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Best of Howard Schwartz

Gaming Guru

 

Two Books Profile Master Swindlers Yellow Kid Weil, Charles Ponzi

27 August 2004

Throughout history, people have been cheating, swindling and conning unsuspecting and often greedy individuals who believe they'll turn a fast buck themselves.

Two of the most famous con artists in history come to life in recent arrivals at Gambler's Book Shop. They are Ponzi -- The Incredible Story of the King of Financial Cons by Donald Dunn (347 pages, paperbound, $14) and Con Man (A sMaster Swindler's Own Story) by J. R. "Yellow Kid" Weil and W.T. Brannon (334 pages, paperbound, $14), both reprints of the original editions (Weil, 1948 and Ponzi, 1975).

Ponzi, who was nicknamed Boston's "Wizard of Finance," saw his career as a money genius take off in the early 1920s at the age of 38 when the self-educated Italian immigrant borrowed $200 and using other people's money, created what is today known as a "pyramid" scheme. A master psychologist in his own way, he learned to use rumor, persuasion, a charming smile and his own wits to outmaneuver some of the smartest bankers and financial experts at their own gameā€¹utilizing. Ponzi always seemed to spot the right situations. One such situation arose just after World War I when many military veterans were searching for an opportunity to invest in a new business or project with the right interest. Later, he began using International Reply Coupons, finding an edge with foreign currency. He learned how to creatively pay off the early investors while enticing new ones with promises of easy money and a golden future.

A true "silver-tongued devil" of a bygone era (although many of the scams he pulled are the same today-- just polished a bit for a new generation), Ponzi pulled every trick in the book to attract suckers.

"Each investor who had put up money in the hope of making 50 percent in 45 days ... no one had been turned away. No law had been broken," the book explains.

Eventually the Securities and Exchange Commission, postal authorities and law enforcement agencies everywhere were after Ponzi. He'd eventually get away with more money than Jesse James, John Dillinger and many other high profile thieves of his era. His rise to prominence, the chase and the eventual capture are all detailed in this work co-author by W.T. Brannon. (If actor Danny DeVito could lose weight, he'd be perfect for the movie role.) Overall, this is fascinating reading for those who want to avoid being conned themselves in the 21st Century and too, for a study of how greed and stupidity helped one man get rich during one phenomenal time in history.

Con man Weil is estimated to have swindled more than $8 million using phony oil deals, women, fixed races and many other ploys to fool a gullible public. Operating primarily in the Chicago era, he lived to be 101 years of age, some of it was behind bars.

A master of making a fast buck via crossroading, Weil once brought in a phony horse at big odds at the track. He worked in some crooked dice to fleece a "mark" here and there, and ran a monte game with a big house edge. Wherever he found a weakness in human nature, he explored and manipulated it to his own financial advantage.

If you saw the movies "The Sting" (with Paul Newman and Robert Redford) and the sequel, "The Sting II" (with Jackie Gleason playing a con man), you'll get a feeling that some of Weil's exploits actually made it to the big screen. One of the great straight-faced liars of the 20th Century, Weil was tracked for capture by men on two continents. How they eventually nailed this elusive flim-flam man makes fascinating reading.

Howard Schwartz
Howard Schwartz, the "librarian for gamblers," was the marketing director for Gambler's Book Club in Las Vegas, a position he held from 1979 to 2010, when he retired. Author of hundreds of articles on gambling, his weekly book reviews appear in numerous publications throughout the gaming industry.

Howard Schwartz Websites:

www.gamblersbook.com
Howard Schwartz
Howard Schwartz, the "librarian for gamblers," was the marketing director for Gambler's Book Club in Las Vegas, a position he held from 1979 to 2010, when he retired. Author of hundreds of articles on gambling, his weekly book reviews appear in numerous publications throughout the gaming industry.

Howard Schwartz Websites:

www.gamblersbook.com