How the shell game works and other tricks


Most people are familiar with the phrase ‘shell game’ which denotes the shifty moving around of something so that one finds it hard to trace its location. It comes from a trick that is popular with street magicians that have been used for ages to fleece bystanders who try to bet that they know under which cup a ball has been hidden.

Via Mark Frauenfelder, I came across this clip that shows this and other carnival tricks that the customer is guaranteed to lose. The clip opens with the shell game and is explained at the 6:50 mark as a deliberate misdirection

Frauenfelder also links to a slow motion clip to show another way how the trick is done where the sphere has been palmed by the magician who later inserts it under one of the cups not chosen. Unlike the previous explanation, this way you are guaranteed never to win.

Comments

  1. Johnny Vector says

    And then there’s the standard cups and balls magic trick, which is very closely related. My favorite version is by Penn and Teller, who reveal the trick completely in one of their standard routines, and yet even when you can see them doing it, it’s still amazing. Kind of like watching Jimi Hendrix play guitar; just because you can see how it’s done doesn’t mean you could do it.

    Preview is broken again, so let’s hope I got that link right!

  2. John Morales says

    Johnny Vector,

    Preview is broken again, so let’s hope I got that link right!

    You need to enable access to skimresources.com for the preview to work on this platform. It’s a trade-off, of course.

  3. Jenora Feuer says

    I liked the way this was used in The Order of the Stick, where they were dealing with three identical copies of the big bad:

    A con man doesn’t choose to play the shell game against you if there is any possibility of him actually losing. The con isn’t in getting you to pick the wrong shell. The con is in getting you to accept that the basic premise of the game is till being followed. The con is in getting you to pick a shell at all.

    The ball isn’t under the first shell, or the second shell, or the third shell. The ball is in the con man’s palm the whole time.

    And, of course, it turns out that all three of the copies are actually just copies, and the real villain has been using the distraction to sneak in past them.

  4. Mano Singham says

    Johnny Vector,

    Thanks for that link. I had seen them do it before but it never ceases to amaze me. As you say, even when you can see how it is done, it is impressive.

  5. says

    I have never been suckered into shell games or three care monte. But if I knew enough to recognize the point with the sucker’s bet, my response would be, “It’s not these two,” and uncover two of the three. Since the con man knows all three are empty choices, he would be in a very tough situation. Either pay up, refuse to pay up and be seen as a cheat, or admit the game was a fraud.

  6. sonofrojblake says

    There’s a great clip on Youtube where Teller (of Penn & Teller) tells a story (yes, he speaks!) of when they did a show touring the world, and there was a magician somewhere in, I think, Africa – Egypt maybe. And the guy obviously knew who Teller was, and the guy did the cups and balls for him. He showed the three cups, hid a ball under the cup, made some movements, and asked Teller where he thought the ball was. And Teller, playing along, pointed to the cup under which the ball was supposed to be. And the magician lifted the cup to reveal that… the ball was there. And Teller was stunned, because he’d SEEN the magician do the sleight that removed the ball from under the cup. For him, as a magician, to find the ball under the cup was incredible, because he was expecting it to be gone, indeed, had SEEN it go… he thought. To have his knowledge used against him was, he said, the best gift one magician could give another. It’s a lovely moment.

  7. sonofrojblake says

    pay up, refuse to pay up and be seen as a cheat, or admit the game was a fraud

    Con men like that often don’t work alone. There’s another option, which would involve that large gentleman standing behind you with his hand in his jacket, the one you took to be just another potential customer.

  8. doublereed says

    @leftover1under

    While sonofrojblake is a little dramatic with the possibility of firearms, it is true that they simply would not let you do that. They would obviously stop you if you tried to reach for two of the cards at the same time, as that’s against the rules. If you caused any sort of ruckus, the shills around you would shuffle you away or stop you. The trick usually requires several shills to draw targets in.

    When I’ve seen it every now and then on the street, it’s done in a way where they can all immediately disperse if a policeman walks by, so it’s not like catching them at it is worthwhile anyway.

  9. says

    When I’ve seen it every now and then on the street, it’s done in a way where they can all immediately disperse if a policeman walks by, so it’s not like catching them at it is worthwhile anyway.

    Kinda makes you want to get 5 or 6 guys in police uniforms, to catch the con artists and relieve them of their ill-gotten gains. I believe I saw a documentary once (or maybe it was a movie?) where they were learning how these guys operate – usually the one who’s the front operator is not the one who runs with the money, the cash gets handed off to one of the compatriots who strolls out of the scene while the cops chase the frontman.

  10. sonofrojblake says

    sonofrojblake is a little dramatic with the possibility of firearms

    LOL. Literally. Out loud. Only in America.

    I am “a little dramatic”? Me? Show me where I mentioned firearms.

    My mental picture was of a chap with a cosh: not significantly more dramatic than fists. Your default assumption when a man has his hand in his jacket is that he’s packing a firearm. That’s something going on in your head that you might like to think about, rather than me being “dramatic”.

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