Beware: The €200 pea scam at Las Ramblas

shell game coopenhagen
Look carefully – are the audiences, really just audiences? With credits:

The €200 pea scam at Las Ramblas

When I last visited Las Ramblas in summer, it was a really underwhelming place. I had imagined tree-lined pavements with a glass ceiling and marble flooring, but apart from vintage looking buildings, Las Ramblas appeared to be like any other pedestrian shopping street in the world.

Little did I know that some four years ago, my Friend S and D were having a very different sort of experience.

It all started with a pea.

They had arrived at Las Ramblas one balmy afternoon, and were attracted to a group of people crowding together. On closer look, several people were playing a simple game involving a pea. There are three boxes with only one containing a pea. A man was shuffling the boxes, and onlookers are encouraged to guess which box contains the pea.

There was a member of the audience who had placed bet after bet and was winning.

My friends decided to give it a try without putting in any money. They managed to guess the right boxes for several rounds and decided to put in a bet.

My friends put in €50. It was a minimum of €50 or nothing else.

And as fate would have it, they lost.

Now at this juncture, most Singaporeans would have already left, but my two friends preserved. They put in €50 and they lost again.

At the last round, they put in a bet of €100.

And they lost again, bringing the total losses to €200.

pea scam stockholm
Think twice before making a bet.

* * *

Intrigued, I did some research online. Why did they keep losing, especially right after putting in the money?

Apparently it is possible to quickly remove the pea, so it’s a certain lose for the one betting. With a magic trick, all three boxes will have no pea inside. This is done so by a sleight of hand.

Some highlights from the very comprehensive report on Wikipedia about the pea scam, also known as the ‘Shell Game’.

When an individual not familiar with the shell game encounters a game on the streets, it appears that bets are being placed by numerous players, when in reality, the people around the game are shills who are all part of the confidence trick.

The apparent players actually serve various roles in the swindle: they act as lookouts for the police; they also serve as “muscle” to intimidate marks who become unruly and some are shills, whose job is to pretend to play the game, and entice the mark into betting. Once a mark enters the circle of apparent players and faces the operator, the gang surrounds the player to discourage an easy exit and to keep other pedestrians from entering and disrupting the confidence trick gang’s action on the main mark.

shell game
Got scammed? Maybe it’s all part of the travelling experience. With credits:

The operator’s trick is sleight of hand. A skilled operator can remove a pea from under any shell (or shells) and place it under any shell (or shells), or keep it in his hand or up his sleeve, undetected by a mark. So it is never of any benefit for the mark to watch the movement of either the shells or the operator’s hands; the pea will likely not be under any of the shells.

The game should not be mistaken for an honest game. Through the sleight of hand, the operator can hide the pea without the mark seeing him or her do so.

But, you can still win…

A mark can win only by declaring which shells the pea is not under, and physically overturning two arbitrary shells. The mark must himself turn over the shells since the dealer could easily plant the pea under any shell he or she overturns. The dealer is then forced to either reveal the secret of the trick, or act his part by placing the pea under the final shell. If a mark “wins” this way, a shill or the muscle will usually trail the mark and attempt to retrieve the money by intimidation or theft.

* * *

My life is worth more than €200

As my friend S narrated the somewhat ‘thrilling’ time at Las Ramblas, I couldn’t help but ask, “Why not try to expose him?”

“What for!” Was the reply. “Someone tried to, but got dragged down an alleyway. My life is more important than €200.”

* * *

 The Travelling Squid’s Take

It may seem a tad foolish to be scammed €200 from a pea. But I think not. I think not many Singaporeans are able to be scammed in such a way. If you look at it, it takes some amount of confidence and risk-taking to be participating in the shell game.

Firstly, you got to be confident and smart enough to be sure of where the pea after the shuffling. A person like me would totally have not participated, due to my ‘sotong’/inept nature. How in the world am I suppose to figure how where the pea is? I’m on a holiday, not on some pea solving mission.

Secondly, I don’t think I will be putting down even €50 for this – it’s better going off to my Zara purchases.  It is also a Singaporean thing to be very careful when travelling and abide by travel advisories faithfully – eg. ‘I heard Las Ramblas is known for scammers, I wouldn’t be talking to strangers. I will quickly walk down this street, because it is must-go in Barcelona but I will hug my bag tightly.’

This post is written to warn readers about such scams, especially along Las Ramblas and major touristy streets around the world. But I think that if you ever found yourself scammed, it’s not exactly a bad thing. At least you know you are confident and a risk taker. You’re sharp but not as sharp as scammers with 20 years of experience. (Never mind, unless you are pursuing the career of a scammer.) You’re open to trying crazy new things while travelling. While painful on the wallet, you experienced Las Ramblas in a way that many people couldn’t, and wouldn’t have done so.

As my Friend S puts it, ‘”We paid €200 for the show.”

Did you ever play the shell game while overseas? Please share your experience in the comments section below.