Thailand Black Jack Scam
Having just read this week's column I was interested to see that the card scam is still alive and well. I got caught up in it back in 1988 on my first visit to Thailand. I was a backpacker, staying in Banglampoo at the time, but I didn't consider myself to be naive – I mean I wasn't wandering around the streets with a copy of The Lonely Planet Guide to Bangkok and an open map looking like a lost tourist. Of course looking back now I know I had a lot to learn about being in Thailand.
I had only been in the country for a few weeks when I was sucked in by a guy who approached me on Silom Road. He had a sister who was a nurse going to work in London. The family were all very worried about her going and they were having a party that afternoon for her. I, naturally, was welcome to go along and meet her and assure the family that England was okay and that, perhaps, at a later date I could meet up with her in London. It was up to me and there was no pressure. The sister of course is the bait on the hook in this scam. Wouldn't it be nice to know a nice Thai girl in London, I thought. The guy was open and friendly, as he would be. We had a coffee in a little cafe and he chatted away as though we were old friends. Even though I was a little wary, I still got into a cab with this guy, reasoning that I had nothing of great value on me except travellers cheques, all signed by me and of no use to anyone else, and we went to a house that even now I wouldn't be able to find again.
Hindsight, as they say, is a wonderful thing. All of those seemingly innocent questions such as "Is this your first time in Thailand?" "Can you speak Thai?" "How long are you staying?" all reveal that you're new to the country, know nothing and have enough money for a few months travel.
To try and cut a very long story short, there was no one else at the house when we arrived except for one other guy. He, also, was friendly and seemed so pleased to see me, offering me a beer and something to eat. He was the one who showed me how he was going to cheat some Indian guy at Blackjack to get back at him. They painted a very poor picture of this rich Indian who, amongst other things, liked young boys and had won a large amount of money at the house the day before. He chuckled as he showed me how easy it would be.
I believe its the speed of events that keep this con moving along. The one thing that I remember, in hindsight, is the fact that they never stopped talking to me. All the time talking talking. I'm convinced it was almost a sort of brain washing. I had no time to think. We had a few dummy hands of Blackjack as we waited, I thought, for others to arrive for the party and it was all good fun. I wasn't a gambler, I didn't play cards, certainly never for money. But then, in a sudden rush of events, I was handed a large sum of money as the Indian appeared and told not to worry and we'd just play a few hands. The original guy who'd picked me up left, he said, to visit his wife in hospital and I found myself playing Blackjack for seemingly high stakes against this Indian with the other guy as the dealer.
Writing this now I realise how unlikely all of this sounds but that's the way it was. I was winning because I'd been shown how to cheat. We played for a while and I was so focused on the game, worried that I'd lose the money that I'd been given to play with. I kept on winning and the chips I'd been given in exchange for the money were piling up. Then in what was going to be the last hand the stakes were getting higher and higher until I ran out of money. None of the money up until that point was mine, as I'd been given a fistful of B500 notes. The Indian had been cashing in wads of dollar bills for chips. I had $90 in cash. Stupidly I cashed it in and we played until that too was gone. There was now supposedly $32,000 in the pot. With my cards I had 21, the Indian I knew had 20. The game was put on hold for an hour or so so I could raise some more cash. The cards were sealed in envelopes, and each one signed across the seal, and the Indian left. At that point the other guy supposedly returned from the hospital with the news that his wife was in a bad way and needed an operation. He looked to be very distressed. But now all we had to do was finish the game. We would have money to pay for any hospital bills and more. The two Thai guys were beside themselves seemingly with joy and sadness. One was even crying. I was told I stood to make $8,000. I was almost crying myself.
Then, of course, it comes to the crunch. They had no more money to lend me. How much did I have? I only had travellers cheques. "Don't worry, don't worry", they assured me. The money was just for show. I could go and cash the cheques then we'd come back and finish the game. I was a little reluctant at this point to carry on but all the time they were just talking and talking. Sensing that I wasn't as enthusiastic to carry on as they were I was made to feel a little bad about not wanting to go on, emphasizing that the money was needed for the operation now and saying things along the lines of "Why would we want to cheat you?" and "You're nothing, it's the Indian we want to get, not you!"
