Old Time Cons: The Kansas City Shuffle

21 Sep

As part of our continuing series on old time con men, today we’re going to feature not an actual con man, but a con itself. The infamous Kansas City Shuffle.

The con has been around with that name since the beginning of the 20th century and in 1926 was immortalized by musician Bennie Moten is his song The Kansas City Shuffle which does indeed refer to the con.

So what is a Kansas City Shuffle? Well, it’s basically a con which revolves around someone being tricked by thinking that they’re being tricked. Get it?

See, that’s why it’s so brilliant. It’s a con which requires the mark knowing that he’s being conned. All con-games rely on misdirection to some degree, but normally the conman doesn’t want the mark to know there’s a con going on. In a Kansas City Shuffle, 3 requirements must be met:

  1. The victim must suspect that it’s a con-game
  2. The victim must think that they’ve figured out how to beat the con
  3. The victim must be wrong about what the con is.

“All three elements must be present. If the victim doesn’t suspect that they’re being conned, it’s not a Kansas City Shuffle. If the victim doesn’t set themselves up for the real con by doing something to beat the con they think they’ve spotted, it’s not a Kansas City Shuffle. If the victim is right about what the real con is, it’s not a Kansas City Shuffle.”

Example? Anybody watch Lost? Okay, late season 6, Locke/The Man in Black pulls one. He explains to the surviving castaways that he wants them to leave the Island with him in a plane. The good guys however decide to double cross him and lock themselves inside Widmore’s submarine. It looks like they’ve outsmarted him…that is, until Locke/The Man in Black grins and says to his companion Claire, “You don’t want to be anywhere on that sub.” Because he snuck a bomb onboard and by attempting to outsmart him, the castways actually fell for his trap. Bomb goes off, several main characters die and the four survivors barely escape and are left to sob on a beach at night.

In a second layer to that con, The Man in Black cannot kill the castaways himself (if you haven’t sen the show don’t ask and don’t worry) so he lets them think that he conned them into locking themselves in the submarine with a bomb. They discover the bomb before the timer runs down so they figure that they can just disarm the bomb to neutralize the trap. However, ‘disarming’ the bomb actually arms it so the castaways are causing their own deaths which is the Loophole Abuse the Man In Black needed. Ironically Jack figured it out ahead of time but the experienced conman Sawyer insisted on pulling the wires on the bomb. (thanks to TV Tropes for all that. I’ve basically lifted most of this from them)

And we have a Kansas City Shuffle. The show Hustle uses it every 3 episodes. Basically, whenever the mark figures out they’re being conned, you can bet the gang WANTED them to figure it out and there is another layer of con happening. As far as film and TV goes most of this goes back to the classic movie The Sting. While the main con in The Sting is a con known as The Wire, there is also a Kansas City Shuffle in play.

The term comes from the actual location of Kansas City. You’ve all heard of Kansas City, right? Famous town. Big city. Lots of action. Home of the blues and jazz. You want to go to Kansas City, you gotta go to Kansas, right?

Wrong. Actually Kansas City is in Misssouri, right on the other side of the river from Kansas.  But wait, not just on the other side of the river from Kansas, but ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE RIVER FROM KANSAS CITY, KANSAS. Only Kansas City, Kansas is a tiny little dump of a place and NOT the great Kansas City at all. Which is in Missouri. Across the river. Hence the famous phrase “”when they look on one side of the river, you’re on the other”, but in fact you are exactly where you said you’d be, Kansas City.

I should also mention, the entire movie Lucky Number Slevin starring Bruce Willis is one giant Kansas City Shuffle. However, since you cannot google Kansas City Shuffle without pages upon pages of this movie coming up, i thought i’d avoid and talk about other examples.

One last one. I own a pub and throw a pub quiz. Teams can enter and the winning team will win a year’s supply of beer. You want to assemble a team and enter, just to beat me and take my beer, but you also think i’m a slimeball and don’t trust me. You suspect i’m rigging the quiz and so you sniff around and find the team i’m secretly backing in order to win the game myself and avoid paying out the prizes. You sabotage my winning team and win the game. I however WANTED you to win all along for my year’s supply of beer is actually non-alcoholic beer. Had one of the other legitimate teams won, they would have been outraged, but since you already hate me and i wanted to screw you over, i picked you to win, made a killing in business off the whole quiz which brought in droves of people, and got rid of a heap of worthless beer that was taking up much needed space in my cellar.


Posted by on September 21, 2011 in Uncategorized


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3 responses to “Old Time Cons: The Kansas City Shuffle

  1. chucktowner

    January 23, 2013 at 11:30 am

    Awesome. I know that this is an old post, but it’s really well-written and very informative. I’m thinking of writing a short story about a Kansas City Shuffle and finding this was a major help. Bet your ass I’ll be following your blog. Thanks a bunch!

    • paulms

      January 25, 2013 at 8:11 pm

      I’d love to read your story when it’s done or published. I love a good con story.


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