The Conjuror, by Hieronymus Bosch and workshop, between 1496 and 1516. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most basic, yet also the potentially most sophisticated gambling games is generally known as the shell game. The game was played in Europe from at least the fifteenth century and has been in England from at least the last half of the seventeenth century. By the eighteenth century the game was known as thimblerigging, under which name it was exported to America in the late eighteenth century. It was subsequently adapted by American grifters and provided the basic structure of large-scale cons like those featured in films such as The Sting and the more recent Oceans 11 and Oceans 12 movies.

thimble was eighteenth century Cant for a watch, a watchmaker’s shop being a thimble-crib. Those who stole watches were known as thimble-getters or thimble-twisters. The latter word was also used to describe a thimble player, one who played the three shell game known as the thimble rig. At this time the game was usually played with thimbles and buttons, with peas and walnut shells coming into use a little later. 

Whatever the exact implements involved, the shell game had the same basic features. Usually three thimbles were displayed on a board or table, together with a pea that was regularly covered and uncovered by one of the thimbles as the operator moved them around. The location of pea was, at first, easy to follow, inducing the player to bet. When a bet was laid, instead of leaving the pea beneath the thimble, the operator secreted the pea in his fingers and won the bet. There were many variations of surprising sophistication on this basic theme, but the shell game was basically a simple gambling diversion that, with some practice and nimble-fingers could be easily rigged. As it was generally illegal, the basic equipment was conveniently easy to hide or discard should any authorities take an undue interest in the proceedings.

By the mid-nineteenth century, thimblerigging was commonplace. In an 1862 publication, Henry Mayhew and John Binny[1] described people who lived by deceitful games of chance as being amongst the criminal classes of those ‘who live by getting what they want given to them’. These flatcatchers and charley pitchers ‘live by low gaming – as thimblerig-men.’ Flatcatchers were those who swindled flats, or ordinary people, a term that would continue to be used to describe the general public in American Carny talk. Charley pitchers were thimbleriggers who deceived country folk, or charleys, in the terminology of the time, also called, as they still are, yokels

Mayhew and Binney also noted something of the deceptive character and magician-like skills of these coarse but effective swindlers. These swindlers were known as magsmenMagging was a term generally used to cover the diversity of small-scale but effective cons perpetrated on yokels and other gullibles at fairs, shows, race-tracks, markets and wherever else people gathered to trade, gawp or enjoy themselves. The games, or swindles, included thimble-rigging, but also pitch and tossskittlesthe three card trick, the E.O. stand and the cogged dice used by charley pitchers. Victims were steered or lured into the carefully contrived web of the maggers, lulled into a false sense of security and good cheer, then ruthlessly rooked (since the sixteenth century) for all they were worth.

Well over half a century before then, if not earlier, the shell game migrated to America where it operated much as it had in England and Europe. Wherever crowds gathered, especially at festive or entertainment events, such as fairs, horseracing tracks and travelling shows, the thimbleriggers gulled the unwary into parting with their money. By the nineteenth century these operators became a common feature of road shows, usually being separate from the performers and other show workers but travelling with the troupe under a variety of nefarious income-splitting arrangements with the management. They became known as grifters in the early twentieth century and had an extensive language, or argot, of their own which reflected and supported the elaborate con that the shell game had by then become.

The main form of the game, as described by Maurer[2] from his fieldwork from the 1930s, involved the inside man or dink spieler who operated the shells, an outside man who encouraged the mark, or victim, and a number of ropers who found other likely marks in the crowd and steered them towards the game. The other essential member of the mob was a stick handler whose job was to hire a few usually young naïve men from the town where the show was playing. These gullible accomplices, or sticks, were used to keep the game warm while the thimbleriggers waited for genuine new players to be attracted or shepherded into the game. Also known as shills or boosters, the sticks, would, at the clandestine command of the stick-handler, excite the crowd, or tip, into the possibility of winning a lot of money very easily.

Also known as spreading the store, or framing the gaff, the three-shell board was now set up for the rooking routine. Relying on a well-rehearsed patter called spieling the nuts, some sleight-of-hand and surreptitious signals to his various accomplices, the inside man began the first of three, or possibly four, well-defined stages of the scam. This phase of the routine, known as the convincer, involved marking in the prat, placing him directly in front of the board to show him how the game worked. One of the shills then made a bet and won, strongly suggesting that the game was easy to win.

The runaround stage that follows is similar, except that the shill now bets and loses. This is done in such a way as to make the mark think that he can see how the pea is manipulated beneath the shells. On signals, or offices, and communications in argot or cross fire, from the inside man to the stick-handler, the shills are slipped money to place bets rapidly and warm up the crowd. At this point the outside man, making sure he is standing next to the mark, suggests to him that it looks pretty easy once you can see how it is done, so why not make a bet? The mark does – and loses. Meanwhile the sticks boost the betting action along. At this point the outside man reassures the mark that he needs only to keep a closer eye on the pea in order to win and pulls a large amount of money out of his pocket. The mark has another go and this time wins.

Now the countdown begins. The outside man bets a small note and loses, putting away his money and asking to see the shells being moved again. Claiming that he can now see which shell the pea is under, the outside man prepares to bet again, being sure to ask the mark to hold down the shell while he gets his money out again. This time the inside man says that if he thinks he is sure where the pea is, would he be prepared to bet all his cash? Confidently, the outside man throws all his money down and the inside man covers his bet with a matching amount. The mark is still holding down the shell and is now asked to turn it over. 

Of course, the pea is there and the outside man has won a very large amount of money. He asks to try once again and offers to hold the shell for the mark if he wants to make another bet. At this point the stick handler distracts the inside man long enough for the outside man to quickly lift the shell far enough to show the mark where the pea is located. No chance of losing. The inside man immediately says to the mark that he will match his bet for all the cash he has. The mark bets his long dough, the shell is turned over but the pea is not there – the outside man has copped it while showing the mark the location of the pea, or giving him a flash peek. The mark is then considered whipped and leaves poorer but no wiser. There are a number of variations and additions for over-cautious marks, but the pea will never be where the mark thinks it should be whenever he or she bets their roll.

This scam was capable of fleecing hundreds and even thousands of dollars a day from the gullible and greedy. At the end of the day the shell mob retired to the privilege car, a special vehicle kept by the show’s management for grifters, often supplying alcohol and gambling opportunities. Here the takings were divided up. The management took 60%, from which they paid 10% to the patch, one employed by the show to fix the necessary arrangements with the local authorities. The inside and outside men got 20% apiece and the stick handler received wages. As one old shell game artist told Maurer, ‘They never pay out jack to a booster, just fill them full of lemonade and popcorn and sometimes promise them a lay with one of the showgirls, but that never happens …’.

[1] Mayhew, Henry & Binny, John, The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of London Life (The Great World of London), London, 1862. 

[2] Maurer, David W, Language of the Underworld, collected and edited by A Futrell and C Wordell, University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 1981.