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A swindle; confidence game; scam: I'm afraid this proposed merger looks like a shell game
[1890+; fr a version of three-card monte played with a pea or other token under walnut shells]
oldest and most popular of the tricks traditionally performed by a conjurer. To begin the trick, the performer places a bead or ball (often a pea) under one of three inverted cups (or half-shells). As the cups are rearranged on a flat surface, the ball is made to "jump" invisibly from one cup to another, or to "multiply." The basis for the illusion is a secret additional ball that, by skilled manipulation, is put under one cup while the known ball is removed as secretly from another cup. The manipulative work is aided by the distracting conversation, or patter, of the conjurer.