1 : to cheat by trickery
2 : to swindle by a trick in which a small ball or pea is quickly shifted from under one to another of three small cups to fool the spectator guessing its location
Did You Know?
The game of thimblerig seems innocent enough. The thimblerigger places a little ball, pea, or other small object under one of three thimbles or cups. He or she deftly scoots the cups around on a table, then asks the player to bet on which one hides the object. But thimbleriggers are masters of sleight of hand and can move and manipulate the object unfairly—so the guileless player doesn't stand a chance of winning. (The poor bettor is probably unaware that rig has meant "to manipulate or control usually by deceptive or dishonest means" since the 1800s.) When the same sham is played with nutshells, it's called a shell game, and there's a related game played with cards known as three-card monte.
"Thimblerigging the market was such an accepted practice some traders were even taunted for not stealing enough." — Leah McGrath Goodman, The Asylum, 2011
"As the Ames brothers, Oakes (1804-73) and Oliver (1807-77), shovel-makers from Massachusetts, joined Sidney Dillon and Dr. Durant in thimblerigging the Credit Mobilier, none of the participants wished to be satisfied with a modest profit." — John F. Stover, American Railroads (2nd Edition), 1997
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