THE BAR BET, it sometimes seems, is the last remnant of a great American con artist tradition. Of course, the hucksters are still with us. Anyone with email knows that only too well; how much time per day do we spend opening and deleting countless Nigerian scams and impotency drug hustles? The street corners of every American city are awash with vendors hawking knockoff designer purses. Sometimes you’ll even see such classics as the three-card monte or the shell game, an absolute masterpiece of swindling designed with only one purpose in mind: To separate a fool from his money.
But these schemes are simply criminal, and we at The Bottle Gang find ourselves longing for a more genteel form of duplicity. There is a form of confidence game, long popular in this country, that amounts more to a performance than a felonious act: That of the impossible bet. You’ll still see hustlers on Bourbon Street engaging in one variation of this, demanding money from tourists to tell them where they got their shoes (the answer, of course, is “You got them on your feet.”) The point of these bets is less to make money — although, in the hands of a master, there is much money to be made — than to amuse. The poor sap who takes the bet should feel that he got something for his money, or, in the case of bar bets, for picking up the drink tab. He should feel he got a show.
A good impossible bet is like a well-told joke. And, ultimately, it serves an instructional function. The loser, after all, has taken the bet believing that he is sure to be the winner, because the odds are stacked in his favor. Certainly it cannot be that a watermelon can be thrown over a building, as an example, or that six quarters can be made to equal $17.
The lesson here is that the odds are always in favor of the one who makes the bet. Because, as sure as you may be that six quarters can never add up to more than one dollar and fifty cents, the moment you accept that bet you will be looking at a mathematical impossibility. The amount before you will be $17, and you will be paying for the next round of beers.
As we think that bar bets should be as entertaining as they are instructional, we offer as our first three a series of bets that involve fire. If you are particularly intoxicated or inflammable, we suggest starting with something a little gentler. Offer to tell your drinking partner where he got his shoes.
BET ONE: SAMBUCA SURPRISE
Challenge: Lift a shot glass filled with Sambuca using just a flat, open palm.
Solution: Light the Sambuca on fire and press your open palm atop the glass, sealing the glass (make sure your palm is damp to avoid burning). The fire will burn up the oxygen in the glass, creating a natural vacuum. The resulting suction will hold the glass to your hand, as long as you keep you palm flat.
BET TWO: MATCHSTICK MAGIC
Challenge: Take a match from a matchbook, drop it onto the counter, and make it land on its side.
Solution: Bend the match slightly. Afterwards, use the matchstick to light yourself a cigar; you’ve earned one.
BET THREE: THE BURNING SUGAR CUBE
Challenge: Use a match to set a sugar cube on fire. Challenge your friends to do so first. Despite their best attempts, the sugar cube will do no more than smolder.
Solution: Rub the sugar cube in an ashtray to get some ashes on it. When you hold a match to it, it will burn. (SPARBER)