The Santo Domingo Sting
by Joe Harkinsredford02.jpg (5306 bytes)

   Robert Redford is in town, shooting his new film, Havana. If anyone enjoys the tale you are about to read, it might be him. Many fans say their favorite Redford film is The Sting, in which he bests a con-man at his own game while turning his rules against him.

   That is exactly what happened recently when a Santo Domingo street flimflam man was taken by a tourist with faster wits and fresh revenge on his mind. Like the one in the movie, this sting was based on simple principles first laid down in the turn-of-the-century autobiography of a man in Chicago who called himself Yellow Kid Weil. Most of the plot of The Sting comes directly out of Weil's life story.

The Rules

   (1) As P.T. Barnum once complained, "You can’t cheat an honest man." By that logic, if a greedy tourist is a good target, a professional con-man makes the best "mark" of all.

   (2) The mark should believe, for as long as possible during the game, that he is the cheater, not the cheatee.

   (3) Finally, if the revenge is to be complete and the sting is to live up to the sharp pain implied by that word, when the mark has been beaten he should be "tipped", that is, know he’s been cheated but have good reason to leave the scene (and his money) as quickly as he can. Tipping the mark, as it’s called, is fundamental to the elegance and charm of The Sting.

   Here’s how one common Santo Domingo con-game, known on the street as The Fast Change, was turned into The Sting. As they say in television commercials, don’t try this at home.

   Every tourist is warned, "Don’t change currency on the street." But offers of 50, 60 or 90 percent, and even more, above the legal rate are dangled as bait.

The Con

   One day last week, a reporter from the Santo Domingo News witnessed a Fast Change. A "cambio" (currency exchanger) approached a tourist and offered pesos at the incredible rate of ten per dollar at a time when the legal rate was below six.

   He swiftly got past the tourist’s skepticism by counting out ten one-hundred peso bills and pressing it into his hand. "See, here it is. You’ve got it in your hand. Give me $100 before a cop comes along."

   The mark had seen it counted out. With a quick shuffle he saw he really was holding ten one-hundred peso notes. He handed over a $US100 bill.

   The game moved to the next step when the helpful change-maker said, "Make sure I didn’t make a mistake. Count your money. How much you got?"

   The tourist obediently did exactly that, counting aloud and making sure each bill really was a one-hundred peso note. As he got to " . . . seven, eight, ni . . .", the con-man smoothly reached out, grabbed the sheaf of pesos and forced the US Currency in his hand on the startled tourist.

   The Cambio affected agitation. His previously good English turned broken. "Hey, my numbers ain’ so good. You got too much pesos. I say seven, not ten. I’m no changin’ that rate. Take you damn dollars. I no do business you. Keep you dollars."

   Then, to distract the mark, he warned, "Watch out. That guy on the corner is cop and he watchin’ us."


   The cambio-man continued to act annoyed, accusing the tourist of trying to cheat him and backed away, holding the confused victim’s attention with dramatic gestures. At the corner, he stepped behind the building and was gone. When the mark finally looked at the bill in his hand, he realized the $100 bill had been exchanged for a folded "single" while he was counting the pesos.

   The greedy tourist was out $99. The Fast Change is possible, while not overlooking the tourist’s own responsibility, because US currency, unlike that of many other countries, is all the same size, color and graphic style. When properly folded, one note is virtually undistinguishable from another.

Game Over - Maybe; Maybe Not

   That might have been the end of this story. But, do you remember the old adage, "Don’t get mad; get even?"

   That’s what this freshly educated tourist did. He walked a few blocks along the Zona Colonial’s main street before turning into a quieter side street after noting there were four policemen lounging in a small bunch just above the corner, apparently awaiting the afternoon shift change.

   Within a few yards, a man stepped from a doorway. "Change money. Good price. Eight pesos." Another Fast Change artist.

   Said our supposed bumpkin, "It’s illegal isn’t it?"

   "Nine. Change one hundred dollars. I give you nine-hundred pesos."

