The shell game (Thimblerig, Three Shell and a Pea, or Old Army Game) is considered a gambling game, but is purely a swindle game used to perpetrate fraud. It is played on a flat surface, and requires three shells (or thimbles, walnut shells, bottle caps, and even match boxes) and a small soft round ball, about the size of a pea, and often referred to as such. Shell games are a very common confidence trick, referred to as a short con. The operators and their employees are often members of confidence gangs and can be dangerous if provoked. It is best to stay clear of this game and those running it.
The game can be played on almost any surface, but on the streets it is often seen played on a mat lying on the ground, or on a cardboard box. The man perpetrating the swindle (called the operator, or shell man) begins the game by placing the “pea” (often a soft little ball to facilitate its hiding in the hand) under one of the shells, then shuffles the shells around. Once done shuffling, the operator bets with his audience, on the location of the pea. If played fairly, which it never is, a player (victim) will win an equal amount bet, by correctly picking the shell containing the pea; otherwise, he/she loses the money.
Viewing a game in process from a short distance, it would appear to the uninitiated, that the game had numerous players (victims), but in reality, most of the persons standing around a game work for the operator. Operators prefer to “work” one victim at a time. The remaining “players” are collaborators, called shills, whose job is to pretend to play the game, and entice the victims into betting. Much of the enticement involves personal insults between the operator and the victim. Once angry, the shill will “disclose” to the victim, how the game can be won. Shills are normally rather easy to spot: they win.
The operator often moves the shells in such a manner that it is obvious to all close observers where the pea is. He then touches all three shells, as if to move them to their proper places (asking his victims, “Is the pea here, here, or here?”). This is the crucial time when the pea gets its final position: the first shell he touches is always the one that everybody knows the pea to be under; he deftly removes the pea out from under the shell (known as the steal) and repositions it under another shell. This action is difficult to detect. Even knowing how to perform the trick will not help a viewer know where the pea is for certain.
When the operator has finished moving the shells around, he asks the player (victim) if they wish to bet on the play. If a player agrees, they have to place their money down, before they can point to a shell. They invariably choose the wrong “obvious” shell, and lose their money. The operator begins to insult his victim about their stupidity, which entices more “revenge” play, sometimes losing many times in a row.
If no victim wants to play, one of the shills may start the play in order to animate the victim. The shill 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 operator touched all three shells again, moving the pea back to the “obvious” shell.
There are many variants of this scheme: sometimes the operator will not move the pea away from its “obvious” position by touching the three shells until a victim 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 shill will place a finger on the “obvious” shell, as if to help the playing tourist and prevent any irregularities. However, the operator will still touch the three shells, the shill lifts the finger shortly at exactly the right time and the pea again wanders to another shell invisibly. Or, as explained above, the adjustment takes place after the money has been handed over.
It is impossible for a victim to win, even if they know the trick and know where the pea is at all times. Players suspected of understanding the trick, or not betting, will be quickly edged away from the table by the accessories.
The game should never be mistaken for an honest game, and players should never fool themselves into thinking they can win. The operators of this game are skilled and no one can win, unless the operator wants them to. Even “accidentally” picking the right shell that holds the pea will not win the game. Operators are masters of sleight-of-hand, and can easily hide the pea while lifting a shell.
The shell game has been played at least since the Middle Ages, as evidenced by several paintings of that time. 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. It was believed to be introduced to the U.S. by a Dr. Bennett, who became famous for his skill at the game. The swindle became very popular through-out 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 through-out the mid-western States, and later in Alaska. Amazingly, today, the shell game swindle is still performed on the unwary in larger cities.
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) and in Eastern Europe. The game is classified as illegal gambling in most countries and the operators are able to remove all traces of the game in seconds when authorities approach.
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