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The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man

3.87  ·  Rating Details ·  680 Ratings  ·  72 Reviews
Shares insights from confidence men and swindlers on the schemes they used to cheat their victims.
Paperback, 315 pages
Published July 20th 1999 by Anchor (first published 1940)
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Dean Brickland if you want to improve your English reading and speaking abilities the only way is with a dictionary and a book. if you find a word you don't know…moreif you want to improve your English reading and speaking abilities the only way is with a dictionary and a book. if you find a word you don't know then write it down and find the definition in the dictionary and write that next to the word and continue reading the book. you can use a smartphone app instead of a dictionary. they tend to have a voice that can read the word too. if you follow that method then this book should be entertaining but could be still difficult to read. sorry that is has taken so long to get an answer.(less)

Community Reviews

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Mar 23, 2012 Scott rated it really liked it
A fascinating linguistic and anthropological study of a bygone criminal era... details an amazing variety of crooks and parasites evolved to fit any niche they could find. The catalog of these specialties is oddly romantic; Pullman train-car bunko specialists, trick Faro dealers, and "golden wire" or "big store" experts have all gone the way of hurdy-gurdy repairmen and buggy-whip manufacturers, into the trash bin of history. Their descendants are still out there, spamming Nigerian scam e-mails ...more
Jon Frankel
May 18, 2015 Jon Frankel rated it it was amazing
David W. Maurer was a linguist, and language, professional argot, is his entree to the world of conmen, but don't let that fool you. He loves his subjects. This kind of book has a long history. Robert Greene started it all with his Coney Catching pamphlets, about con artists in Elizabethan London. Greene was a drunk, a playwright and a gambler. He knew his business too, and it lay in the fertile fields of slang. Maurer anatomizes the con games, the conmen and their argot. The book was first publ ...more
Philip Hollenback
Sep 03, 2015 Philip Hollenback rated it it was ok
Shelves: history, nonfiction
This book started out with a lot of very interesting stories and descriptions of elaborate con games. However, it kind of went nowhere after that. It felt like the author didn't actually have a cohesive story to tell.

So, I recommend you read maybe the first third of this book and ignore the rest.
Eric Smith
Oct 29, 2012 Eric Smith rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
This is one of my favorite books and I recommend it to everyone, especially if you have an interest in acting, sales, marketing, business development, confidence games, or organized crime. The book was written by a linguist and he has a deep interest in the lingo used by criminals, in this case con-men, and he uses that knowledge when writing the book. The style of his writing is clipped and hip in a kind of Humphrey Bogart kind of way, which perfectly suits the subject matter: the men who ran t ...more
I'd actually give this book three and a half stars. David Maurer was a linguistics professor in Kentucky whose study of the lingo of con men led him to learn more about the con man lifestyle. At its best, this book describes some of the classic cons of its time (the book was first published in 1940) and I now want to rewatch some David Mamet movies to see how that correlate to the text.

While Maurer was an academic, he is clearly having fun writing about grifters and ropers and insidemen and so f
Sep 08, 2010 Jacob rated it it was amazing
Three hundred pages of this, a fine book to draw out over the summer:

"O.K.," says John. "We'll give him the hides. What kind of an egg is he?"
"Well, he's no lop-eared mark," says Jimmy. "He knows what it is all about. And he may be hard to handle. He is a hefty baby with plenty of moxie. I'd guess he'l be hard to cool out."
"If he gets fractious, he'll get the cackle-bladder. That cools out those tough babies. Do you want to find the poke for him?"
"We might as well. He's right there in the hotel
Nov 09, 2007 Clare rated it liked it
Highly recommended for those who like criminology, scam artistry, and all of its related lingo. Also recommended for its practical purposes - I recently found myself entangled in a (suspected) con situation reminiscent of the stories told in this book, and was able to walk away with my wallet thanks to the insider knowledge offered straight from the mouths of 1920's con men. I personally thank guys like Barney the Patch and Larry the Lug for that - I'd give them each a thank you token but they'v ...more
Will Ward
Dec 30, 2016 Will Ward rated it it was amazing
Love these books that are a window into a strange subculture
Nov 06, 2011 Margot rated it it was ok
An interesting look at the tradition and history of the con game in the United States. Detailed variations on each version, with examples of just how the game is played. Bit a bit slow, a bit too dry for literary interest and a bit too flowery for academic interest, with too many lists of con men's names that bear no meaning for the modern reader. And it's fairly clear that the author, while pretending to a scholarly indifference, is quite enamored of talented con men. You can almost hear him ch ...more
May 14, 2011 Nick rated it it was amazing
David Maurer's The Big Con is a bona fide masterpiece of pre-WWII American criminal culture. A fascinating insider survey of the confidence game, its discreet origins and inimitable characters, as recorded by a streetwise linguist with deep access and an appreciably wry wit. Originally published in 1940, it should be essential reading to anyone with a sincere interest in historical lowlifes or the grift. This is right up there with You Can't Win, Education of a Felon, David Simon's Homicide, or ...more
David Bird
Jan 31, 2015 David Bird rated it it was amazing
The true center of this work, like the center of the cons it describes, may be the Mark. With most crime, the more we learn of the victims, the more we sympathize with them. But Mauer shows us a crime where it is the victim's own criminality that makes him vulnerable. Were he not greedy, were he not open to the prospect of defrauding others, he would not be susceptible, and the greater his vices, the better a mark he is.

