Shell Game

"A con man doesn't choose to play the shell game with you if there is any possibility of him actually losing. The con isn't in getting you to pick the wrong shell. The con is in getting you to accept that the basic premise of the game is still being followed. The con is in getting you to pick a shell at all. The ball isn't under the first shell...or the second shell...or even the third shell. The ball is in the con man's palm the whole time."
Haley Starshine, The Order of the Stick #428

Two or more identical things are shown, but only one of them is significant. Either the viewers or some of the characters know which one it is until they get mixed up. They do not come into view already mixed. The most common variation involves covering an item such as a peanut with a shell and shuffling it with other shells, and playing cards may be substituted. (The card variation is also known as "find the lady" or three-card monte.) The next most common variation has a hero and a look-alike get in a fist-fight while in sight of another hero, and results vary.

Briefcases are also extremely susceptible to this. However, in those situations, the audience always knows which one is which because they never fail to be swapped.

Frequently results in Spot the Imposter and Needle in a Stack of Needles. Compare Doppelgänger Spin. See also Stolen MacGuffin Reveal, Unfortunate Item Swap.

Notably, the key element of most shell games is that just playing the game means you lose the game; if you're playing it, you're not paying attention to what the guy running it is actually doing - Kansas City Shuffle. The only winning move is not to play.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • D.Gray-Man uses the person variation with Lenalee Lee.
  • In Yu-Gi-Oh!, Duke Devlin humiliates Jounouchi by placing four playing cards, two red and two black, face down and challenging him to draw two of the same color. Despite Jounouchi's legendary luck, he fails every time. Yami Yugi figures out the trick: although the challenge looks like a 50/50 chance, it's really 1/3, since after you draw the first card, there's only one of the same color and two of the opposite color.
  • In Yu-Gi-Oh!, Yugi's Magical Hats spell conceals his monsters by summoning four hats that cover the monster and rearrange themselves.
  • The protagonists in Hunter × Hunter get to play this, first ostensibly as a way to pass time then as a Deadly Game, with a hostage whom they befriended earlier, after a few successful tries. Early on, all the protagonists can spot which hand the Elite Mook is holding the ball in, but once three Mooks start using incredibly fast and complicated handmovements, only Gon can still tell it's in the hand of a fourth guy behind him. The leader congratulates him, calls off the threats, and then does manage to trip up Gon with the most basic version of the game, proving he could've made them lose if he really intended to kill the hostage.

    Comic Strips 
  • Beetle Bailey: Parodied in-universe by Sarge: Beetle is hiding in one of three large metal carbage cans, so Sarge shuffles them around quickly (he's just that strong) and pretends it's a shell game to teach him a lesson.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Played with — interestingly enough — in Dragonball Evolution. Mai disguises herself as Chi-Chi, and in the ensuing fight, Goku mistakes the REAL Chi-Chi for the fake one, punching her and knocking her out. Whoops!
  • Johnny Five learns it from a street performer in Short Circuit 2.
  • Patriot Games: As in the novel on which it's based, when a IRA terrorist is being transferred to another facility several prisoner vans are sent out at the same time to confuse any possible attackers. It doesn't work because The Mole has told the terrorists which route the correct van is taking.
  • Home Alone 3 got a spy's shopping bag mixed up with an old woman's identical shopping bag.
  • Whats Up Doc and the four red-plaid suitcases, containing: A) Barbra Streisand's underwear, B} Ryan O'Neal's igneous rocks, C) secret government documents, and D) a fortune in jewelry. Of course those would never get confused.
  • The A-Team remake has a literal shell game played with shipping containers (moved by cranes), which would never work because, unlike a shell game, the crane never lets go of the crate.
  • In the French movie Oscar (with Louis de Funès) and its American remake (with Sylvester Stallone), several swappings of two identicial suitcases, one full of money and the other full of the maid's underwear, constitute a main part of the plot.
  • Fritz Lang's film Spies features a Japanese diplomat giving three people identical envelopes to deliver, one of which supposedly contains a treaty. In reality, the diplomat has the actual treaty; all three envelopes are decoys.
  • Drunken Master: Jackie Chan, in the iron grip of his Trickster Mentor, take a trip to town, where they stop to gamble. The trickster mentor easily cleans out the gambler, of course, so the gambler tries to run a rigged shell game. Being well versed in the arts of trickery, the mentor easily catches him in the act, and violence ensues.
  • In The Italian Job the mark uses three identical armoured trucks to move his safe. Left Ear even calls it a Shell Game. The thieves are able to find their target by checking which one is riding lower due to the additional weight.
  • Friendly Persuasion has a carny running an actual shell game at the county fair. Schoolboy Jess Birdwell is very good at finding the bean, much to the carny's frustration.

