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  • Nicholas J Johnson

Playing Fast and Loose

“Play fast and loose with faith? so jest with heaven, Make such unconstant children of ourselves.” -King John (Act 3, Scene 1)

In 1595, William Shakespeare wrote the words above in one of his least popular plays: King John. Despite being the Kingdom and The Crystal Skull of plays, King John succeeded in introducing the phrase to popular culture. Next month, my second novel, Fast and Loose, hits bookstores. So what do one of the greatest pieces of literature in the history of the English language and Shakespeare’s little play thingy have in common?

Fast and Loose

Five hundred years from now, English teachers will torture children with this.

What is fast and loose? And how do you play it?

Fast and loose, like the shell game and three card monte, is a gambling game that you can not win. It is, as defined in the brilliantly titled A Glossary of North Country Words; “a cheating game, still occasionally practised by faws, and low sharpers at fairs”

The game looks simple enough, a length of chain or leather is laid out in a simple pattern on the table. The player is presented with two loops. They lay a wager and place there finger on the table in one of the loops. The swindler then pulls the chain tight. If the chain holds fast, they win. If it comes loose, they lose.

Fast or loose.

Place your bets.


The swindler will always demonstrate the game is fair, of course. And the sucker will see other players, usually confederates, play and win. But, when the money is on the table, the sucker will always lose. The pattern is actually deceptively complex and can be laid down in a variety of ways. Sometimes, both loops win. Others the player has a 50/50 chance of winning. Most of time, the sucker won’t catch a break.

Like all good scams, the game goes by many names and variations.

In ‘Pricking The Garter’, the renaissance variation, the game would be played with a gentleman’s sock garter. In ‘The Australian Belt’ and ‘The Strap’ the game would be played with a coiled belt. And seaside swindlers would lay a piece of string or rope down on top of a barrel and play “On the Barrelhead.”

No matter what the name or the material, the outcome would always be the same: the loop would come loose and the sucker would walk away with nothing.

So to ‘play fast and loose’ is not just to gamble, but to gamble recklessly. It is to throw your money after a hopeless bet with no chance of winning. It’s a phrase so catchy and colourful that Shakespeare returned to the phrase in Antony and Cleopatra as an analogy for love and betrayal: “Like a right gipsy, hath, at fast and loose, beguiled me to the very heart of loss.”

Not only that, but Fast and Loose is also the name of several screwball comedies from the thirties, a fifties television sitcom, a motorhead song, a gameshow...and my new novel.

Fast and Loose

More cheap plugs than an off-brand electrician.

Nicholas J. Johnson is a Melbourne magician, author, entertainer and collector of scams. He new novel is Fast and Loose. Seen any errors? Email

Image via School for Scoundrels – Fast and Loose


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