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Shell Game

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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. A Gideon Ploy might rely on this.

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 - the 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.
  • Yu-Gi-Oh!:
    • Yugi's Magical Hats spell conceals his monsters by summoning four hats that cover the monster and rearrange themselves.
    • Exclusive to the manga, Duke humiliates Joey by placing four playing cards, two red and two black, face down and challenging him to draw two of the same color. Despite Joey's legendary luck, he fails every time. 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.
    • Joey had a card called Compensation Mediation that worked this way. When activated, the opponent took that card and two cards from his/her Graveyard and set them. The player then picked one; if he picked the Compensation Mediation card, the opponent's turn ended and the other two cards went to the top of the opponent's deck; if not, the opponent could continue the turn and send the card picked to the top of his or her deck. (This card worked to his benefit against Mai, but not against Zigfried in a later arc.)
  • 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 hand movements, 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.
  • One Piece:
    • A variation is used during the Alabasta arc. The Baroque Works Officers are assigned to take out Vivi before she can get to the Rebel Army. However, when the Straw Hats arrive on the Supersonic Duck Squad, they're all wearing the same cloak and hid their faces, so the agents couldn't tell which one was Vivi. When the group split up, the Agents did the same to chase after them. It was then revealed that none of the people in the group were Vivi, the sixth member of the group being Eyelashes the camel. The real Vivi had stayed behind while the Straw Hats led the agents away.
    • Another variant occurs in the Enies Lobby arc. The CP9 agents decide to give the Straw Hats a sliver of a fighting chance (thinking there's no way a lowly pirate crew would stand a chance against them) by each holding a key, which they can have if they defeat the agent holding it. One of these keys will unlock Nico Robin's seastone cuffs, but there's no way to tell which is the real key (or even if one of them is the real key), so they'll have to fight all of them and collect all the keys in order to be sure. They manage to do it, and, true to their word, one of the keys does unlock Robin's cuffs.

    Comic Books 
  • In The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones #11, Indy's contact Torino is running the shell game and conning passers-by out of their cash. Things are going well when the marble that is supposed be under the cup falls out of his sleeve. Cue Torino fleeing from an angry mob.
  • In Marv Wolfman's Man and Superman, one of the first things Clark sees in Metropolis is a guy getting suckered at three-card-monte. Clark uses his X-ray vision to win and get the guy his money back.

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

    Fan Works 
  • The Legend of Korra fanfic Book 5: Legends features a human-sized version of this with the Big Bad and the use of a Plague Doctor mask. Keeps the protagonists and the readers alike guessing up until The Reveal midway through the story. And by then, of course, its already too late.
  • In the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic fanfic We Rent The Night, Trixie uses this trick on her new partner, Melon Rind, to demonstrate how naive he is. It works.
    Trixie: It's not under any of them. You are an imbecile because you let yourself get baited into an argument, let me pick the game, and forgot that a unicorn can cheat using magic.
  • Vexxin employs a variant of this in Burning Bridges, Building Confidence. Realizing that she may have to deal with opponents who know what the Fox Miraculous looks like, such as its former holder, she asks Tikki and Trixx to change its form to an armlet, and incorporates the previous design into her outfit in the form of a choker. Sure enough, Rena Rage and Revengance fixate on the latter, mistaking it for the real Miraculous.

    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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Muddy River: Shinpei calls this a magic trick, and entertains 10-year-old Kiichi by playing the hide-the-bean game with three teacups.
  • In Now You See Me 2, Jack explains that this is the purpose of Three-Card Monte/Find The Lady. Also, what the Horsemen are doing to the villains regarding who has the MacGuffin – none of them do.
  • Sidewalk Stories: A three-card monte artist deprives the little girl's father of some cash. This helps establish the father as an irresponsible gambler, right before he is murdered by some hoods, presumably over a gambling debt.
  • In Batman Begins, this is the League of Shadows' final test before they can induct Bruce Wayne into their ranks: Bruce has to find his mentor Henri Ducard among a mob of Faceless Mooks dressed up just like him, and each time Bruce seems to have picked the right one, the mob shuffles itself around to confuse him further. The end of the test unfolds rather surprisingly: Ducard and Bruce switch roles with Bruce hiding and Ducard seeking him, and the audience is never made completely aware of this until Ducard unmasks himself and traps (who he thinks is) Bruce.
  • The Big Trail: Bill Thorpe is established as a shifty con man in his first scene, which shows him aboard a steamboat, separating a rube from his money with a classic shell game.
  • Done with cars in Baby Driver: as Baby and the crew escape from the initial heist, they're trailed by a police helicopter. Baby happens to spot two similar-looking cars (red sedans with sunroofs) on the highway and maneuvers between them so all three are in a line. Then, when they're briefly under an overpass, he manages to force his car and another to switch places, thus visually re-creating the trick and confusing the spotters in the police helicopter.
  • In Peter Rabbit, at one point, Thomas McGregor ends up in a version of this with Benjamin, with McGregor searching for him under three pots lined up a row, only for Benjamin to keep switching pots faster than he can see. Finally he pulls up both the left and right ones at the same time, only for Peter to sneak under the middle one between his legs.
  • Constance's Establishing Character Moment in Ocean's 8 has her running a solo Three-Card Monte con that showcases her sleight of hand when she disappears and recalls the Queen card for the tourist. When he loses the bet, Constance defuses any tension by complimenting the guy and giving him a hug–that allows her to pinch his watch.

