shell game


: thimblerig played especially with three walnut shells
: fraud
especially : a swindle involving the substitution of something of little or no value for a valuable item

Did you know?

The shell game, a swindling trick in which a small ball or pea is quickly shifted from under one to another of three walnut shells or cups to fool the spectator guessing its location, is a version of one of the oldest and most widespread forms of sleight of hand. Conjurers have performed this trick, which is also called the cups and balls trick and thimblerig, throughout the world for centuries. The version that became popular in the United States in the late 19th century used walnut shells and peas. Shell game thus became the popular term for the trick, and the trick itself became so well known that the term is now used figuratively to describe dishonest actions that are done to deceive people.

Examples of shell game in a Sentence

it's amazing how intelligent people fall for that investment-fund shell game
Recent Examples on the Web As the water rose, staff played a bit of a shell game with its resources, sending some of the water to a balancing pond that’s typically used later in the treatment process and then pumped it back to the beginning of the plant for treatment. Stephanie Elam, CNN, 7 Feb. 2024 And at least two of the judges on the three-judge panel appeared troubled by the prospect that the seeming discrepancy in Mr. Trump’s arguments amounted to something like a shell game. Charlie Savage, New York Times, 10 Jan. 2024 Blockchain is either the most radical invention of the century or a worthless shell game. Amy Dickinson, Anchorage Daily News, 13 Aug. 2023 Prosecutors have charged that Mr. Trump played what amounted to a shell game with dozens of boxes of presidential records and classified material that had been kept in a basement storage area after initially being placed in various areas around Mar-a-Lago, including a ballroom and a bathroom. Alan Feuer, New York Times, 14 July 2023 And the $120 million in bonds is something of a shell game. Nancy Armour, USA TODAY, 16 June 2023 Instead, The American Gladiators Documentary is partially an exercise in amused nostalgia and partially an industrious comedic shell game, a director chronicling his own process of trying to make a film that is complicated by his evasive primary subject. Daniel Fienberg, The Hollywood Reporter, 30 May 2023 And while the event has proven a lottery ticket of talent procurement for some franchises (Steelers, 49ers) through the years, for others (Jets, Buccaneers), it's been an infuriating shell game. Nate Davis, USA TODAY, 20 Apr. 2023 Enjoy the warped Swarm shell game, treasure Fishback’s performance and join me in waiting to see how the breadth-over-depth approach ages. Daniel Fienberg, The Hollywood Reporter, 15 Mar. 2023

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'shell game.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

First Known Use

1890, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of shell game was in 1890


Dictionary Entries Near shell game

Cite this Entry

“Shell game.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 21 May. 2024.

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