I encountered the shell-game first time in 2005 when I was in Copenhagen to run a half-marathon. The main idea of the game is simple. There are three empty match boxes turned upside down and a small ball, about the size of a pea. The game begins when the “dealer” puts a ball underneath one of the boxes and then start shuffling the boxes, in the meantime frantically speaking: “Where’s the ball? Where’s the ball?”. Once done shuffling, the operator takes bets from his audience on the location of the ball. The audience is told that if a player bets and guesses correctly, the player will win back double his bet (that is, he will double his money); otherwise he loses his money.
A day after the half marathon I went to walk around the city when I suddenly saw a bunch of people standing in a circle, argumenting loudly and pointing to a guy sitting in front of them, shuffling small boxes. I went closer and I saw the game going on. When the shuffling stopped, I was sure the ball was under the middle box. One of the spectators gave the facilitator the money and showed the rightmost box. The facilitator opened it and the ball was not there. The guy lost the money and facilitator lifted the middle box to show that the ball was there. “Easy money!” I thought. The dealer started shuffling again and when he finished, I knew the ball was in the leftmost box. I handed him the money and showed him the box. He opened it. It was empty.
I was dumbfounded. I heard sounds of condolences and one of the other spectators suggested that I should try it again but this time open the box by myself (so that the dealer could not remove the ball, for example). It took only a couple of seconds for me to realise that I’d been tricked. Totally. I was being the fish at the table. And just when I realised that, the things happened really fast. Somebody said: “police” and suddenly, not only the dealer was gone with all this equipment, all the other spectators had also dissappeared into the crowd. And I saw two policemen nearby. Had they been there just 10 seconds earlier, I could have saved myself 100 DKK. But I’m glad they weren’t. Because I learned a (rather cheap) lesson here: when something seems to be too good to be true, it probably isn’t. Nobody is giving the money away for free. The house has an edge and in this particular game, the edge was massive.
The game is actually a scam, of course. When the dealer moves the boxes, he does so by lifting them just a bit so that you would actually get to see the ball at times during the shuffle. The main idea behind this lifting is that the dealer actually removes the ball just at his last shuffle move. But you would not see that. First of all, he has probably put hundreds and hundreds of hours practising to do that in a very unnoticeable way. And second of all, all the positions where you could see the removal from – just next to the dealer – are occupied by his accomplices. These accomplices have another very important role – they create the action to make the game more appealing to outsiders. They win and get money from the dealer (thus showing that there is a legitimate possibility to win) or lose by choosing the obviously wrong box. So that the outsider would think that the only reason they lost were because they chose the wrong box.
After getting this lesson, although I was kind of angry, I was also a little bit fascinated. Obviously, preparing this kind of trick needs a whole lot of preparation and understanding of human nature to be able to lure the people on the street to make bets. I’ve seen the game played several times later on – in Barcelona a couple of times, in Amsterdam. I never played any more, obviously, but I observed what the guys were doing. I would stand some five to ten meters away and watch how the action goes. Usually it would be stopped in 10 minutes by police showing up.
Last week I was four days in London to attend different events and meet people. I saw the shell game being played again. What buffled me, though, was that there were actually six (!) different bunches doing it on the bridge between Big Ben and London Eye. And there was nobody to stop them tricking the money out of unsuspecting tourists. Apparently this is totally legal in London. On that bridge it would be rather difficult for these impostors to escape from the police. But during the half an hour I walked there, I saw no police. Instead, I saw a couple of times when a tourist lost. I saw one spanish lady giving away 20 euros for two different gangs. On the second time I tried to warn her but she was just too sure on her knowledge about the location of the ball to listen to me. Tough luck.
Well, I hope she learned something from it. I also hope that the blog readers here also got the idea of not playing against the house in a shell game. It would make a very expensive hobby.:)