  • 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 Harry Potter and the 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.
    • 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 metaphor. Maybe five. The actual con in this case is seeing where the mark keeps his money and picking his pocket later.
  • Good Omens has a version of this with babies. It doesn't go as planned.
  • 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.
  • In Brian Jacques' The Angels Command, Ben and Ned come across two sea captains playing a shell game in a tavern, and call out the one who's cheating; this endears them to the other, who takes them on board his ship as good luck charms.
  • The Wolf Hall trilogy is historical fiction about the life of Thomas Cromwell, who rose from humble beginnings to become the most powerful man in Henry VIII's court. A scene early in the trilogy depicts the young Cromwell supporting himself by running a "find the lady" game; later, the adult Cromwell remarks that as Henry's right hand man his livelihood still depends on rearranging ladies and making queens appear and disappear.
  • X-Wing: Wedge's Gamble has an example involving "sliced" (hacked) computer cores a Rebel infiltration team is trying to install to compromise the Imperial capital world's planetary network. An Imperial technician wants to randomly choose which one to install out of a lot, so a disguised Wedge has him choose three out of five; Wedge has an assistant take the other two away. Then he lets the Imperial choose again, and has the unpicked cores taken away. Wedge lets the Imperial pick one last time, the Imperial chooses the normal core, and Wedge decides yep, that's the one that needs to go, leaving the compromised core to be installed. In other words, the Imperial was so focused on pointing at cores that he never caught on that Wedge was the one deciding what the selections meant. Smuggler Mirax Terrik, who is watching over the security feed, can't help but be impressed.
  • Xandri Corelel used to play the original shell game during her years as a Professional Gambler. Usually the guy running the game would let people win a few times, trick them into betting all their money, and then start cheating. Xandri could usually tell when it was time to quit, but the game was risky enough that she only played it if she really needed a quick buck.

    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. In their first attempt, the Doctor's visual acuity allows him to see that Neelix has palmed the ball up his sleeve.
  • 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.
  • Fort Boyard:
    • One of the oldest challenge in this Game Show 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.
    • Later refurbished as one of the Masters' challenges for time, with a boyard under three cups. Again, rarely won, since the Master is quite good at palming the coin unnoticed.
  • 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.
  • In The Night Manager, we see both the original version (performed by Roper at his son's birthday party) and then a much darker version played with an arms shipment - the convoy assumed to be carrying the weapons is in fact just moving aid, as advertised, which both embarrasses the people trying to crack down on Roper's arms dealing, and risks exposing their mole within Roper's organisation.
  • 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.
  • At the end of the Doctor Who story "Carnival of Monsters", the Lovable Rogue, whose use of a piece of hypertechnology that he didn't understand as a sideshow attraction caused near disaster, is last seen starting to run a cup-and-ball scam to raise enough money to get off-planet.
  • At the beginning of a House episode, a con man and his partner run a game of Three Card Monte. When the partner suddenly can't pick a card (or make any kind of decision) and collapses onto the game, the con artist picks up the money and runs.
  • The Punisher (2017). At the start of "One Eyed Jacks", Amy is demonstrating Three-Card Monte for Frank Castle, who is unable to pick the right card despite repeated demonstrations. Amy tries to teach Frank that the smart move is not to play (with the implication that he should learn to walk away from fights instead of trying to win them). Frank disagrees, saying the only smart move is to make sure that you're the dealer.

In the music video "It's Tricky" by Run–D.M.C., Penn & Teller are running a three-card monte con game. One of the victims calls up the gang, who arrive by helicopter and handle the situation in their own unique manner. Interestingly, Penn and Teller did their homework into how this scam runs. If you watch closely, there's a man with a mustache, wearing a hat and overcoat, who's encouraging the mark to keep betting money. He's their shill. When the scene opens, you can see him looking around, watching for the police. When the police do arrive and Penn and Teller make their escape, you can see him quickly leave in the opposite direction.