  • In book 2 of the Lone Wolf series, Fire on the Water, if short on gold crowns you can play a shell game in a tavern. If the hero masters either the Sixth Sense or Mind over Matter disciplines, it's easy money as he has no trouble locating the marble through the cups.

  • Harry Potter
    • Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone has this happen with flying keys that all looked like. The trio manage to find it by looking for a a key that matches the lock (large, silver, old-fashioned), and Harry then sees it has an injured wing from already being shoved in the lock.
    • In the beginning of Deathly Hallows, the Order has to transport Harry safely from the Dursleys' to the Burrow. They have six order members take Polyjuice potion with bits of Harry, turning them into exact replicas of him, so that when the Death Eaters attack they'll be unable to tell which is the real Harry. They also guess that since Moody is the most powerful member, Voldemort will attack him. So Moody doesn't take Harry.
  • Discworld
    • An example of the actual shell game is found in Jingo, done by Vetinari of all people.
    • Good Omens has a version of this with babies. It doesn't go as planned.
    • Not actually done in Going Postal but referred to as "Find the Lady" and how it's a game where a good con can cheat a man by making him think the con's a bad con but he's losing on purpose, y'see. It's a metaphore. Maybe five.
  • In By Chaos Cursed, the last novel in Mickey Zucker Reichert's The Bifrost Guardians series, the medieval thief Taziar Medakan finds some hustlers in modern New York City running a shell game with playing cards. He takes offense at how much they cheat and sees it as his professional duty to cheat back even harder.
  • Patriot Games: When a IRA terrorist is being transferred to another facility, several prisoner vans are sent out at the same time to confuse any possible attackers. It doesn't work because The Mole has told the terrorists which route the correct van is taking.
  • In A Brother's Price, in his first encounter with the youngest princesses (about eight years old), Jerin uses this to demonstrate why someone should know how to spot being deceived, rather than simply assume everyone's honest. This is one of those Friend to All Children moments that convince the adult princesses that Jerin's good husband/father material.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Star Trek
    • Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Whom Gods Destroy". Captain Garth ("LORD Garth!") Lord Garth shapechanges into the form of Captain Kirk and fights him, so neither the audience nor Spock know which one is which.
    • Also used in one of the movies. Kirk and a shapeshifter are fighting when the bad guys show up. They both claim the other is the real Kirk, and the shapeshifter gets blasted.
    • The B-plot of the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Live Fast and Prosper" involves Paris and Neelix trying to trick the Doctor with a literal shell game.
  • Used metaphorically in The Outer Limits (1963): "O.B.I.T", for the reason why no department will admit responsibility for the mysterious machines of the episode title.
  • One of the oldest challenge in the Game Show Fort Boyard is a shell game (called "bonneteau" in French). Performed by Serge Avril, a stage magician, it consists of finding a little key under the cups; 3 keys (hence, 3 successes) in a limited time are necessary to win the challenge. Very, very few contestants ever made it through, 'cause the gambler is really good.
  • In a Kaamelott episode, a gambler playing the shell game easily swindles Karadoc out of all his gold. When he tries this with Perceval, however, he soon discovers that The Fool just cannot be beaten at this game, a talent which the dismayed gambler dubs "the Eye of the Mole".
  • White Collar: Neal met Mozzie when Mozzie was running a street game of three-card monte with a partner. Neal used sleight of hand and an extra card hidden in his sleeve to cheat the game, and Mozzie was impressed enough to track Neal down and propose a partnership.
  • The pricing game with the same name in The Price Is Right. The game features four shells with one of them holding a winning ball. The contestant is asked whether each one of the four incorrectly price items is higher or lower. The contestant receives a chip for each correct guess to be placed before one shell and is an instant win if all four items are correctly guessed. If the contestant does get all four chips, then they have a chance for a bonus equal to the cash value of the prize if they can guess where the ball is on one try.
  • On Leverage this is the primary game of Nate's father. It is strongly contrasted with Nate's game of chess. In the episode where this is featured it is pointed out that in proper Three Card Monte, the queen is never present at all. This turns out to be the plan, to distract the cops with three bank robberies that aren't happening in order to rob the evidence locker.
  • In Kaizoku Sentai Gokaiger: 199 Hero Great Battle, the Gokaigers and Goseigers trick Hades God Dragon into attacking his own mooks by transforming the mooks into illusions of themselves.
  • Near the end of the TV Movie Echo, Jack Wagner's Evil Twin character has mimicked his brother so well that, when his girlfriend goes to confront him, she isn't sure which one is her actual boyfriend and ends up shooting one of them.
  • In one episode of Dead Like Me Mason tries to run a shell game scam on the streets, but he is so slow that everyone wins (and he apparently didn't pick up on how it's supposed to be a con).
  • In NCIS the bad guys in the season 1 finale capture former Secret Service Agent Caitlin Todd to get information to beat the Marine One shell game described below. She doesn't know and wouldn't tell them if she did.
  • In Growing Pains, an old friend of Luke's comes by and starts doing a "find the queen" card game variant. Luke beats him by pretending to deduce how the queen definitely isn't the card on the left or the right (flipping them over in turn), but leaving the middle card face down while claiming it's the queen. His friend obviously can't flip it over and prove him wrong, so he wins.
  • In episode four of Dark Matter, Five comes across a man running a shell game. He's actually playing fair at first, and Five is able to keep up with his moves. To thwart her, he tries palming the ball, but she sees through that, too.
  • The intro sequence of ''Penn & Teller: Fool Us" has Penn & Teller themselves as part of one.

