Acts of deception in Topdog/Underdog follow a relatively standardized progression. Indeed, even the most flagrant cons or scams adhere to the same general guidelines. Three-Card Monte, a classic street game played with cards, exhibits this perfectly, as the hustler’s performance and banter follow a uniform, step-by-step delivery. When Lincoln teaches Booth how to “throw the cards,” he explains this hustler’s process, emphasizing the most important step: tricking people into thinking they have a chance at winning even though the odds are stacked against them. What’s most critical, Lincoln tells his little brother, is that the mark (that is, the person being conned) must be made to think he is the one convincing the dealer to play the game—when in reality, the dealer is eager to rob the mark of his money, and has painstakingly manufactured the appearance of being unwilling to play. If this step of the hustler’s process is effective, the mark suddenly becomes instrumental in his own deception, eager to play a game he can never win. When Lincoln himself employs this exact technique to con Booth, the audience comes to understand that the act of deception is deeply psychological, relying on patterns proven to disarm and take advantage of people. In turn, the play shows that the most important step in a hustler’s process of deception is identifying a person’s willingness to ignore rationality in the hopes of seeing him- or herself as a winner against all odds.
The standardized process of deception is immediately observable in the way both Lincoln and Booth practice their routines as card dealers. Rather than simply throwing the cards on the table and playing the game, they adhere to something like a hustler’s script, which is full of catch phrases and periodic reiterations of the rules of the game. “Watch me close watch me close now,” Booth says in the play’s opening lines as he practices playing Three-Card Monte. “Who-see-thuh-red-card-who-see-thuh-red-card? I-see-thuh-red-card. Thuh-red-card-is-thuh-winner. […] You-pick-that-card-you-pick-a-loser, yeah, that-cards-a-loser. […] You-pick-that-card-you-pick-a-winner. Follow that card. You gotta chase that card.” Compared to Lincoln, Booth’s delivery is clumsy and slow, but his commitment to learning this banter emphasizes the importance of the routine. What’s more, it’s worth noting that this banter involves underlining time and again the difference between losing and winning (“You-pick-that-card-you-pick-a-loser”; “You-pick-that-card-you-pick-a-winner”). This is because the dealer wants to establish a simple distinction: a person is either a “loser” or a “winner.” This ultimately instills in the onlookers a sense of competition, an eagerness to prove that they’re winners. By explaining the simple rules of the game (there are, after all, only three cards to choose from), the dealer subtly implies to his audience that picking a “winner” isn’t actually very hard. As a result, he imbues the mark with a false sense of confidence and a yearning to prove himself, inviting him to participate in his own deception. As such, Parks spotlights the spoken element of deception, suggesting that a good hustler is one who can verbally plant ideas in a mark’s head without ever giving outright encouragement—a crucial step in the art of deception.
Unfortunately for Booth, he himself is susceptible to this kind of deception. Throughout the play, Lincoln acts as if he doesn’t want to throw cards with his brother. Booth sees this as nothing more than an unwillingness to play the game, even though Lincoln’s reluctance should arouse suspicion—since Lincoln has already explained to Booth that a good hustler never reveals how eager he is to play. “He holds back and thuh crowd, with their eagerness to see his skill and their willingness to take a chance, and their greediness to win this cash, the larceny in their hearts, all goad him on and push him to throw his cards, although of course the Dealer has been wanting to throw his cards all along,” he says. When Lincoln finally does play Three-Card Monte with Booth, he lets his little brother win. This gives Booth the false impression that he has an unheard-of talent for besting the dealer. Thinking this, he swells with confidence. “Yeah, baby!” he gloats. “3-Card got thuh moves! You didn’t know lil bro had thuh stuff, huh? Think again, Link, think again.” In response, Lincoln acts convincingly annoyed, saying, “You wanna learn or you wanna run your mouth?” By pretending to be a sore loser, Lincoln only adds to Booth’s burgeoning ego. For Booth, the idea that he has outwitted and embarrassed his older brother—an experienced hustler—intensifies his own conviction that he’s a winner. In this way, Lincoln coaxes his little brother into ignoring something he should already know about the game: the dealer always wins.