  • 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.

    Puppet Shows 
  • A sketch from Sesame Street has Cookie Monster participate in this game, with the prize being a cookie. When Cookie chooses the wrong shell the first time, the Barker makes the game easier by taking one of the shells away. Cookie chooses the wrong shell a second time, and loses the game. He gets upset, but only briefly, as he decides to eat the shells instead. Now that the Barker can't play his shell game anymore, he gives Cookie his cookie.

    Video Games 
  • Super Mario Bros.
    • In Super Mario RPG, this is the premise of a mini-game you can play to potentially double (or forfeit) your EXP or coins from a battle. But don't bother trying to follow the Yoshi with your eyes: the animation is always the same, and the results are always nevertheless randomized.
    • In Paper Mario 64:
      • 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?)
    • In Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam, Paper Petey Piranha uses this stunt to try protect himself, initially being mixed into a group of identical, but immortal copies. As they're damaged, they'll spread flat onto the ground, where the real deal will eventually reveal himself by lifting up his head to peer at the bros. However, once he's damaged, they'll rearrange themselves and he'll stop giving tells, forcing you to keep a close eye on him and aim your attacks accordingly.
    • In Luigi's Mansion 3, the three ghost magicians; Nikki, Lindsey, Ginny, have this in the boss fight. After one of them gets captured, one will replace the missing member with a bomb, forcing the player to pay attention in order to avoid the trap. This becomes more difficult when there's only one sister left as the lights will start flickering once the hats start spinning faster around, requiring the player to account for the hats' motion during the brief blackout to keep tracking the correct one.
  • 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, the Mean Emcee, requires you to find which cup he's hiding under, though he'll try to trick you by not showing himself until the cup is hit a second time after it raises to reveal nothing.
  • 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.
  • The Binding of Isaac: A beggar running a shell game can occasionally be found in the levels, usually in the Arcade but he can pop up anywhere. If you pay him a coin, you can play the game, with a 1/3 chance of receiving a prize for it. Characters with a high Luck attribute can increase this chance to 1/2 (despite there still being three shells present).
  • In Final Fantasy XIV Stormblood, the Primal Susano has an attack which traps one player within a stone shell, summons two identical shells, and then shuffles the three of them around. The rest of the party needs to identify and destroy the correct shell before it implodes, killing the trapped player.
    • The Queens' Soldier in Delubrum Reginae has this as its gimmick: It summons four copies of itself, tethers to two of them for a few seconds, then makes the copies jump around the arena. After the copies finish moving, they all perform an attack, but only the copies that were tethered to the boss actually deal damage.
    • The Slice is Right minigame in the Gold Saucer also involves a shell game "bonus round": Yojimbo places three cups, one containing a pile of Gold Saucer coins that will double players' earnings from the rest of the minigame; one containing his dog Daigoro who will knock players out of the minigame area for an instant loss; and one cup containing nothing at all, which simply allows the players to move on to the next round.
  • Watch_Dogs: A number of panhandlers around Chicago have set up shell games that Aiden can play for quick cash, and beating all three difficulty levels can easily become That One Sidequest. Ideally, the player is supposed to use Aiden's adrenaline ability to keep track of the movements of the cups better, but there's an even easier solution that the devs didn't anticipate: the game renders all objects on the screen as wireframes and silhouettes while in the pause menu - including the cups and the ball. Just pause the game when you have to choose your cup (setting your brightness settings to maximum optimally) and you can't miss.
  • Mass Effect 3: In the Citadel DLC, you can find a couple of vorcha running a holographic version of this on the Silversun Strip.
    "Winner winner, chicken dinner!"
  • In Rugrats: I Gotta Go Party for the Game Boy Advance, the "Where's Cynthia Gone?" mini-game involves Angelica hiding her Cynthia doll in one of three cups and moving them around. To choose a cup, press the D-pad for the left cup, the B button for the middle cup, and the A button for the right cup.
  • In Beauty and the Beast: A Board Game Adventure for the Game Boy Color, the "Where's Chip?" mini-game involves Chip shuffling himself among his similar-looking brothers and sisters. Played with in that you have to find the right-looking cup, not what's underneath it.
  • There are two mini-games in South Park: Chef's Luv Shack that follow this trope. The first is "Soda Shake", where Chef shakes up one of four identical cans of soda, then moves them around. The goal of this mini-game is to choose the shaken can. The second is "Chicken Lover", where a chicken-loving freak is hiding in one of many identical bushes, and so are some fuzzy animals. After the bushes stop moving, the goal of this mini-game is to shoot the bush that has the freak is in. If you shoot one of the bushes with a fuzzy animal in it, the freak fulfills his dream and rapes the chicken.
  • Later Alligator: Slick Mickey's minigame is a spin on this. The spin is that he's really bad at it. He doesn't move the queen of hearts, or actually swap around the other cards' locations. After moving the cards, he gives a quick glance to the winning card. If it wasn't obvious enough which card to choose, he's got a major tell, and gets really nervous when the cursor hovers over the winning card. After clicking on the winning card, it will suddenly move. Click again, it moves again. Click a third time, it will spontaneously catch fire, and Mickey will eat the burned up card.
    Slick Mickey: Well! I guess we'll never know who won! Who knows which way the wind blows, or some junk...
    Slick Mickey: *urp*
  • Hand of Fate uses this to determine the results of non-combat events. Four cards are placed on the table, a mixture of "Success", "Failure", "Huge Success", and "Huge Failure" (the exact numbers of each in the mix depends on the event and which Fate you're using). They are stacked and spread again, and you choose one. Notably, this is not a random outcome - the cards retain their positions between being stacked and spread, allowing you to always choose the one you want if you keep track of a given card.
  • When you attempt a quest in Armello, ten icons appear in a circle, are obfuscated, and then spin. The number of "winning" icons depends on your score in the stat used for the quest.
  • The Legend of Zelda
    • The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time: During the first phase of his battle, Phantom Ganon will hide in one of the paintings surrounding his arena. Link must try to spot which painting Phantom Ganon would emerge from or else he would get hit by a powerful lightning attack and Phantom Ganon would just retreat into another painting and repeat the process.
    • The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap: During the Mazaal boss battle, Link must shrink to Minish size and enter the construct to attack its weakness, a glowing pillar. Later in the battle, Mazaal will swallow a large volume of sand, filling up its chamber and burying all its pillars, including the weakpoint. Link must now use the Mole Mitts to dig out the correct pillar and attack before Mazaal ejects him out of its body.

