Winning the Shell Game


The Game

I believe the English name for the game is "the Shell Game"; in German it's called "das Hütchenspiel". It is very simple: one actor has a table in front of him with three little shells ("Hütchen"; they can be anything from matchboxes to nutshells) and a little ball. He puts the ball under one of the shells, then moves the shells around, stops and asks the audience where the ball is. For a bet of about $30-$60, a player can lift one shell. If he finds the ball, he wins an equal amount, otherwise he loses the money.

The game is played in all major European cities typically in the areas with the highest tourist concentration (for example: Rambla in Barcelona, Gran Via in Madrid, Kurfürstendamm in Berlin, Bahnhofsviertel in Frankfurt am Main). The actors are usually from Eastern Europe. The game is classified as illegal gambling in most countries and the actors are able to remove all traces of the game in seconds when authorities approach.

The Tricks

Several (usually two to four) members of the audience collaborate with the actor. Once you know this, it is actually rather easy to spot them: they look like people from Eastern Europe, they never leave the game table, they play regularly (sometimes losing stupidly and sometimes winning), and they try to animate tourists to play as well.

The actor will always place the ball and move the shells in such a manner that it is obvious to all close observers where the ball is. He then touches all three shells, as if to move them to their proper places (sometimes while saying "is the ball here, here, or here?"). This is the crucial time when the ball gets its final position: the first shell he touches is always the one that everybody knows the ball to be under; he takes the ball invisibly in his hand and moves it under the shell he touches next. This is sometimes facilitated by the fact that the ball is soft and can slide in and out of the hand while compressed. It's like religion: you can only see it if you know it already.

Then he asks the present tourists if they want to play. If one bites, they have to hand over the money and then they can lift a shell, invariably the wrong "obvious" one, and lose the money. Most people get angry about their stupidity at this point and play again, sometimes losing up to five times in a row.

If no tourist wants to play, one of the helpers plays in order to animate the tourists. The helper 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 actor touched all three shells again, moving the ball back to the "obvious" shell.

I have seen one variant of this scheme: sometimes the actor will not move the ball away from its "obvious" position by touching the three shells until a tourist has handed him 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 gamee with an ocasional win.

Sometimes a helper of the actor will place a finger on the "obvious" shell, as if to help the playing tourist and prevent any irregularities. However, the actor will still touch the three shells, the helper lifts the finger shortly at exactly the right time and the ball again wanders to another shell invisibly. Or, as explained above, the adjustment takes place after the money has been handed over.

How to Win

It is very difficult; in general I don't recommend that you try it. However, if you must:

Last Change: 18-Jun-2006 .
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