In common parlance, the term “fool’s errand” refers to a task or activity that has no hope of success, such as “Trying to talk your way out of a parking ticket is a fool’s errand.”
In more specific usage, a fool’s errand is a form of hazing typically applied to new hires or members of an organization, a prank which often involves sending the victim off in search of some specialized but non-existent implement. (Boy Scouts, for example, would instruct Tenderfeet attending their first campouts out to go find a left-handed smoke shifter or a bacon stretcher.) The experienced members of the group are in on the joke and gleefully give victims the run-around, never telling them that what they’re searching for isn’t real but instead perpetuating the wild goose chase by passing them along from one place to the next.
In the gaming industry, a “wheel crank” is a well known fake object that often serves as the subject of fool’s errands, a mythical tool supposedly used by casinos to keep roulette wheels spinning properly. Here, from the book Dummy Up and Deal: Inside the Culture of Casino Dealing, is one account of a desperate but futile attempt by a “break-in” (i.e., a novice dealer hoping to secure regular employment with a casino) to track down a difficult-to-find roulette crank at the request of his prospective future boss:
The boss calls him over as he’s leaving a game. In a friendly manner and kindly tone of voice the boss asks the break-in to do him a favor. It seems that the roulette wheel heads are slowing down and the nearest wheel crank is at the Horseshoe (casino]. Would you go get it, he asks. The young dealer, fresh out of dealer’s school and anxious to impress so he can make the extra board, eagerly says yes. A good word can speed the hiring process. The boss adds that the dealer should not come back without the crank.
At the Horseshoe the pitboss is extremely friendly and picks up the phone immediately. He tells the break-in to be patient and calls around because they haven’t had the wheel crank for two days now. He talks on the telephone, all the while smiling at the young dealer-to-be. When he hangs up the receiver, he tells the young man to go to the Union Plaza [casino], that the wheel crank was last sent there.
The pitboss in the Union Plaza is enthusiastic. He understands how hard it is to track the wheel crank down because some casinos forget where it last went, and no one ever bothers to return it. As did the boss at the Horseshoe, this one makes a quick phone call, smiling at the break-in over the receiver in a friendly way. He hangs up. Although it can’t be verified, the crank, he’s sure, was last in the possession of the Four Queens [casino]. The break-in sets out to find it there.
Over the next three hours, the break-in visits every casino on Fremont Street [in downtown Las Vegas] and is never sent to an adjacent business. It’s always two blocks or more, up and back. He doesn’t chase down a wheel crank, but he’s afraid to return empty-handed. He sits in the lounge of the El Cortez [casino] and vacillates between calling and explaining he’s still looking for the elusive crank and just returning to the casino and admitting failure. The boss seemed to have so much faith in him. He figures it might delay his being hired in either case, so he goes back to where he started from.
The boss looks at him for a moment as if mystified, then he nods. In fact, he’s forgotten that he sent the break-in after the phantom wheel crank. He smiles and tells the young man he should have come back sooner, that he was absent when the schedule was made and new hires were added. The break-in asks if something can’t be done. No, the pitboss would like to help, but no. He tells the break-in to go to the help’s hall and eat.
It is only after he’s finished with his cheeseburger and is telling the story to a regular dealer that he finds out how roulette wheels are designed and balanced to run on centrifugal force, that there is no wheel crank, never has been one, that it was all a joke and that everyone was in on it. The pitboss laughs when he sees the break-in walk into the blackjack pit, not a mean laugh but a knowing one. He tells the break-in to get a good sleep and come in the next night ready to go on the payroll. He says he’s been hired on the steady extra board.