thimblerig n : a swindling sleight-of-hand game; victim guesses which of three things a pellet is under [syn: shell game]
EtymologyFrom thimble + rig
- To cheat in the thimblerig game.
- To cheat by trickery.
- 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.
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
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