
- Jay doesn’t really have any special knowledge of the con game; he’s in show biz! He flipped through TBC, and incorporated it into his persona/act.
- Jay does know something about the con game, but isn’t about to tell the savages. He just recycled the 70 year old material in TBC for the commentary track.
- No con man ever levels with an outsider; there’s a traditional line of bull fed to the curious — to Maurer 70 years ago, and by (or to) Jay today.
I make no odds, I just outline the options as I see them.
However, as I said, Jay does introduce one point I don’t remember reading in TBC: A con man should never take more than his victim can afford to lose. This strikes me as an important notion in general; what matters in life is not just what you can do, but what you can get away with. Sometimes you have to do things that other people will not like. There are, however, degrees of displeasure, and it’s a mistake to take a blanket “in for a penny, in for a pound” view when it comes to giving offense.