  • Indiana Jones: The Pinball Adventure has the "Choose Wisely" Video Mode, where the player must select the Holy Grail from a set of impostors.
  • The "Mine Shaft" mode in Congo shows a set of tunnel entrances; one leads to several diamonds, while the others result in an attack from a bear or a snake.

    Video Games 
  • Super Mario Bros.
    • In Paper Mario:
    • Out back of Koopa Village, you have to play a "shell game" where the prize is... Kooper's shell! The Fuzzy with the shell climbs the tree, then trades places with Fuzzies in other trees several times. Then you have to whack a tree. If it's the wrong tree, you'll have to fight a Fuzzy; if it's the right one, you go to the next round, where they switch around faster. Win that, and you move on to the final round, where they switch even faster. Win that, and you get the shell to give to Kooper.
    • Also, on Shiver Mountain and in Crystal Palace, there will be a few points where you have to use Kooper or Bombette, and once you do, there will be one or more Duplighosts mimicking the partner, and you have to decide which is the real one and which are the fakes. This involves watching what they say. (The Duplighosts with the "worst disguises ever" don't count.)
    • In Super Paper Mario, Mimi disguises herself as Merlee. One of these times, you're talking to the real Merlee, and they mix it up. Then you have to guess which one is the real one. You may ask 5 questions, so you can base this on an Out-of-Character Alert. (Or you can just look for a visual clue. Hint: Where did she hide?)
  • Harvest Moon FoMT has Won give the player a version of this. In this case, you need to guess which apple is which.
  • One Wario World boss requires you to find which cup he's hiding under.
  • There's a Mario Party game that has you play a shell game with a Koopa.
  • An early demo of Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble! used this for the Fib minigame before it was replaced with one more closely related to poker.
  • In the Dystopia map "Cybernetic", there is a Cyberspace objective in which you see a yellow box in a ring of about 20 blue boxes. The yellow box turns blue and they all spin around for a few seconds. Selecting the right box speeds the capture of the objective.
  • Hitogata Happa from the Gundemonium Series shifts around the three objects, while requiring you to dodge bullets.
  • One of the between-match minigames in Mortal Kombat Deadly Alliance (which returns in Mortal Kombat 9) is Test Your Sight, essentially a shell game. If the player succeeds repeatedly without making a mistake, the cups move faster, and eventually a fourth one is added. It's particularly funny when the player is using the blind swordsman Kenshi, since he tracks the movement of the cups by cupping one hand around his ear and listening to them.
  • Beyond Good & Evil: When first going to meet the Iris Network, Jade has to play a shell game (a very easy one) operated by Peepers (who may or may not be blind?) to find a key card for a room from where she may enter to the Iris Den. At any time, the regular shell game (find the little pearl) can earn you good money, up to a limit. The more you bet, the quicker Peepers shuffles them.
  • In Pokémon Gold and Silver (and the remakes), Trickster Gym Leader Janine has all of her followers dress up as her so that you won't be able to tell who the real Janine is.
  • [PROTOTYPE] combines this with Spot the Impostor when you perform the "Patsy" move. Mercer, while in the form of a soldier, can grab another soldier, spin the both of them around, and point to the other guy to confuse the enemy into believing he's the impostor.
  • Batman: Arkham City had Riddler using his second hostage in one of these. In a twist, you are required to use Detective Vision, because he will lower the hostage through the floor and bring it up through another one before the shells even start moving.
  • In Star Fox Adventures, the first test — the one that Krystal takes — involves a Krazoa spirit going into one of six large urns, which then shuffle around a few times before you have to guess where it is. You have to find it three times, and the urns shuffle two more times each time, and the pool of possible moves gets more complicated each time, but it's never particularly hard if you keep your eyes on the one you saw it go into.
  • In the arcade game Tapper, a mysterious masked man plays a shell game with the bartender during a bonus round where he must find which one of the several cans of beer (or soda in Root Beer Tapper) was left unshaken. Finding the correct one gives the player bonus points, while finding the wrong one gets the bartender soaked in the face.
  • The Dynamix game,Heart of China features a mandatory shell game in Instabul, as a last-ditch effort to make some sorely-needed money. The difficulty is affected by the game's difficulty setting: on low difficulty, it's insultingly easy. On max difficulty, in addition to lightspeed shell moves, the guy running the game will talk at you in an attempt to distract you.
  • An early puzzle in Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask involves a shell game with four cups. Trying to play the game straight will get you nowhere. The solution is that the guy running the shell game uses his fingers to indicate which cup the ball is actually under.
  • Chrono Trigger has a shell game, where you need to identify one of three identical soldiers. To make matters more complicated, each soldier identifies himself before they shuffle, but you're not told which one you need to find until afterward.
  • At one point in Stay Tooned, Schmooze tells the player he has hidden a door key under one of the three shells, and proceeds to move them around. The key actually isn't in any of the shells, it's under his hat instead.

