Game of Cults: What this Notorious Scam Reveals About Human Psychology

In this and the upcoming nine articles, we will explore how to influence individual behavior and get readers to align identity with brand.

Our building block is the individual. A community and market are made up of people. As we move from the one to the many, the amount of influence and how we exert that influence will change.

The art of the scam

One of the masters of influencing behavior through story was a fellow Chicagoan, Joe “Yellow Kid” Weil.

He originated the wire scam featured in the movie The Sting.

For this story to make sense, you need to understand the times.

The telegraph was the communications technology of the day, and off-track betting (known as “hand books”) was legal, unregulated, and done in the back rooms of pool halls and saloons.

Initially, Weil focused on scamming wealthy gamblers he had seen frequent the wire rooms to place bets. Eventually, he did so well with this scam that he began advertising in the paper to find prospects.

Wanted—man to invest $2,500.

Opportunity to participate in a very profitable venture. Must be reliable. Confidential. Box-62. 

Through visibility, marks came to him in droves, and he could interview them and determine if they felt they were owed something for nothing.

Most did.

Once he had a mark, the scam began. His biggest windfall with this scam was a wealthy gambler named McCallister.

Weil met McCallister at a handbook to set the atmosphere. That way, McCallister would see the money exchange hands. People lined up at the betting window, the operators called the races, and the bookies noted the odds on a blackboard.

“You can make a fortune if you pick the right horse,” Weil would say.

“Yes, a fortune!” replied McCallister.

“If you know the winning horse beforehand, you can’t lose.”

“But how is that possible?” McCallister asked.

“Come over to the Western Union building with me, and you’ll see.”

On the way over, he would share that his brother-in-law was hopelessly addicted to horse racing and was now in the clutches of loan sharks.

Weil and his mark would step onto the telegraph floor, and Weil would wave. He would say his brother-in-law signaled to him to meet downstairs in the stairway. Usually, some operator would wave to Weil, but the one returning his wave wasn’t in on the scam.

One of Weil’s compatriots, dressed like a telegraph operator, would meet them in the stairwell.

Western Union supplied the track results to the handbooks by wire back in the day. The handbooks took bets until the handbook telegraph operator received the flash that the race was off.

Weil and his compatriot would then put on an elaborate show where he would say that Weil’s sister would leave the brother-in-law if she found out about his gambling and would die of despair if the loan sharks hurt him.

Weil had come up with a solution.

Since his brother-in-law worked the “gold” wire where the race results came from, he could delay the results and pass them to Weil. Then, Weil and his new partner would place the bet and make a killing.

For giving them the results this way, the mark would give the brother-in-law the $2,500 he owed in loans.

The brother-in-law reluctantly agrees, saying that the wire operator on the other side will need to be paid off, so he will want at least $5,000.

Driven by greed and a sure thing, the mark would agree. At this point, the brother-in-law says that rather than giving him the $2,500, he would like the mark to include it with the bet he will make, and then the brother-in-law would pay the loan sharks out of the winnings.

“I’ll put the results on a slip of paper, stick it through a slit into a rubber ball, and drop that out a window. You just need to be here to catch it,” the brother-in-law said.

“I’ll get a boy to be there and run it over to the pool hall,” replied Weil.

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On race day, they would go to a nearby handbook. It had to be this place because it was close to the Western Union office, giving the runner time to get there before the race went off. The entire betting parlor was a fabrication—Weil’s accomplices acting out a charade as part of the scam.

As planned, the boy would run up to them with the ball. The ball didn’t originate at the Western Union building but around the corner where they had their own wire. They would get the actual results, then wire them into the fake betting parlor.

With the results in hand, Mr. McCallister would go in and place his bet. Of course, not knowing if it would work, he was reserved in his betting.

Just before he could get to the window, a scuffle broke out between two patrons in the line. This prevented McCallister from getting the bet in before the wire flashed.

“They’re off!” Called the announcer.

He missed the opportunity.

A meeting later in the day was planned with the brother-in-law, McCallister, and Weil to split winnings. Here McCallister and Weil would explain to the brother-in-law how they couldn’t get the bet placed in time. The brother-in-law would lament that now he was still in the debt of the sharks, and his partner in New York would never send participate again if he didn’t get the $5,000.

This golden opportunity was ruined forever by McCallister’s poor performance.

“If I cover your debt and what we owe the New York operator, can we do this again?” asked McCallister.

Now, the mark is the willing instigator. The conman is reflexively controlling him.

“Yes, but it’ll need to be paid today. I can’t work a wire with broken hands.”

“Let’s go to the bank right now!” exclaimed McCallister.

This wasn’t the final play in Weil’s scam. You or I may have been happy with that kind of money, but for the Yellow Kid, they had just completed phase one of the con.

The next time the men would meet, the brother-in-law would tell them that he had been moved off the gold wire because the Western Union was in the midst of a wire fraud investigation.

It was common practice to move operators around, but it could be weeks or months before they could rerun the scam. The sole purpose of this was to run others through the first part of the scam and to leave Mr. McCallister obsessing about the opportunity to get rich quickly.

I’ll share the big con in a later article. It’s a long story, and I don’t want to keep you away from some learning.

What this scam teaches us

The story and charade were designed to heighten emotion and get the mark invested in the scam, not just financially but emotionally.

Weil didn’t tell the mark what to do because Weil selected people who felt they were due something for free and had a take-charge attitude.

McCallister wasn’t going to let this timid wire clerk or some drunks fighting in line get in the way of a sure thing.

Weil had enough experience that if he made marks wait, eventually, they would push to do the deal and become the motivation for the second phase of the scam. Usually, some other life circumstances pushed them to need some sure big score.

How people feel about the situation is their reality.

I’m going to share my working model for understanding how and why people get triggered, and then we will explore methods for using this through the game we build.

Given the amount of content, we will have to do this over several articles.

If you apply what you learn, you’ll begin to see your reader’s behavior change. Not because you told or sold them, but because they feel a certain way, making them behave according to your desire.

Their desire to spend time with your characters and your story world drives your sales results.

One more thing…

Here are some suggested movies to watch to get you in the mood for this season:

The Sting

House of Games

Read: Use This Emotion Wheel to Craft a Better Reader Experience