   "Oh, maybe I’d change $50 but for $100 can’t I get a better price?" He flashed his one-hundred dollar bill. The cambio-shark smelled blood in the water, but didn’t realize it was his own.

   "OK, I give you 12 Pesos a dollar." He urgently counted out 12 one-hundred peso notes. Knowing this first count will also be the last one, the tourist watched carefully to be sure there truly were 1200 pesos.

   As the cambio handed over the wad, he accepted the US $100 dollar bill and moved the script along. "Count your pesos. Did I give you the right amount?"

   The tourist acted confused and asked, "What did you say? I don’t understand." And, with that as a distraction, he shut his hand firmly around the 12 notes and stuffed them deep into his trouser pocket.

Here It Comes

   The hustler suddenly had at least two problems. Unless he could get the pesos out into the open again, he had just given away 600 pesos more than the $100 bill is worth. And he hadn’t been able to distract his "victim" with counting while he switched it for the folded single hidden in his other hand.

   He reached in his pocket and pulled out another one-hundred peso note. "Somehow I’ve got an extra hundred pesos. I think maybe I didn’t give you the full amount. Lemme see what you got."

The Sting Begins

   Our mark was now in control and his voice turned cold. "No, your first count was correct. You have $100. I have the 1200 pesos you offered me." Hands jammed in his pocket, he started to walk away but he couldn't resist speaking the line that usually ends the scene, "Watch out. That guy on the corner is cop and he watchin’ us."

   With sudden awareness of what’s been pulled, the street sharpie panicked. "Hey, gimme my money. Take back your dollars." A swift glance confirmed that the genuine $100 is being tendered. This con-man either wants out or a chance to re-start the script.

   "Unh-unh. It’s a done deal." The tourist moved backward toward the intersection of the main street just a few yards away.

  The cambio threatened, "Policia. Policia. I call the policia. You steal my money."

   They shuffled down the street, one pulling frantically but futilely at the other’s arm, and bumped awkwardly around the corner. The cambio continued to threaten in an increasingly loud and urgent cry, "Policia! I call the policia!"

   And there, just a few feet away, stood eight of them. The afternoon shift had arrived and the earlier one hadn’t yet left. Their usually dull day was about to turn interesting. The platoon opened and swallowed both men into their blue-shirted midst. The cambio blanched when he realized he was actually waving the one-hundred dollar bill, illegal for him to possess, in the cops' faces.

   Trooper that he is, he told the amazed police that the US $100 bill wasn't his. To accentuate his dramatic disowning of the offensive evidence of currency-law violation, he flourished the note and grandly stuffed it into the tourist’s shirt pocket. "He dropped this. Maybe."

Tipping The Mark

   Thus prompted, the tourist addressed the officer with the most braid on his shoulder boards. "You did hear him say this is my money, not his, didn’t you? I must have dropped it." The entire platoon of cops began laughing. They didn’t know the details of what had happened but they did recognize the results. They'd been hearing tourist's embarrassed complaints all season.

   The freshly minted mark's sputter of "But, but . . ." faded as he realized he had no further lines in this drama.

    The tourist spoke. "Officer, isn’t currency changing illegal except in the banks? He hasn’t accused himself of anything and I’m not going to accuse him, either." He turned to the glowering con-man. "You didn’t break any laws did you? This is my $100 right?" The silence grew until the cambio turned away with an angry epithet. The tourist threw a final barb into the retreating back of his tipped mark, "I guess one of us made the mistake of not knowing what he was getting into."

   As he walked away with the original $100 bill plus the con-man’s 1200 pesos, easily worth another $200 at the nearest bank, the only sound was the buzz of The Sting, Santo Domingo Style.

   Who was that tourist? He might have been Robert Redford, but he wasn’t. He just walked like him. –30-

Santo Domingo News - February 9, 1990
A personal note: I can be seen in an early scene of "Havana" as an out-of-focus extra, directly behind Redford and his leading lady, Senta Berger, at the moment they meet. Based on the great success of my performance in that moment, I'm sure it was professional jealousy that caused my later scenes to be cut. It is also noteworthy that my Oscar nomination never was made public.)

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