    Web Comics 
  • The Order of the Stick
    • Interestingly played with: Xykon (a lich) is attacking Azure City, but there appears to be three of them. Since this is a Stick Figure Comic, they're all walking skeletons that look identical to Xykon. Haley mentions the "shell game" aspect in "It Takes a Thief", specifically the fact that in a "real" shell game, none of the options presented to the player are the correct one. Sure enough, all three of the visible Xykons are decoys. The real Xykon is actually invisible, and flying on an invisible silver dragon zombie.
    • Political variety is run by Tarquin's party. There are three big empires on a continent (currently Empire of Blood, Empire of Sweat and Empire of Tears) that rarely clash head-on, but attack independents and "protect" them from each other's depredations until they gradually subsume the rest, old good Cold War style. They frequently change figurehead rulers and names, but behind the scene are still controlled by the same six people, occasionally shuffling the partners.
  • An interesting variant is referenced (and explained in the footnote) in Schlock Mercenary: the Turbingian Shell Game is a con involving at least two thieves. Thanks to the pickpocket running the con, one or more of your valuables will be hidden under one of three shells, along with an explosive bean. The shells are then smashed, one by one, with a large mallet. You have to try and guess which ones don't contain your valuables. While you are occupied doing that, the pickpocket's partner is removing everything else of value from your person.
    Footnote: For those who think this is a stupid game that they would never consider playing, it's a great alternative to Turbingian 10-chamber pistol-roulette.

