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The shell game (also known as Thimblerig, Three shells and a pea, the old army game) is portrayed as a gambling game, but in reality, when a wager for money is made, it is a confidence trick used to perpetrate fraud. In confidence trick slang, this swindle is referred to as a short-con because it is quick and easy to pull off.
The game requires three shells (thimbles, walnut shells, bottle caps, plastic cups, and even match boxes have been used), and a small, soft round ball, about the size of a pea, and often referred to as such. It can be played on almost any flat surface, but on the streets it is often seen played on a mat lying on the ground, or on a cardboard box. The person perpetrating the swindle (called the thimblerigger, operator, or shell man) begins the game by placing the pea under one of the shells, then quickly shuffles the shells around.
Once done shuffling, the operator takes bets from the audience on the location of the pea. The audience is told that if a player bets and guesses correctly, the player will win back double their bet (that is, they will double their money); otherwise the player loses their money. However, in the hands of a skilled operator, it is not possible for the game to be won, unless the operator wants the player to win.
When an individual not familiar with the shell game encounters a game on the streets, it appears that bets are being placed by numerous players, when in reality, the people around the game are shills who are all part of the confidence trick.
The apparent players actually serve various roles in the swindle: they act as lookouts for the police; they also serve as "muscle" to intimidate marks who become unruly and some are shills, whose job is to pretend to play the game, and entice the mark into betting. Once a mark enters the circle of apparent players and faces the operator, the gang surrounds the player to discourage an easy exit and to keep other pedestrians from entering and disrupting the confidence trick gang's action on the main mark.
The job of crowding around also protects the operator from any incriminating photographs being taken of the act. The operator and the shills will try to get the mark into a heightened state of anger or greed. Once this is accomplished, one shill will pretend to disclose a winning strategy to the mark. It is all a ruse to get the mark to place a large bet.
The operator's trick is sleight of hand. A skilled operator can remove a pea from under any shell (or shells) and place it under any shell (or shells), or keep it in his hand or up his sleeve, undetected by a mark. So it is never of any benefit for the mark to watch the movement of either the shells or the operator's hands; the pea will likely not be under any of the shells.
When the operator has finished moving the shells around, he asks the mark if he wishes to bet on the play. If the mark agrees, he must set his money down before pointing to a shell. Using sleight of hand, the operator reveals the pea to be under a shell different from that chosen by the mark.
If no mark wants to play, one of the shills may start the play in order to animate the mark. The shill will either lift a shell which is "obviously" wrong and lose his or her money, or lift the "obviously" right shell and win; or the shill may pretend that he has discovered some trick, and either "succeed" or clumsily fail.
The game should not be mistaken for an honest game. Through sleight of hand, the operator can hide the pea without the mark's seeing him or her do so. A mark can win only by declaring which shells the pea is not under, and physically overturning two arbitrary shells. The mark must himself turn over the shells since the dealer could easily plant the pea under any shell he or she overturns. The dealer is then forced to either reveal the secret of the trick, or act his part by placing the pea under the final shell. If a mark "wins" this way, a shill or the muscle will usually trail the mark and attempt to retrieve the money by intimidation or theft.
Any player suspected of understanding the trick, or who does not place a bet and just wants to watch, will be quickly edged away from the table by the shills or the muscle. The shell game setup and layout are quick and simple, so that in the event of trouble, or if someone signals that authorities are approaching, all traces of the game can be removed in seconds.
The shell game dates back at least to Ancient Greece. It can be seen in several paintings of the European Middle Ages. A book published in England in 1670 (Hull Elections–Richard Perry and his fiddler wife) mentions the thimblerig game. In the 1790s, it was called "thimblerig" as it was originally played using sewing thimbles. Later, walnut shells were used, and today the use of bottle caps is very common.
The swindle became very popular throughout the nineteenth century, and games were often set up in or around traveling fairs. Fear of jail kept these shell men traveling from one town to the next, never staying in one place very long. One of the most infamous confidence men of the nineteenth century, Jefferson Randolph Smith, known as Soapy Smith, led organized gangs of shell men throughout the mid-western United States, and later in Alaska.
Today, the game is still being played for money in many major cities around the world, usually at locations with a high tourist concentration (for example: New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, in the United States, La Rambla in Barcelona, Spain, Gran Via in Madrid, Paris in France, Kurfürstendamm in Berlin, Germany, Bahnhofsviertel in Frankfurt am Main). The swindle is classified as a confidence trick game, and illegal to play for money in most countries.
The game also inspired a pricing game on the game show The Price Is Right, in which contestants attempt to win a larger prize and choices of four shells, one of which hides a ball, by correctly pricing smaller prizes. However, owing to federal game show laws, the game is legitimate; the ball is hidden and nobody is allowed to see which shell has the ball, then the host must shuffle the four shells before the start of the game, and no more; contestants will pick shells to reveal in order after correctly winning a pick, and automatically win the game by correctly pricing all four prizes.