Shell game

From Academic Kids

The shell game (also known as thimblerig) is a gambling game, often used to perpetrate fraud. It is played on a flat surface, and requires three shells (or thimbles, cups, etc.) and a pellet or other small object. One person places the pellet under one of the shells, then quickly shuffles the shells around. The player must decide under which shell the pellet is located. Shell games are a very common confidence trick.

The term shell game is used more generally to describe a situation in which conspicuous actions are taken to cover up deception. For example, the methods used by Enron and Worldcom in their accounting scandals were described as a shell game. In this usage, it is synonymous with Enronomics.



"The Conjurer" by Hieronymus Bosch
"The Conjurer" by Hieronymus Bosch

The shell game has been played at least since the Middle Ages, as evidenced by several paintings of that time; see for instance the late 15th century painting The Conjurer by Hieronymus Bosch, displayed to the right. A book published in England in 1670 (Hull Elections - Richard Perry and his fiddler wife) mentions the thimblerig game. In the 1790s, it was introduced to the U.S. by a Dr. Bennett, who became famous for his skill.

Current practice in Europe

Today, the game is still being played for money in many major European cities, usually at locations with a high tourist concentration (for example: Rambla in Barcelona, Gran Via in Madrid, Kurfürstendamm in Berlin, Bahnhofsviertel in Frankfurt am Main). The game is classified as illegal gambling in most countries and the actors are able to remove all traces of the game in seconds when authorities approach.

The game is played on a mat lying on the ground, or on a cardboard box. The actor puts the pellet (often a soft little ball to facilitate its hiding in the hand) under one of the shells (often matchboxes), then moves the shells around, stops and asks the audience where the pellet is. For a bet a player can lift one shell. If he finds the pellet, he wins an equal amount, otherwise he loses the money.

Several (usually two to four) members of the audience collaborate with the actor. They are normally rather easy to spot: they never leave the game table, they play regularly (sometimes losing stupidly and sometimes winning), and they try to animate tourists to play as well.

The actor will always place the pellet and move the shells in such a manner that it is obvious to all close observers where the pellet is. He then touches all three shells, as if to move them to their proper places (sometimes while saying "is the pellet here, here, or here?"). This is the crucial time when the pellet gets its final position: the first shell he touches is always the one that everybody knows the pellet to be under; he takes the pellet invisibly in his hand (known as the steal) and moves it under the shell he touches next. This action is difficult to detect unless you know to look for it beforehand.

Then he asks the present tourists if they want to play. If one bites, they have to hand over the money and then they can lift a shell, invariably the wrong "obvious" one, and lose the money. Most people get angry about their stupidity at this point and play again, sometimes losing up to five times in a row.

If no tourist wants to play, one of the helpers plays in order to animate the tourists. The helper will either lift a shell which is "obviously" wrong and will lose his money, or he lifts the "obvious" shell and wins. He wins because the actor touched all three shells again, moving the pellet back to the "obvious" shell.

There is one variant of this scheme: sometimes the actor will not move the ball away from its "obvious" position by touching the three shells until a tourist has handed over the money.

Occasionally, the first game will be played fairly for a lower amount, to entice the tourist to risk more money. Cheating will start with the following games. Sometimes repeat losers are kept in the game with an occasional win.

Sometimes a helper of the actor will place a finger on the "obvious" shell, as if to help the playing tourist and prevent any irregularities. However, the actor will still touch the three shells, the helper lifts the finger shortly at exactly the right time and the pellet again wanders to another shell invisibly. Or, as explained above, the adjustment takes place after the money has been handed over.

It is next to impossible for a player to win, even if they see through the trick and know where the pellet is at all times. The actor, helped by his accomplices, will typically come up with an excuse not to pay. Also, tourists suspected of understanding the trick will be pushed away from the table by the accessories.

Other meanings

Shell Game is also the title of a science fiction short story by Philip K. Dick.

See also



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