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I TALK TO Alexis Conran

I caught up with Alexis Conran, who most of you will recognise from BBC Three's The Real Hustle to talk about his brand new series for Channel 5, Hustling America.

The series sees Alexis travel across America in the footsteps of history's greatest hustlers. A few weeks back I met Alexis Conran in the Channel 5 building and as I entered the room, there he was sat at the table with a pack of cards and some paper cups next to him. He catches me looking at them and goes - "Ah yes... we'll worry about those later." - So already I knew something was up.


Sure enough, 10 minutes before the end of my time with him Alexis pulled out a pack of cards and showed me a couple of tricks. At that point any thoughts of beating this guy went out the window - after all, he's the greatest hustler I've ever met so there's no chance I'd be able to beat him - his skills are impressive. He then gets me up out of my seat and places paper cups at the other end of the rather long The Apprentice style table and asks me to chuck playing cards at the cups and knock them over.


Nervous because of the company I was in, I gave it a go and failed. I threw the card and it barely reached the middle of the table. Alexis then asked me how I was chucking the card, and lo and behold I was doing it wrong. Granted, once he showed me the right way to throw a card I still struggled and hit one cup out of the several attempts I made.


Anyway enough about how I failed and don't have a budding career in being a Hustler, here's Alexis Conran talking to me about his brand new series.


How did Hustling America, come about?


Well for years, I have been reading books about conmen and hustlers and bets and all that kind of world that has always fascinated me ever since I was little, there's one name that always springs to mind. And that's Titanic Thompson. 


Several books have been written by him and I've always read these bets and was fascinated by how clever they were and my brain works that way. I probably have more admiration for someone who can do something that sounds insignificant like throw a playing card into a hat from three paces away, than I have from someone who can make a lot of money in the Stock Market. 


So the idea was - Can I do that? Can I do what these guys did? Also, I know a lot of hustlers, personally, and quite a lot of it is - bullshit.


Is it though? How confident are you when you're hustling someone?


Well look, I've learnt that a proper hustler, people like Titanic and Amarillo Slim, will never put a bet on with someone unless they are 91 favourite to win it - i.e. the game's over before you've started. 


Why did you go to America then and not stay in the UK?


Well the reason we went to America, is because Americans love to bet. I think one of the taglines for the show was - 'The country who loves to bet against the man who hates to lose.' - that's certainly how I felt. We were out there during the Superbowl, and I don't know if you've see the type of bets Americans put on, but they were - Who's going to get the first close-up? - let alone the scores, we're talking about ridiculous little details. 


So in America, unlike the UK, you can walk into a bar and say - "Hey buddy. I've got a bet for you and whoever wins it pays for drinks." No one will blink twice. They'll take you on. So the States was a perfect place to start, plus it was a historical journey for me - following the journey of Titanic. 


We went to where he used to hang out, did his first ever bet, which is the dog and the stone. Any book you'll read, THAT is the first bet that he did. And I just wanted to see if it's possible, and I do think it is possible - even though I failed - but I do think it is possible, I think it was just a matter of training longer. Unfortunately I didn't have enough time with the dog. 


It was sort of a combination of trying to find out how much of this stuff is bullshit, how much of it is real and how do-able is it?


So go on then, what did you find out?


Well you end up finding that actually, these guys were incredibly dedicated to their job. It is insignificant throwing cards into a hat, but you had to put in the work. The amount of hours that say a concert pianist puts in, is something worthwhile and worthy - well for Titanic it was worthwhile and worthy to spend the same amount of time and effort throwing cards into a hat. And that made him a lot of money. 


Also what you find out, is that a lot of these guys - Amarillo Slim and Titanic, were interesting characters, dedicated to what they were doing, very very clever but also people you didn't want to mess with. Because at the end of the day, they circulated in a world that was off the radar, there was a lot of illegal gambling, it was back in the day so everybody was carrying guns - Titanic killed five men. 


