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

Keep scrolling for more

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 At the Defense Department, officials have played what amounts to a bureaucratic shell game to get money for the wall. W.j. Hennigan, Time, "Newly Minted Pentagon Chief Authorizes Funding For Border Wall Expansion," 28 Aug. 2019 Lineups lately have been something of a shell game to account for pitching matchups, days off and the need to give bench players more work. Phil Thompson,, "Robel Garcia gets his 1st look in the outfield, which gives the Cubs more lineup options," 20 July 2019 But then Kardos fools you with his smooth shell game. Lloyd Sachs,, "Crime fiction reviews: Latest from Philip Kerr, Jo Nesbo and Michael Kardos," 17 Apr. 2018 Much advance coverage focused not just on the generational implications of the decision, but on how well the administration was keeping the choice from the press, treating the shell game like a proxy test of governance. James Poniewozik, New York Times, "Trump’s Reality TV Supreme Court Rollout, Slick and Substance-Free," 10 July 2018 The problem, as Kelly points out, is that this was always a kind of shell game: Moon could never change the fact that the US and North Korea want fundamentally different things. Zack Beauchamp, Vox, "Why Trump’s North Korea summit is going off the rails, explained by an expert," 21 May 2018 Adams walked out of that meeting calling the House plan a shell game. Richard Ruelas, azcentral, "Ducey: 'I don't know why' teacher walkout happening after pay raise plan, says demand met," 23 Apr. 2018 The Greater Cincinnati Redevelopment Authority chairman told FC Cincinnati President Jeff Berding on Tuesday night the quasi-governmental agency isn't playing the stadium shell game. Jason Williams,, "PX column: Finally, someone said enough is enough on FC Cincinnati stadium shell game," 28 Mar. 2018 Is Shell just engaged in spin, playing some kind of (ahem) shell game? David Roberts, Vox, "Shell’s vision of a net-zero carbon world by 2070, explained," 30 Mar. 2018

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.

See More

First Known Use of shell game

1890, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Keep scrolling for more

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

Statistics for shell game

Cite this Entry

“Shell game.” The Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., Accessed 14 December 2019.

Keep scrolling for more

More Definitions for shell game

shell game


English Language Learners Definition of shell game

US : a dishonest betting game in which someone hides a ball under one of three cups or shells, moves the cups or shells around quickly, and asks an observer to guess which one the ball is under

Keep scrolling for more

More from Merriam-Webster on shell game

Thesaurus: All synonyms and antonyms for shell game

Rhyming Dictionary: Words that rhyme with shell game Encyclopedia article about shell game

Comments on shell game

What made you want to look up shell game? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


to assail by words or arguments

Get Word of the Day daily email!

Test Your Vocabulary

Great Scrabble Words—A Quiz

  • scrabble tiles that read scrabble quiz
  • Which of the following Q-without-U words means the number five in cards or dice?
Spell It

Can you spell these 10 commonly misspelled words?

Add Diction

Test Your Knowledge - and learn some interesting things along the way.

Love words? Need even more definitions?

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