The con man who preys upon this emerges as a likeable fellow (the world des
Mar 15, 2014 Kenneth rated it it was amazing
I like to recommend David Maurer's 1940 classic, THE BIG CON, for the picture it paints of the US being, from one point of view, a vast, well-oiled swindling machine. Every metropolis used to have its network of gyp joints, variously tarted up as saloons, nightclubs, gambling casinos, etc., preying on a steady stream of green hicks dazzled by the bright lights of the big city, while not by any means neglecting to fleece the more urbane sort of marks as well. A regular schedule of bribery and cor ...more
Angela Jones-Cuéllar
Aug 11, 2016 Angela Jones-Cuéllar rated it it was amazing
pooled ink Reviews:

“Of all the grifters, the confidence man is the aristocrat.”

The Big Con is a casual narrative that eases you into the world of the modern (1940s) confidence man as its pages offer you true third party insight with the occasional tale or anecdote from those who actively play the game. Educational, amusing, informative, and a remarkably quick read this book provides all that is needed for the casual enthusiast.

Non-fiction is pretty hit-or-miss for me but the narrative that s
Ryan Holiday
Jun 22, 2012 Ryan Holiday rated it it was amazing
Stories about con men and criminals are good to use as anecdotes and metaphors. The Big Con does this well and if that was all it did it would be worth having. What I didn't realize is that Maurer's book is the definitive academic piece on early 20th-century crime. As in, he also wrote an entire book on the linguistics of the underworld (which is interesting to think about considering how commonly we use their phrases - grift, rag, con, the fix, blowing him off) and wrote the Britannica article ...more
Apr 28, 2011 Chris rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A wonderful work and a fine period piece (it was originally published in 1940) that is as much a linguistic examination of the patois of the grifter in the early part of the 20th century as it is a sociological examination of the class and kind of criminal. Maurer's sympathies are squarely and firmly with the con men here and, as such, he manages to see their targets as deserving marks rather then victims. The author conveniently ignores Ponzi and his ilk and the depictions skirt into the realms ...more
Noah Stacy
Aug 29, 2009 Noah Stacy rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Good stuff, though certainly a bit dated--the book was originally published in 1940, and Maurer was following cons that were at their peak in the teens and twenties. His writing's a touch stiff, as well--you'd think these guys never used a contraction. But the heart of it is still good--or rotten, depending on how you're looking at it. The psychology con men capitalize on is just the same as ever it was--if a mark's got larceny in his heart, then he's as ripe for a con today as he was in the 20s ...more
William Thomas
Jun 22, 2009 William Thomas rated it really liked it
the wonderful study of the con man from 1940, full of street lingo and a glossary of underworld terms from the grifters themselves, left me wanting something more. this book began as a study of linguistics and turned into a sociological report on the grift, but it repeats itself far too often. it seems that maurer may not have been working from a single thesis when he changed the focus of the book and most definitely did not have an outline, as the book could have been pared down about 70 pages ...more
Feb 10, 2016 Andy rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
It was a very interesting book at times, and I feel like I became just a little bit more "street smart," and could totally spot certain cons... but it just read like a text book, with the author all-too-frequently dropping lingo that he picked up from his interviews. I got a distinct "name dropping" feel, and not just because Maurer couldn't help but drop the names of every con artist he ever heard about.

About 3/4 the way through, I started skimming sections I didn't like (explaining terms, det
Jul 24, 2016 Feliks rated it really liked it
Shelves: good-nonfiction
One of the most fun, engaging, and readable nonfiction studies relevant to the life of America in the early 20 c. Hilarity ensues as you turn these pages; and you wind up learning a hell of a lot about cons and con men. It's really awesome. This author is the foremost expert on con-game history; and he gives you all the 'inside skinny'. The foremost lesson: never feel any sympathy for someone who lost money to a con. Pay no heed to their sob-stories. Con men never prey on the truly innocent; the ...more
May 14, 2009 Jim rated it it was amazing
Best known these says as the source material for the movie "The Sting", this book is chock full of information about how con men ran their rackets in the early part of the 20th century. It's all in there, from short cons to the big cons like the wire, the mitt store, the pay-off, and loads of other exciting-sounding tricks to part a sucker and his money. The author gives plenty of detail, and makes it clear that nearly every con asked the mark to make some sort of personal breach of ethics, like ...more
Aug 31, 2016 Paul rated it liked it
I wanted to like this book more than I did. It's an interesting look at the underworld from the first half of the century, specifically the confidence games used to take money from folks non-violently. Unfortunately, the writing is very repetitive, and often consists of long, dull lists about long-forgotten characters. I was most interested in learning exactly how the various con games worked. The book detailed a small number of big con games, as well as one chapter's worth of short-con games. B ...more
Michael Trevino
Jan 03, 2008 Michael Trevino rated it really liked it
This was the genesis of the movie "The Sting." This non-fiction account of the birth of confidence men is interesting to say the least, but that's because I like stories about people who do things illegally and make a living off of it. This book, however, will not make you into a con man, or even for that matter, make you money by practicing what it describes.

