shell game


Definition of shell game

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

Synonyms for shell game


Visit the Thesaurus for More 

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 Even if Bergeron and Krejci are aboard, Montgomery will have his own shell game to manage with Marchand and McAvoy on the mend. Globe Staff,, 21 July 2022 Since then Florida has waged a human vs. snail shell game. Bruce Y. Lee, Forbes, 2 July 2022 The academic research emphatically shows that this elaborate shell game can be a supremely costly job-creation strategy. Margaret O'mara, Wired, 13 Jan. 2022 Considering the substantial financial help that Tesla has long received from government support for its electric cars, the company doesn't have to use a shell game of offshoring its profits to avoid paying taxes. Chris Isidore, CNN, 10 Feb. 2022 The young athletes who have spent lifetimes dreaming of this moment are pawns in a huge financial shell game. Ann Killion, San Francisco Chronicle, 3 Feb. 2022 Blockchain is either the most radical invention of the century or a worthless shell game. Gideon Lichfield, Wired, 3 Jan. 2022 Without any penalties for failure for first-pass tender acceptance, carriers and shippers have played a shell game on price. Lora Cecere, Forbes, 15 Nov. 2021 Democrats played a definitional shell game with progressive racial narratives woven throughout education rather than directly addressing parental concerns about how complex issues of race are taught to children. Cameron Smith |, al, 4 Nov. 2021 See More

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'shell game.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

First Known Use of shell game

1890, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Learn More About shell game

Time Traveler for shell game

Time Traveler

The first known use of shell game was in 1890

See more words from the same year

Listen to Our Podcast About shell game

Dictionary Entries Near shell game


shell game

shell ginger

See More Nearby Entries 

Statistics for shell game

Last Updated

26 Jul 2022

Cite this Entry

“Shell game.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 15 Aug. 2022.

Style: MLA
MLACheck Mark Icon ChicagoCheck Mark Icon APACheck Mark Icon Merriam-WebsterCheck Mark Icon

More from Merriam-Webster on shell game Encyclopedia article about shell game


Test Your Vocabulary

Commonly Confused Words Quiz

  • vector image of a face with thought expression
  • I went to the ______ store to buy a birthday card.
Spell It

Can you spell these 10 commonly misspelled words?

Universal Daily Crossword

A daily challenge for crossword fanatics.

Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!