Razzle Dazzle is a gambling game in which the player has essentially no chance of winning without the operator letting him win. That’s why it is called a scam. Razzle Dazzle can be played using marbles, dice, clothespins, ping-pong balls, or Chinese sticks. The game consists of scoring a particular number and then referring to a chart to determine a winner or loser. These games are typically operated by gangs who travel around the country or set up their operations at roadside stops.
These operations often attract affluent, intelligent marks who believe they can win and who are far away from home when they lose large amounts of money. To induce the mark to lose even more money, the operator will often employ “fair banking,” cheating in favor of the player in order to build his confidence. Razzle Dazzle games are characterized by vague, complicated rules; a conversion chart used to distract the player; a means of doubling the bets; and a means of cheating either for or against the player. While the basic criminal charge against a Razzle Dazzle operator would be gambling, it may be possible to press others including fraud, false pretense, larceny, or theft by deception.
This game posing as a carnival or street game, where you roll marbles in a box collecting points. Popping up in Havana, New York, New Orleans, and curbs and parking lots across the U.S., it’s like Three-Card Monte, but more complicated, and better disguised as a real game.
How does Razzle Dazzle game work? (in the words of Nick Douglas)
The scammer calls you over to his stand, and shows you his wooden tray full of little holes, each marked with a number from 1 to 6. You get to roll marbles into the holes, add up those numbers, then consult a chart to see how many points you get. So if you hit ten points, you’ll win a big prize: a Switch, or an iPhone, or a TV, or all your money back.
Say you roll the marbles, and the numbers add up to 45. Well then: you’ve won 5 points, and you’re halfway to winning! The “H.P.” on this chart is less clear, but one magic trick seller believes the scammer promises to give your money back if you win on the next roll.
You don’t have to learn any strategy, just play the odds. So you pay a buck to play the first round. Just to see how quickly the points add up. If you got some points right away! You’ll win that TV with like five bucks! You keep playing, spending more to make more. Soon you’re very close to winning.
At one point you make a roll that doesn’t add points, but it does add a new potential prize to the pool. It also doubles the cost per turn. Sure, fine, as soon as you win you’ll make all your money back. So you keep playing.
If you are wondering how you earn points so fast, then not at all. Because you never actually earned those points. The scammer lied and pretended you’d rolled the right scores. But your odds of actually rolling those scores are very low.
Razzle boards basically work like rolling a bunch of six-sided dice. (If you’ve played enough craps or Monopoly, you know that rolling really high or low totals is less likely than rolling middle totals. Your odds of rolling a 7 are 1/6, but your odds of rolling a 2 are 1/36.
Razzle works on the same principle, but you’re rolling eight “dice.” Your odds of rolling, say, 28, are about 1/12. Your odds of rolling an 8 are literally less than one in a million. Seriously, you can test it on this calculator. All the lowest and highest totals are very unlikely, and the middle totals are very likely.
That crazy yellow chart hides the odds, because it puts the totals out of order.
Here’s a beautiful demonstration by mathematician James Grime of Numberphile, and magician Brian Brushwood of Scam Nation.
You’d have to roll hundreds or thousands of times to rack up enough points. The scammer doesn’t have to weight the marbles, or even sneakily arrange the numbers on the holes. As long as things on the board are pretty random, you’ll never hit your total before you run out of money.
Play for a very long time, and you would eventually win. But there’s also a 1 in 12 chance of hitting that special 29, which doubles your prize, but also doubles the cost to play. So about every 12 rolls, you start losing money twice as fast. By the time you caught up, you’d spend way more than the cost of a TV.
The scammer told you that you scored points. He’s been running this game for a while, and he’s learned how to add up numbers really fast. He’s also learned how to add them up wrong, quicker than you notice. And if you do notice, you notice that he “accidentally” gave you points you didn’t earn. So you don’t call it out. You hope he makes the same mistake again. And you make sure he never makes a mistake in his favour.
But the scammer doesn’t have to make a mistake in his favour. He can honestly tell you when you win points, because you barely ever win points. You can’t catch him in the scam, because the only lie he ever has to tell is that you had any chance of winning.
If you avoid rolling 29 for a long time, and you seem to be easily fooled by his fake totals, the scammer could fake a 29 to start you doubling your money faster. But he could also just wait, and let the odds take control.
All he has to do is keep you interested by handing you fake points now and then. Law enforcement officers making related arrests should look for records indicating substantial losses by players as well as other items used by the operator which could be analyzed by the Gambling Subunit of the FBI’s crime laboratory.
Even if the game were run honestly, the mathematical nature of the razzle board makes it extremely unlikely that a player would ever win before running out of money, or that the value of the prizes won would ever equal the amount of money spent chasing them. The game operator conceals this from the player by using a fast and incorrect count to, when it suits the operator, pretend that a throw scored when it did not. This is used initially to hook the player into the game by giving the player a generous number of wins in the opening throws of the game, taking them some way to the prize point total and giving the impression that the remaining points can be obtained just as easily. Once the player has become invested in the game, the operator will switch to counting the throws accurately, with nearly all of them being losses. If the player starts to show reluctance to continue, the operator will dole out just enough miscounted points to keep them at the table.
Increasingly the player believes that walking away would be a disaster – they only need one or two more points to win the prize. Unfortunately for the player, they will only get those points if the operator allows it. According to Darwin Ortiz, most Razzle operators are not satisfied until they get their mark’s last dollar.
The Razzle is such a devastatingly effective scam that some crooked booth operators have been known to even abandon their store’s theme and “bring out the razzle”. On a block in New Orleans in the early 2000s, tourists had reported losses of up to $18,000 to the scam.