The fact that Booth falls for Lincoln’s deception illustrates the dangerous influence of his ego on his decision-making. Indeed, his desire to believe in his own virtuosity eclipses everything else, even the lessons Lincoln has taught him about the process of deception itself. When Lincoln finally reveals that he has conned his little brother, he reminds Booth of what his overconfidence has allowed him to forget: “Cause its thuh first move that separates thuh Player from thuh Played,” he tells Booth. “And thuh first move is to know that there aint no winning. Taadaaa! It may look like you got a chance but the only time you pick right is when thuh man lets you.” In this moment, he admits that he’s been in control the entire time, manipulating Booth into forgetting that “there aint no winning” against the dealer in Three-Card Monte. This harkens back to something he tells his little brother earlier in the play: “First thing you learn is what is,” he says. “Next thing you learn is what aint.” In this context, learning “what is” means comprehending that the dealer is always in control of the situation. Learning “what aint” means understanding that the dealer will often create the illusion that the mark has the upper hand. Thus, Lincoln breaks down the process of deception in simple terms: the dealer will always win, but will also always make it seem otherwise. And yet despite having heard this straightforward explanation, Booth still falls for Lincoln’s con. This is because Lincoln has scouted him out as a perfect mark, someone eager to ignore reality in the name of victory and triumph. It’s clear that Lincoln knows his brother well—and therefore knows that he’ll readily embrace the idea of himself as magnificent and virtuosic against all odds. Lincoln exploits Booth’s most hubristic impulses. As such, Parks demonstrates that the act of deception is a deeply psychological game—one that often depends on exploiting the mark’s vanity so that he ultimately plays into his own deception.
Deception Quotes in Topdog/Underdog
Watch me close watch me close now: who-see-thuh-red-card-who-see-thuh-red-card? I-see-thuh-red-card. Thuh-red-card-is-thuh-winner. Pick-thuh-red-card-you-pick-uh-winner. Pick-uh-black-card-you-pick-uh-loser. Theres-thuh-loser-, yeah, theres-thuh-black-card, theres-thuh-other-loser-and-theres-thuh-red-card, thuh-winner.
You wanna bet? 500 dollars? Shoot. You musta been watching 3-Card real close. Ok. Lay the cash in my hand cause 3-Cards thuh man. Thank you, mister. This card you say?
Wrong! Sucker! Fool! Asshole! Bastard! I bet yr daddy heard how stupid you was and drank himself to death just cause he didnt wanna have nothing to do witchu! I bet yr mama seen you when you was born and she wished she was dead, sucker! Ha Ha Ha! And 3-Card, once again, wins all thuh money!!
I got her this ring today. Diamond. Well, diamond-esque, but it looks just as good as the real thing. Asked her what size she wore. She say 7 so I go boost a 6 and a half, right? Show it to her and she loves it and I shove it on her finger and its a tight fit right, so she cant just take it off on a whim, like she did the last one I gave her. Smooth, right?
I cant be hustling no more, bro.
What you do all day aint no hustle?
Its honest work.
Dressing up like some crackerass white man, some dead president and letting people shoot at you sounds like a hustle to me.
People know the real deal. When people know the real deal it aint a hustle.
We do the card game people will know the real deal. Sometimes we will win sometimes they will win. They fast they win, we faster we win.
And ooooh you certainly was persistent. But you was in such a hurry to learn thuh last move that you didnt bother to learning thuh first one. That was yr mistake. Cause its thuh first move that separates thuh Player from thuh Played. And thuh first move is to know that there aint no winning. Taadaaa! It may look like you got a chance but the only time you pick right is when thuh man lets you. And when its thuh real deal, when its thuh real fucking deal, bro, and thuh moneys on thuh line, thats when thuh man wont want you picking right. He will want you picking wrong so he will make you pick wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. Ooooh, you thought you was finally happening, didnt you? You thought yr ship had come in or some shit, huh? Thought you was uh Player. But I played you, bro.