Why Is Gambling Banned On The CTA?

shell game
(John Casey/Flickr) Flickr
shell game
(John Casey/Flickr) Flickr

Why Is Gambling Banned On The CTA?

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

There are many things you should not do on public transportation. Some of those things, like soliciting, smoking, DJing and manspreading, are obvious.

But there’s one particularity on the Chicago Transit Authority’s “don’t” list that had Curious City listener Annie Durkin of Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood scratching her head: gambling

Maybe you’ve wondered about the frequent, automated announcements on the CTA’s train lines, too: “Soliciting and gambling are prohibited on CTA vehicles.”

So Annie wrote us: Why is there an announcement on the CTA saying that gambling is prohibited? Is this really a problem? I’m just picturing people sitting there rolling dice down the aisle of the train, thinking that’s never going to happen.

Annie, never say never. While we learn that throwing dice isn’t necessarily what the CTA has in mind when it comes to this rule, it’s not far from the type of gambling spectacle that inspired the ban: the Three Card Monte, or the Shell Game.

If you’re unfamiliar, this cellphone video taken on a CTA train in 2009 gives you a sense of what riders can encounter:

When played clean, the game is simple. Three or more containers (cups, shells, bottle caps, etc.) are set face-down on a surface, and the handler places a ball (or other small object) beneath one container while the participant watches. Then, the handler shuffles around the containers, and the participant chooses which one he or she believes the ball is under.

But … the version played on the CTA and elsewhere is usually played dirty. There are several layers of deception, according to Kevin McGroaty, a Chicago-based “graphic designer, magician, and part-time raconteur” who has observed crews pulling off the card game. His first insight is that when you play the game on the train, you’re actually playing against a group of people.

You’ve got the person you think you’re playing against, but in actuality you’re playing against all the other people in the group. And it’s a psychological ploy. You’ll have the person who’s won some money, so you’ve seen that person win money. That person’s in on it. So that person’s there to make it seem like a legitimate game.

Aside from other “players” deceiving you, in some cases the handler removes the ball from the game without you noticing.

After he puts it under the one [shell], as soon as he moves it [the ball’s] out of there. And now he has it. And he can put it under any shell he wants to.

The ball’s being palmed and moved around, so here’s the bottom line: You can’t win.

“It is meant to defraud customers,” says CTA spokesperson Jeff Tollman. “We always say that the best commute a customer can have is an uneventful commute.”

That goal of mindless, uneventful commuting can be at odds with the participatory, deceptive and at-times rowdy nature of the shell game. And though the CTA’s only received nine reported instances of gambling on its trains since 2015, Tollman says it’s still worth making announcements about.

That’s the basics of our answer for Annie, who says she’s glad to know more about the CTA’s announcement. She hopes fewer people will succumb to the shell game so the agency can spend more time on other public service announcements, such as the ones suggesting passengers reserve and offer seats to passengers with disabilities or expecting mothers. That last one, she says, is especially important, as she’s a new mother herself.

One last thing. You’re going to love our radio story for this answer, which was co-produced with Shannon Cason of the Homemade Stories Podcast. A Detroit-based storyteller who has spent plenty of time on Chicago transit, Shannon has personally fallen for the shell game and also struggles with compulsive gambling. His trek in Chicago to find the hustle and the harm involved with the shell game is worth a listen.