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Dealing with Hustlers in a Competition

by Ron Kurtus (updated 28 May 2023)

A hustler is a person who convinces an inferior player to place a wager on a competition between them, knowing that he will most likely win the bet.

The hustler may deceive the opponent by giving an impression of not being very good. Thinking he can easily win, the person will place a wager, only to lose the game and the money. Another strategy is that the hustler offers to play the game with a handicap that seems impossible to overcome.

Recognizing the hustler is a first step in dealing with such a person in a competition. Also, you should not be so greedy to jump on what looks like a "sure thing".

Questions you may have include:

This lesson will answer those questions.

Hustler acts inferior

The hustler knows he is a superior player, so proving that point by winning is not his motivation. Instead, he seeks to use his skills to make money. One choice is to enter competitions with players of equal skill, hoping to win the prize or win wagers on his play. But this is risky, since he might lose to a better player.

A different approach to make money by winning competitions is to act like an inferior player and enter competitions with players of lower skill levels to win prizes or wagers. Since players in organized competitions would soon recognize his skill level, the hustler seeks out strangers in casual settings, making bets on the outcome of the competitions.

Go where not known

Usually the hustler will go somewhere he is not known and get involved in some games or competitions. After playing and losing a number of games--including losing bets on the games--he will set up a final game for high stakes. Usually, he has the type of personality that appears to have much fake bravado. He says, "I'm just off today," but really looks clumsy and incompetent. Sometimes he may appear drunk.

Greed motivates the opponent to bet against this "loser" who thinks he can win. Bystanders often join in on the betting, thinking they will make some easy money.

In this final game, the hustler plays well and wins the game, cashing in on all the bets. Ideally, he is good enough to simply look lucky. If others realize they have been conned, they may get angry and get revenge for being taken.

Movie examples

Two movies give examples of a pool hustler in action.

The Hustler

In the classic 1961 movie The Hustler with Paul Newman, the main character is Fast Eddie Felson who makes money hustling pool games. He would go into a strange pool hall to play some games, betting on his ability to win. While playing, he'd be drinking and soon seemed like he was drunk and incapable of doing well in any more games.

Finally, he would make some big bets that he could win against his opponent. Everyone would bet against him. But then he suddenly came awake to win the game with some fantastic shots.

One time the losers got so angry at being conned that they ganged up on him and broke his thumbs, so he wouldn't be able to play anymore.

The Color of Money

A follow-up movie in 1986, The Color of Money, starred Paul Newman and Tom Cruise. In this movie Fast Eddie Felson finds the young, promising pool player Vincent in a local bar and he sees in him a younger version of himself. Eddie offers to teach Vincent how to be a hustler. But Vincent has a tendency to show off his talent, thus warning other players from betting against him. He was not a successful hustler.

Hustler plays with handicap

Another strategy that a hustler may use is to play with a handicap. A superior player may challenge an opponent to a game for money, allowing himself to be handicapped in order to get the person to make a bet. The opponent may or may not know the skill level of the hustler.

Sizes up mark

Typically, the hustler will size up his "mark" before determining the necessary handicap to use. The handicap must be sufficient to get the person to bet but not too great to allow the hustler to lose.

Bobby Riggs

Tennis hustler Bobby Riggs would often challenge another player with a bet that he could beat the player using a frying pan as a tennis racquet. Many players fell for this and placed bets with Riggs, who then easily won the games. It is said that Riggs made a living for years hustling tennis games.

(Also see Case Study of Gamesmanship: Riggs vs King Tennis Match for more about Riggs.)

My experience

I had a personal experience with a hustler who offered to play with a handicap.

When I was just starting out playing four-wall handball, a guy came into the court where I was practicing and asked if I wanted to play a game.

He said he'd spot me 20 points for $20. Since whoever got 21 point first would win, if I got just 1 point I would win the bet. This was a number of years ago and $20 was a lot of money to me. So I said, "I'll bet you $5 for 15 points." In other words, I bet that I could get at least 6 points on him.

I should have known better, because this guy looked like a real slickster. He proceeded to beat me 21-15. I didn't score a point.

After losing the game, I said I'd go to the locker room and get the $5.

But then to add insult to injury, he told me, "I don't want your money, kid." I guess he felt bad for me, since I played so poorly.

Dealing with hustlers

Now, the question is: how do you deal with a hustler?

Don't be greedy

First of all, you should not be greedy. Thinking you can win some easy money by betting you can beat someone who seems incompetent show almost as poor character as does the hustler.

Although there are people who will bet foolishly, you need to make sure that you aren't one of those people. A clever hustler brings out the greed in people, causing them to make the foolish bet.

Be suspicious

If a stranger wants to play for money and agrees to be play with a handicap, at the very least be suspicious. You need to realize that he probably has done this before and is not a fool.

I suppose it would be fun to play somewhat like Bobby Riggs, who used a frying pan instead of a tennis racquet. But it also would be humiliating to lose such a match. It is always good to think before you jump.

Anything goes

The biggest thing is that as soon as bets are placed, the whole tone of the game changes. If the bet puts a little "vigor" in the game, that is fine. But if you are actually trying to make money, you are competing at a different level where anything goes.


A hustler convinces an inferior player to place a wager on a competition between them, knowing that he will most likely win the bet. The hustler may deceive the opponent by giving an impression of not being very good. Another strategy of the hustler is to offer to play the game with a handicap that seems impossible to overcome. You should not be so greedy to jump on what looks like a "sure thing".

Never get greedy

Resources and references

Ron Kurtus' Credentials


Competition Resources


(Notice: The School for Champions may earn commissions from book purchases)

Players: Con Men, Hustlers, Gamblers and Scam Artists by Stephen Hyde Geno Zanetti; Thunder's Mouth Press (2003) $16.95

Top-rated books on Winning Strategies


The Hustler (1961) - Movie starring Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason

The Color of Money (1986) - Movie starring Paul Newman and Tom Cruise

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