So it was an interesting sort of underworld that I got a glimpse in, and as the show progresses we go to Vegas, I meet Brian Zembick, who very famously accepted a bet seven years ago to put in breast implants for $100,000 and keep them for a year. Seven years on, he still has them... and you get to see them on the show! 


So in a sense I sort of started my journey looking at Titanic, Amarillo Slim - looking at the lifestyle, seeing if I'm good enough to live that life and then ended up in Las Vegas to see the modern state of the proposition gamblers who are all people like Brian. A lot of the poker pros are proposition gamblers - people with too much money, a lot of boredom.


In both Hustling America and The Real Hustle, which came before, you reveal how you performed the hustle. How do you feel about revealing how you do certain things?


Being a magician as well, I don't like exposure but I don't feel that these are magic tricks, these are proposition bets and quite often the reveal is in the way you do the bet. 


So when you say -"Oh I bet you can do something, or you can'y do something." - by the action of you doing it, people kind of go - "Oh! I see what you meant.". 


This is a very very different show to The Real Hustle - I wouldn't want people to think that all I'm doing is going around America doing proposition bets that you've seen in The Real Hustle. There is a journey in Hustling America and the bets are way way different. 


In New York, I played a ping pong champion with a coke bottle - that was a tricky one! (Laughs). I also take on an eating competition...


Like Man Vs Food?


Well funnily enough it was exactly where he went, it was Port Royal Grille in Islip in Long Island, where you have to eat seven pounds of seafood. So I go to that very place and bet two people that me and some random guy can beat them at eating it. I won't tell you what happens, but that's in the last episode which is New York.


What's the biggest thing you've learnt along the way then?


God! I learnt so many things. The most fascinating thing I learnt was the dedication these guys put in to the smallest things was just extreme. And actually, the biggest skill is how to get somebody to take the bet rather than doing the bet. Because they were all very very skilled in how to get you to believe that you were in with a chance. 


Going back to The Real Hustle, it was all thought out with how human nature evolves and how it works and how if I give you a slither of hope then that makes you feel that you have one over me. I found out personally that yeah, I'm good at doing some stuff, but I'm nowhere near the skill that those guys developed because they developed it over literally - and I hate using the word literally because it's a bit silly - but it was literally over decades. I practice things for three or four months.


Any bad losses along the way?


I've had bad losses yeah. But I'm not going to tell you what they were because it'll be fun for you to watch them, but I did do some crazy stuff. One thing I'm really proud about this show is that - what you see on screen is what happened. There was no sort of - "Oh let's do that one again." If I won I won, if I lost I lost. 


Like the dog and the water, I lost - this is TV world, I could've easily said - "Let's do one more!" It was a decision that we took from the very very beginning with Channel 5 that this has to be a true journey. If at the end of the day I come out saying - "Do you know what? I'm just not good enough to do these things." - then that's what comes out.


How do you think you compare to the people you've met filming Hustling America?


I think I'm good enough to do some of them, but certainly I haven't put in the decades of practice that these guys did. I started learning more about how important it is to phrase things correctly. How do you set up this bet? How do you make this guy go for it? How do you explain it in a way that he goes - "Hey, I'm gonna take this guy!" 


I'm immensely proud of the show and it was great great fun to do and I met some fantastic characters along the way - from Bobby Cotton, Tommy Thomas, Brian Zembick - these are extraordinary characters. I've always wanted to meet Brian, Bobby Cotton you want him as your granddad because he's like THE nicest man you could ever imagine - fantastic stories, dangerous stories.


Finally, what's been your favourite hustle of the series?


Oh man... it's got to be the throwing cards over a building because I really worked quite hard to make that happen. But again the eating competition in Long Island is extremely clever and very funny.


Emotionally, I would say the dog and the stone because that's always the first bet that I'd ever read. I think I'm probably the first guy to try it since Titanic. I don't have any record of anyone else trying it.


Hustling America starts Monday 9th September at 7pm on Channel 5


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