    Western Animation 
  • In the Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog episode, "High Stakes Sonic'', Smiley the Shark and his robot assistant are about to use the "pea under a shell" game on a flock of gambling sheep. Sonic steps in for them, and naturally, the robot's hands are no match for Sonic's eyes. During the last attempt, the robot ejects the pea through a trap door. Sonic, however, grabs the right and left shells and tells the robot the pea's under the middle shell.
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender: Toph finds out she can scam street magicians by playing this game. Because her earthbending Disability Superpower lets her sense where the pebble is, she can get it right every time. She even puts it back under a shell when a con artist tries to stealthily put it in his sleeve.
  • An episode of the Aladdin animated series has an ancient creature holding an item of mystic power that the group needs. He puts before them several tests that are borderline Ice-Cream Koan versions of such things — such as "stick out your tongue and touch your forehead" (Aladdin sticks out his tongue... and touches his forehead with his finger). One of them is a shell game with three baskets and a sword — Aladdin notices the creature cheating by the shadow of the sword behind the creature's back. The creature claims to have won after Aladdin chooses, but Aladdin has Abu and Carpet move the other two shells to reveal there was nothing under them... so clearly there must be something under the one he chose. (Invoking the "shell games aren't won by the player" point.)
  • In one episode of American Dad!, a significant jar of peanut butter is swapped several times between two identical bags. Eventually one falls into lava, at which point Steve learns that Stan had been trying to do this, but had thought it was a "magic bag" and didn't realize he had to do anything to make the swap, resulting in the jar being in the bag that fell into lava.
  • In an episode of The Simpsons, Homer becomes a licensed Krusty impersonator and gets grabbed by The Mafiya when they mistake him for the real Krusty... who gets brought in at the same time. The mobsters are going to shoot Krusty and let Homer go, but Krusty grabs each of their heads and plays a human Shell Game, which succeeds in confusing the gangsters and winning them their freedom... until Homer says "Good one, Krusty!"
    • In another episode, Mr. Burns had stolen the Simpsons' 25 puppies and plans to kill them to make a suit, but spares one of them after it amuses him by standing on its hind legs. To twarth his plan, Bart puts "Little Monty" in with the others so he can't shoot them, but Burns can still identify him when he does his trick. Bart then moves some socks on a clothesline to get the other dogs to stand up as well, making it impossible for Burns to figure out which one is which.
  • Used for a Visual Gag during the dumpling fight in Kung Fu Panda. Master Shifu hides a dumpling under an overturned bowl, then twirls the three bowls at blinding speed using his chopsticks. Po upturns the right bowl to free the dumpling. Later during his climatic fight with Tai Lung, Po does the same trick while standing on a pair of bamboo poles, with the Dragon Scroll hidden amongst some woks.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic plays with this one in the episode "Trade Ya". Rarity wants to buy a brooch, even though it looks identical to one she already owns, because it's an antique and therefore better. Applejack thinks this is ridiculous. She tries to make a point by rapidly switching the two brooches between her hooves and telling Rarity to identify the older one. Rarity confidently picks one and insists it's the antique, even though she can't explain how she knows. And Applejack, in her zeal to prove Rarity wrong, loses track of which brooch is which.
  • In an episode of The Penguins of Madagascar, King Julien demonstrates this game to Maurice and Mort using a ball, his crown, and two hats. Since his crown looks different from the two hats, Maurice is able to tell where he hid the ball.
  • An episode of The Powerpuff Girls had two criminals run a shell game booth that charges $5 a try but only offers $1 as a prize instead of the other way around. The Mayor tries several times and is utterly unable to comprehend that he's being conned, even when the girls arrive and explain that even if he were to find the ball each time, he would lose $4 each time.
  • An episode of Xiaolin Showdown had Raimunndo challenge Omi to find the ball, but to his chagrin, Omi's Tiger Instinct allows him to find it each time, even when Raimundo moves the ball out of the cups.

    Real Life 
  • The original of the phrase is from a form of gambling where the "dealer" hides a small item under a shell or cup or other device identical to two others, then quickly moves them so that whoever's watching can't tell which it was under. The player then picks one; if the item is under it, he wins. However, the point of a shell game is that with some quick sleight of hand, the "house" ensures the player wins the first round by putting an item under all three. In following games, a similar trick ensures the item isn't under any of them, and the dealer always wins.
  • The President of the United States when traveling by helicopter. Three or four identical helicopters are used so no outsider knows which one he is on. They also sometimes use several identical presidential limousines in motorcades.
  • In three-card monte, one of the real purposes of the game is to distract players so that a confederate in the audience can pickpocket them. Such a person is known as The Dip, or sometimes a "cutpurse" if you're in some sort of Epic Fantasy.
    • This is the subject of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, where a conjurer entertains the crowd with a balls-and-cups routine, while a pickpocket works the audience.
  • Certain online instant win contests have you play a variation of this, but the game is rigged in a different way. Though the odds look like one-in-three, the actual odds are whatever the contest odds are that they've chosen.