    Web Comics 
  • The Order of the Stick:
    • Interestingly played with during the siege of Azure City. The lich Xykon is leading the attack, but there appears to be three of him — since this is a Stick-Figure Comic, they're all walking skeletons in blue robes, making them more or less identical. 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. Roy's able to translate this into Layman's Terms for his fellow Lawful Good allies; the enemy has clearly demonstrated the ability to create at least two Body Doubles, so why can't they create three and have the real one attempt to achieve the Instant-Win Condition? Sure enough, all three of the visible Xykons are decoys, other types of skeletal undead created by Xykon's second-in-command. Xykon himself is actually under an invisibility spell, flying over the city walls on a zombified dragon. Luckily, he's so bloodthirsty and arrogant he abandons the subtle plan in order to attack the heroes.
    • The political variety is run by Tarquin's party. There are three big empires on the western continent (currently Empire of Blood, Empire of Sweat and Empire of Tears) that rarely clash head-on, but compete over and absorb independent minor powers, Cold War-style. They frequently change names and figurehead rulers, but those rulers' closest advisors end up assisting the next regime, and the one after that. The net result is that the entire continent is controlled by the same six people, who occasionally shuffle partners so no-one catches on.
    • Once again during the last arc. Kraagor's Tomb is a simple concept: any adventurer is presented with a number of doors in the cliffside, most of which lead to dungeons filled with monsters, and only one leading to the actual tomb. The party considers briefly that it was another "shell game" of the sort pulled with Xykon at Azure City, but this is considered unlikely due to the fact that Team Evil, who was trying door after door, wouldn't be fooled by their own trick. Turns out it is a shell game—the doors all have teleportation magic just a few feet past them. Haley notices the traps and is able to bypass one of them. Further, all the physical tunnels converge into an underground cavern. However, Haley notes that any group with a decent rogue would probably be able to spot the teleportation traps, so it can't be the entire challenge of the dungeon....
  • 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.

     Web Original 
  • The official website for the True Crime series McMillion$ posted one of these. In the first two rounds it operates like a fair version of the game in which you're shown the game piece and then it's hidden and you try to follow it as it moves around the screen. If you pick wrong, you get to try again until you get it right. In the third round, however, you pick three times and are told every time that you didn't win, the moral being "Some games you just can't win."

