On the face of it the central plot to Vince Gilligan’s highly anticipated follow-up to Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, has little in common with its predecessor.
But dig a little deeper and, in the tale of Bob Odenkirk’s James Morgan “Jimmy” McGill, you have the story of another man’s descent into immorality. Eager to escape his own past as a con artist turned lawyer, McGill tries everything in his power to go straight.
Unfortunately, try as he might, James McGill can’t escape the life of “Slippin’ Jimmy” the long-con specialist with a side in bar bets – and as the series progresses there’s a sneaking suspicion he may not even want to.
For Paul Wilson, it’s an all-too-familiar scenario. A world-renowned expert on con games, he’s visited friends and scammers in prisons across the world to ask just why they did it.
“The thing about a con game is that, once you’ve done and it works, it’s addictive,” he told loaded. “It’s not just about the money either – it’s about getting one over on someone else.”
Set in 2002, things may have moved on a lot since the days depicted in Better Call Saul but the means and motives behind con games of any kind remain the same.
“Con games are about getting a victim to fall into a trap where they give up their own money, their own property,” Wilson explains. So how can people protect themselves from these types of cons?
“The first thing to look for in a scam situation is the proposition itself. Look at how they say it not what they say,” he says. “It’s also important to watch out for a con artist creating an imperative whereby the con artist will create a situation where everything comes down to the mark having to make a quick decision, under pressure and out of nowhere.”
“By contracting the time they supposedly have to make the decision, they can create a situation where the mark might overlook something and make a costly mistake.”
One notable feature of Better Call Saul is the sheer number of cons, often instigated by Jimmy, that seemingly take place in bars – something that, once again, rings true with Wilson.
“Bars have a lot of advantages,” he notes.
“The drinks are flowing, you can get a clear idea of what your mark is like and the alcohol they are consuming makes them a lot easier to manipulate.”
“if you know what someone wants, you can take everything they have”
Bar bets have always been part and parcel of the con man phenomenon, with the majority of these “wagers” placed by small-time fraudsters looking to earn themselves a couple of quid or even a free pint.
However, as Wilson warns, there are a small cross section who go one step further – starting by losing.
“A real con artist will do a bar bet and lose, just to find out who the main target is and just how susceptible they are,” he said. “It is also about going back to the underlying principle of all real con games: if you know what someone wants, you can take everything they have.”
Scared about going to the pub? You probably should be, but in the meantime Wilson has offered loaded readers three largely harmless pub bets that could earn you a few drinks, a couple of quid or maybe just a nod of approval.
“A few years back I was walking down the street when I decided to get my shoes shined by this smart-looking old guy who was telling jokes. As I was finishing a guy came down the street and said: ‘Hey mister! I bet you $5 I can tell you where you got your shoes and when.’
“The Shoe shine tells me to walk away but I had to know – I wanted to hear the answer. So I paid up, even with the guy warning me and then came the reply: ‘You got them on your feet, right now.’ Then he said. ‘But I can tell you how many kids you have had too.’ So I said okay and waited for the answer.
“‘Goats have kids, people have children.’ Then he says: ‘But I can tell you how many human children you have.’ So I went for it again. “Men can’t have children, only women can.”
“The funny thing was later that night I went into the bar and saw the shoe shine guy sitting with the guy running the bets – this was their scam.”
“This is one I do and it starts with me having a really good look at the stool they are sat on. Then I ask them how much they weigh.
“I tell them I can grab their stool, just from looking at it and I can lift it five inches off the ground and hold it for about five seconds. All four legs, off the floor.
“For five seconds and if I can’t do it they buy me a beer. They take the bet, I try and lift it, can’t do it and then ask for a beer. See – and this is the important part – I actually told them if I CAN’T do it, they have to buy me a beer.”
“I’m a large guy but I’m also very good at push-ups. So my bet is that I can do between three and four hundred push ups, in under 15 minutes, military style so they can count them.
I can get up to a dozen people putting money down on this type bet. So I get down on the floor and do five push-ups and stop. Because five is between three and four hundred. “
Better Call Saul Season 2 is available to buy on DVD and Blu-ray now.
Loaded staff writer Jack Beresford has produced content for Lad Bible, Axonn Media and a variety of online sports and news media outlets.