I found myself in a cab with the guy I'd met on Silom Rd on the way to a bank to cash my cheques, which was around £1,000 if I remember rightly – and then we'd go back and finish off the game. This is where the mistake was made that allowed me to come to my senses. The guy had stopped talking. Looking back I guess he was thinking that the job was done. For the first time in this sorry tale I had time to think. The whole thing hit me as though I'd run into a brick wall.
You wouldn't think that this story could get any more ridiculous than it already is but it then veered off at an angle of my own making. I was trapped in the back of a cab with a guy who was about to take me for all I had. What I should have done is wait until we got out of the cab and then made a break for it. What I shouldn't have done is formulate some insane idea of trying to get the $90 back that I'd already invested in the game. I was on a backpacker's budget paying 60 baht a night for a room and $90 was worth a lot more then than it is today. I told the guy I wasn't going to go through with it unless I had some assurance from him that I'd get my $8,000. He was horrified, accusing me of having a "dirty mind" to think like that and again saying that it was the Indian they wanted not me. He made a frantic call back to the house. The taxi was turned around. For all I knew the driver was in on it also. He had appeared very quickly on the quiet little soi the house was on. "We'll cancel the game" I was told. It makes me shudder to think now but I wanted him to believe that I still believed everything and that we could still go through with it but on my terms. All I need I said, apart from the $90 back, was his name and the address of the house which I would then take to a contact in Banglumpoo (who was I kidding) and then I'd come back and we'd finish the game. I was keeping it calm saying that he had to see it all from my point of view. I didn't know him he didn't know me, and to imagine that if he was in London and he had got involved in something similar etc. Despite the call back to the house they seemed to be surprised that we were back so soon. The Indian was there chatting with the other guy. He was bundled out and I was left with the two Thai blokes. I went through my terms again. After a lot of muttering I guess they could see it was a lost cause and I was told the game was cancelled. Amazingly I got my $90 back. Now I was trapped in a room with the two of them. All I wanted to do then was get out as fast as I could. I was told they'd get a cab for me and that the one would come with me again. I had to push my way out a little as one made a half hearted attempt to hold me back while the other went for a cab. Out on the soi it was probably the same cab again so I didn't get in. I walked up to the main drag. The same guy had insisted on coming with me. Again he was talking and talking. Once out on to what I think now was somewhere way down Sukhumvit Road he flagged a taxi down. As he leaned in to talk with the driver another one was passing which I flagged. I was in and away before the guy realised what was happening.
I know that reading this back, even to me it seems like such a tall story. You wonder how anyone could ever be so stupid as to get caught up in such a thing. It couldn't have been the first time these guys had pulled this scam. I do believe though that there was something in the way that they just kept on talking all the time, never giving me any time to think. As I say it was almost a sort of brain washing. I would be interested to know if anyone else has found this. Though most I guess wouldn't admit to falling for it in the first place, not these days anyway with the countless websites and guide books that are out there devoted to Thailand, warning of every possible danger. In 1988, 24 years ago, there were no websites and very few guide books. You had to figure it out for yourself a lot of the time.
Some would say, I'm sure, that you can't con an honest man but I hadn't set out to con anyone that day. I just about avoided losing all I had. It was a very close call. I also wonder what the outcome would have been if I had cashed all my travellers cheques and gone back to finish the game. Would I still be alive today? They would have taken my money somewhere along the line. Would it have been by force? Would the cards have been switched so that I lost the game? If that was the case they would have still had to get rid of me somehow. Would I have been drugged and dumped somewhere? (Years later I was drugged and robbed, Pay Day).
At the time I was so angry with the people who did this to me. I think I was even more angry at myself for being so stupid. It fxxxed me up for several days, playing it over and over in my mind with all of its real and imagined scenarios, until I took a girl I knew a little out of a bar on Patpong. We checked in to a hotel then went out and got drunk. It took ages to find the hotel again. It was a wonderful cure. It would have been easy to leave and never go back but even then, after just a few weeks of being there, I was already addicted to the place.
What a nicely told recount! You did well extricating yourself relatively easily from what was potentially a perilous situation. I wonder if it would be quite so easy to get away from such a situation today?