Sunday, June 26, 2011


The shell game dates back to the ancient world, Egypt, Rome, Greece. It is depicted in European paintings from the Middle Ages.

The game requires a pea and three shells, walnuts will do, but thimbles, cups, whatever is handy and covers the pea. This worldwide street swindle is usually played on a mat lying on the ground, sometimes a cardboard box.

The person handling the shells and pea is called the thimblerigger. He begins the game by placing the pea under one of the shells, then quickly shuffles the shells around. The Thimblerigger takes bets on the location of the pea. Maybe double your money back. The Thimblerigger's trick is practiced sleight of hand, removing a pea from under a shell and placing it under any other shell undetected by the mark.

Some of the excited gamblers may be part of the trick, working for the Thimblerigger. Such insiders are called shills. They also may serve as lookouts for the police and serve as muscle to intimidate marks who become unruly. One shill may pretend to disclose a winning strategy to the mark, needless to say, just a ruse to get the mark to place a large bet.

Any player who is suspected of understanding the trick, or does not place a bet and just wants to watch, will be quickly edged away from the table by the shills or the muscle, according to wikipedia.

"The Conjurer," painted by Hieronymus Bosch, shows a cups and balls routine, a variation of the shell game. A pickpocket, working for the conjurer, is robbing the spectator who is bent over.

The shell game can still be encountered on the streets of modern New York, Los Angeles, Moscow, Cairo, and Washington, D.C. Politicians and governments from the largest to the smallest continue to practice versions and variations of this ancient swindle.


Hawaii Bill said...

Funny, I had this same sensation -- my pocket was being picked while I was being fooled about a pea -- last time I visited Congress. Hmmm

Lorraine said...

My favorite is the "Bait and Switch".

jackie said...

Dear Bill,
I got your new blog fine. Your family history was interesting. I would have enjoyed knowing your grandmother. I read your column on the shell game. When Don started with carnivals he was the outside man for a shell game. The head was blind. I have a newspaper photo of Don walking with him and his seeing eye dog. Marks loved playing against him because he was blind. Don's job was to find the mark who would go for the big score and then shade him. I can't think of the head guy's name, but his wife's name was Miss Johnnie. She sort of mothered Don as he was still in his teens. She came to visit us once. Oddly, I remember she had a grown daughter named Gladice. Oh, I remember now----Frenchie Moore. Jackie

Cotter Pen said...

The blog about shell games is actually a thinly disguised criticism of the government closest to my wallet and to home. When Annette and I went to Egypt, Don asked me to find him some "gali gali" cups, which I did. Meanwhile we met Boutros Boutros Ghali at an Embassy party. He was head of the Egyptian Air Force at the time. I asked him where I could find "Gali Gali" cups and what was the sinificance of doubling words like Boutros Boutros and Gali Gali. He stared at me silently, as if I had deposited a turd on the carpet.


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