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Shell Game

Signature: This game of skill can be identified by its three overturned receptacles (usually shells, hence the game name, bottlecaps or matchboxes today) and a small object (a pea, cork pea, tiny ball or other) for hiding.  

Origination: The shell game can be traced back to Ancient Greece and the 1600s.

Other names for it are thimblerig, three shells and a pea, and the old army game. The shell game also is essentially the same as Mexican three card monte (played with, well, cards).

How It Works: The player and operator settle on a wager before the game begins. In doing so, the player gambles that he can guess which cup-shaped receptacle contains the small object after the operator has shuffled around the trio. The operator gambles that the player cannot. 

The operator moves around the three containers, after which the player guesses which one is hiding the small object. If the player is correct, they win the wager. If incorrect, the operator wins.

The shell game often involves sleight of hand and swindling and, therefore, players often lose, making it a surefire gamble for the operator. “Ten times out of 10,” Herbert Asbury wrote in Sucker’s Progress, “unless the bet was a come-on, it [the object] is between two of the thimble rigger’s fingers, or has been shifted by a confederate during the excitement of the betting.”

Or the operator will scoop up the object with a fingernail or a finger, move it to their palm, then deftly put it under one of the unchosen cups after the player has picked one. 

Photo from by exopixel