It does however, provide a unique window into the underworld and mannerisms of the early 1900's, on into the 1920's, about what it took t
Sep 28, 2013 Jon added it
Marvelous look at a lost world of grifters and suckers. Maurer also wrote more academic works about moonshiners and drug addicts, this book is his only one intended for a general readership. Includes a glossary with lots of nifty con-artist argot. Luc Sante's introduction to the re-issue (the book came out in 1940) was better than I expected, since I don't think much of Sante. (When you look up "superficial" in the dictionary there's a picture of him, you know what I mean?) Recalls lowlife class ...more
Dec 09, 2015 Geoff rated it it was amazing
Fun read. Very fascinating look at con and con artists from the turn of the last century to the great depresion. Detailed descriptions of the major cons, how they worked, the lifestyles of the grifters, & a lot of insight into the culture. Fascinating to see that Denver hosted a huge con ring and was the site of one of the biggest arrests of con artists ever (the federal prosecutor had to use volunteer constables since local and state police were all compromised and on the take!).
Nathan Alderman
Mar 24, 2013 Nathan Alderman rated it really liked it
Far more fun than research ought to be, Maurer's exhaustive scholarly review of the confidence game brims with colorful characters and even more colorful lingo. He made friends with actual con artists, and in turn learned all the tricks of their trade, right now to the magnificent names they hung on each variety of caper. If you're boning up on crime for a book of your own, or just want an entertaining and dryly funny peek inside a crooked corner of American history, this book's for you.
Jun 02, 2016 Sara rated it really liked it
The beginning of this book was utterly flawless. It got maybe a bit less interesting as the chapters went on, but overall I laughed really loudly at parts of this. I also kept finding things I already knew from a lifetime of loving heist and con fiction, and specific references I recognized because of my all-time favorite television show that's not Parks and Rec, Leverage, which was the impetus to read this in the first place. So. Altogether delightful.
Sep 13, 2012 Richard rated it it was amazing
This study of cons and con men of the early 20th century is a must-read for the lingo and monickers alone. I also enjoyed the detailed breakdowns of some of the cons. Never underestimate the power of greed to cloud men's minds. As Maurer says, "a confidence man only prospers because of the fundamental dishonesty of his victims." Variations of some of these scams are going on to this very day and idiots are still falling for them.
Apr 11, 2009 Pete rated it it was amazing
Written in 1940. Both a period piece and timeless. Every detail of the cons is dated, but the fundamentals still make a good and valuable education. I'm guessing that every screenwriter in the 1940s read this book for the grifter lingo. It would still be a good read if that's all there was to it. But with the scams and the inherent psychology lessons, it's Security and Chicanery 101, the prequel to The Games People Play. Highly recommended.
Jul 03, 2007 Dan rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
If your blood thrills at the thought of a roper bringing a mark to the big store, introducing him to the inside man, showing him a convincer, putting him on the send, fleecing him, and giving him the blow-off, then Maurer's in-depth look at con-man culture is for you. Read descriptions of the major long- and short-cons, meet men with names like The Seldom Seen Kid and Larry the Lug, and learn more '20s slang than you ever wanted. You wanted some, right?
Aug 08, 2013 Mike rated it liked it
The most interesting part of the book is seeing how the author of the screenplay for "The Sting" used it in setting up the cons depicted in the movie. Otherwise, it is still somewhat interesting, even though very dated. That said, even in its day, a good editor could have cut away about half the text without losing anything.
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Date of Birth: 1906
Date of Death: 1981

David Warren Maurer was a professor of linguistics at the University of Louisville from 1937 to 1972, and an author of numerous studies of the language of the American underworld.

Maurer received a doctorate from the Ohio State University in Comparative Literature in 1935. He spent much of his academic career studying the language of criminals, drug addicts, an
More about David W. Maurer...

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“The clip-joints are filled every night with marks who crave the tat,” said one con man. “If you gave one of them an even break, it would spoil his evening.” 1 likes
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