AskDefine | Define thimblerig

Dictionary Definition

thimblerig n : a swindling sleight-of-hand game; victim guesses which of three things a pellet is under [syn: shell game]

User Contributed Dictionary



From thimble + rig


  1. A game of skill which requires the bettor to guess under which of three small cups (or thimbles) a pea-sized object has been placed after the party operating the game rapidly rearranges them, providing opportunity for sleight-of-hand trickery; a shell game.
  2. One operating such a game.


  1. To cheat in the thimblerig game.
  2. To cheat by trickery.

Extensive Definition

This article deals with the con game. For other meanings, see Shell game (disambiguation).
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 (or infamous) for his skill at the game. The swindle became very popular throughout 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 throughout the mid-western States, and later in Alaska.
Today, the game is still being played for money in many major cities around the world, usually at locations with a high tourist concentration (for example: New York and Los Angeles, in the United States, Rambla in Barcelona, Spain Gran Via in Madrid, Kurfürstendamm in Berlin, Germany, Bahnhofsviertel in Frankfurt am Main). The swindle is classified as a Confidence trick game, and illegal to play for money, in most countries.


  • Bishop, Glen, The Shellgame - For Tableside Tricksters, 2000
  • Price, Paul, The Real Work: Essential Sleight Of Hand For Street Operators, 2001
  • Whit Haydn and Chef Anton, Notes on Three-card Monte

External links

thimblerig in German: Hütchenspiel
thimblerig in Spanish: Trile
thimblerig in Luxembourgish: Hitterchesspill
thimblerig in Dutch: Balletje-balletje
thimblerig in Russian: Напёрстки
thimblerig in Swedish: Bägarspelet

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

beat, beguile of, bilk, boiler room, bucket shop, bunco, bunco game, burn, cheat, chisel, chouse, chouse out of, cog, cog the dice, con, con game, confidence game, cozen, crib, defraud, diddle, do in, do out of, euchre, finagle, flam, fleece, flimflam, fob, fudge, goldbrick, gouge, gull, gyp, have, hocus, hocus-pocus, mulct, pack the deal, pigeon, practice fraud upon, rook, scam, screw, sell gold bricks, shave, shell game, shortchange, skin game, stack the cards, stick, sting, swindle, take a dive, thimblerigging, throw a fight, victimize
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