    Western Animation 
  • 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 Aladdin: The 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.)
  • 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.
    • The episode where Marge became a cop started with her catching Snake cheating at the "three cards" version.
  • Sonic the Hedgehog cartoons:
    • 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.
    • At the beginning of the Sonic Boom episode, "The Evil Dr. Orbot", T.W. Barker scams Mike the Ox through one of these by hiding the ball behind his back.
  • 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. Tai Lung just flips all of them over at once, to Po's dismay.
  • One episode of Tom and Jerry features the arrival of Tom's cousin George, who looks exactly like him, but is deadly scared of mice. Jerry, not knowing about this, discovers that "Tom" is now reacting strangely to him, and spends the next part of the episode repeatedly scaring the cat who is actually George. Finally, George and Tom team up and start switching places and pretending they are the same cat, up to the point of Ringer Ploy and Jerry running away to a mental institution.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic:
    • The show 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 "Uncommon Bond", Trixie tries to demonstrate the ball and cup version to Sunburst but botches it. The cups are all different colors and designs, making it easy to track the ball. Trixie also mentions she put balls under all the cups.
  • 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.
  • Sheriff Callie's Wild West - in "Peck Gets Fooled," Sheriff Callie locks up a guy named Phineas Foolery for cheating most of the town of Nice and Friendly Corners at cards and has Peck watch over him. Phineas fools Peck into releasing him by pulling a version of this on him in which he has Peck bring three barrels into his cell and hides under one, then has Peck mix them up and guess which one he's under. Of course, he's under none of them— he's escaped from the cell. It comes back to bite him later when he's trying to escape from Callie, Peck and Toby and tries the barrel trick again, as Peck won't be fooled by the same trick twice.
  • In The Scooby-Doo and Scrappy-Doo Show, Shaggy, Scooby, and Scrappy do this to evade a pursuing cat after being shrunk.
  • An episode of Xiaolin Showdown had Raimunndo challenge Omi to find the candy, but to his chagrin, Omi's Tiger Instinct allows him to find it each time.
  • In the Inspector Gadget episode "Prince of the Gypsies", a MAD agent plays a very easy variant of this with Gadget. It is easy because the ball under the cup is a bomb, and he wants Gadget to find it. Unfortunately, the bomb got stuck inside the cup, and dislodges only when the unfortunate agent looks under it!
  • Ready Jet Go!: In "Kid-Kart Derby", Mitchell is using a stack of identical cups to listen in on Jet's plans. When Jet and Sunspot catch him, the cups collapse and wanting to distract them, Mitchell quickly puts a tangerine under one of them, asking Sunspot to guess which cup the tangerine is hidden inside. Sunspot correctly guesses where it was hidden.

    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. The bet is for even money, so unless you actually tracked the shell with the item under it properly, it's a bad bet. But if you can follow the moves it's a very good bet, if it's played honestly. 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 story goes that someone who knew the game won by putting their hands on the two out shells and saying it's under the middle one. The dealer had to reveal the pea and pay off. If it wasn't there, the mark would have picked up the other two showing that it was all a scam.
  • 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. If you actually win (either through dumb luck or actually spotting the sleight of hand that was used to swap two cards), and you are allowed to keep your money, it's very likely because you do not have your wallet anymore, and it had enough in it to cover their loss and then some.
    • 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.
  • At least one magic trick inverts this: you pick one of a number of items the magician shows you, and the magician then reveals that he predicted beforehand that you'd pick that item. Like with straightforward shell games, though, this trick is 'rigged' in advance so that the magician always 'wins' with a correct prediction no matter which item you pick. For example, the magician may take out a nickel, dime, or quarter from an envelope and tell you to point to one of them. If you point to the nickel, he tells you to look inside the envelope where he's hidden a note saying that you'd pick the nickel. If you point to the dime, he tells you to flip over the envelope instead to reveal a message he's written on its back about you picking the dime. If you point to the quarter, he tells you to turn over the coins to show you that he's written a message on the quarter only. Thus, no matter which coin you pick, he makes it look like he predicted you'd pick that coin and only that coin.
    • Another type of magic trick has the magician himself play a shell game with an audience member by instructing them to hide a ball or some other item under one of three cups and then shuffle them around while his back is turned. Of course, the magician will have set up things beforehand so that he can easily discern which cup has the ball by covertly marking the cups, having an accomplice in the audience tell him which cup has the ball through subtle gestures, or some other clever method.


Video Example(s):


Bonus Round

A villain shakes up five of the six cans of beer and shuffles them around. Find the safe one and earn 3,000 points!

Gameplay by Prog61 on Youtube:

How well does it match the trope?

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Example of:

Main / ShellGame

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