The elaboration of the shell game called cups-and–balls came into being in Europe in the 12th century a.d.   It was probably a side-issue of the game of bilboquet played by children, in which a cup on the end of a stick is used to catch a ball attached to it by a string.  The cups (inverted on a table) can, of course, be used in exactly the same way as shells.  The elaboration came with the use of three cups and two colored balls.  The balls could be made to seem to move from one cup to another by false pockets in the cups (as in the egg-bag trick used by modern conjurers).

Later still, thimbles and a pea were used, and the cheat working the game came to be known as a “thimble-cove” or “Thimple-rigger.”  Villainy Unmask’d, an anonymous book published  in London in 1752, warns its readers especially against the dangers of betting on which of the thimbles the pea will be under:  “It is under none of them.”  But, as the British sociological journalist Henry Mayhew noted in London Labour and the London Poor (1851). The warning apparently wasn’t taken; for by then “the thimble trick” had assumed the status of an open street game.

During the 19th century, American confidence  men on Mississippi river boats used walnut shells and a pea or ball of paper, varied with the three-card trick.  The American historian John O’Connor says that the down-river passengers “allowed themselves to be fooled by any simplicity, but that on the journey back a greater degree of sophistry was needed.”  The river-boat swindlers also enticed the innocent travelers (according to O’Connor) into games of chase-the-queen,  “setting up their trays in the best positions under the awnings and seeing to it that their partners set amongst the passengers were of good dress and mien.”

A more modern version of the game is played today with bottle caps from beer or Coca Cola bottles.  Wherever it’s played, the innocent who believes that his eyes are sharp enough to follow the movements of the shell, bottle cap, or queen, or that because he has spotted a bent corner on the key card he has an advantage over the operator…well, he’ll learn.

The innocent stands a better chance in the widely played match game (mora in Italy; and atep, still, in Egypt, even though matches are now used rather than fingers), for cheating is not an invariable feature of its operations.  The match game is wholly a guessing game, but your chances of winning are proportionate to your mathematical and psychological abilities.  Broadly, the object of the game is for one player to guess the total number of matches held in the right hands of all the other players.  He bases his guess on the knowledge that each player has three matches and may conceal none, one, two, or all of them in his right hand.  Any number can play.

Organized match games at Baden, Macao, Las Vegas and other gambling centers usually have six players and big stakes.  But wherever the game is played, it is also played informally for small stakes such as rounds of drinks or bus fares.  The rules are simple: Each player must have an opportunity to be last caller in a series of games (because the last player to call his guess has distinct mathematical and psychological advantages); and bluffing can be as important as it is in poker.


A late 19th century version of Charles Fey’s first slot machine.  Left a simplied diagram of a slot machine’s mechanism.  The coin starts a timing device (A) that turns a rod (B) like a clock’s hands.  One device governs each of three reels; pulling the handle spins the reels, and after a few seconds the rods stops them.

In all games of pure chance, for that matter, the rules of play are simple-which is why they attract such vast numbers of amateur (but determined ) players.  One of the simplest gambles, known all over the world, is the slot machine (called the “fruit machine” in Britain – and also, practically everywhere, called the “one-armed bandit”).

As nearly everyone knows, the slot machine is a mechanical device that absorbs coins.  Each coin inserted allows the player to pull a lever that sets three independent vertical reels spinning.  The peripheries of the reels bear colored symbols (some of them representations of fruit), and if they come to rest with specified combinations of symbols running parallel to a “payoff line,” the machine dispenses some of its coins to the player.  The player backs nothing but the chance that his pull on the lever will bring the reels to rest at a favorable combination.  The machines can be geared to pay back any percentage of the coins it absorbs – 82 to 94 per cent being as fair as you can find.  There are 20 symbols on each reel, which means that there are 8000 possible combinations of symbols.  But only 12 of these will pay back any coins.

Modern machines have been complicated by the addition of gadgets that vary the timing of the reels on each spin, control the payoffs, and prevent interference by would-be cheats.

The inventor of this profitable contrivance was Charles Fey, an American mechanic who must have known as much about human nature as he did about machinery.  In 1895 (when he was 29), he made the first one, called it the Liberty Bell, and hired it out to a San Francisco profession of gambling saloon for a rental of 50 per cent of its profits.  Fey may not himself have been a gambler, but he must have understood, consciously or subconsciously, some of the psychological motives (see Chapter 1) that cause people to enjoy their losses.  For wherever a slot machine stands, there stands also for most of the time someone compulsively feeding it with coins.


One such compulsive player was a young Indian businessman(Poker Player)who went to Tokyo on a sales-promotion visit for his firm.  Eating  in  café, he noticed a block of four slot machines that operated simultaneously.  He fed them with four coins and received a payoff of eight coins.  With these he began a gambling marathon that went on for six days and nights with only four three-hour intervals for food and sleep.  During that time he pulled the handle 70,000 times, collected winnings amounting to the equivalent of $ 1500, and paid them all back into the machines together with $ 100 of his own money.

Although his winnings had amounted to such a considerable sum over the period, there had never been a point after the first four-coin which he had been in pocket.  During one stretch of play, he had put the equivalent of nearly $ 20 into the machines before collecting a jackpot of well under $ 10.  he subsequently persuaded the directors of his first to branch out from their business of exporting curry, mangoes, and powdered rhinoceros horn, to form a company to import slot machines from America.  It flourished.

Although the ordinary straight slot machine brings its owner or hirer an unfailing profit, there have always been owners or hirers who have adjusted the mechanism of the machines to pay back only 20 per cent of their earnings.  Nor have fixers on the playing side been rare.  In the early days of the slot machine, crude attempts were made to fix continual payoffs.  Poker Players drilled holes in the outer casing and inserted wires through them to hook out the metal slide that traps the coins, or wedged open the payoff trap with a spatula.  The manufactures were not slow in defeating such attempts mechanically.  But another method, called “reel timing,” was not easy to track down, since there was no apparent interference with the mechanism.

The method was simple in principle but difficult in practice.  First, the player had to determine the exact number of seconds that each reel spun before coming to rest after the handle was pulled.  Secondly, he had to memorize the sequence of all 60 symbols on the three reels.  Having established the timing of a particular machine, the player had to bring an even trickier talent into operation: He had to be able to count, with stop-watch accuracy, a certain number of seconds between the insertion of the coin and the pulling of the lever.  By observing the line-up of symbols through the window before beginning the operation, and knowing from memory which symbols lay above and below the visible ones, the player could (if his counting was accurate ) set the reels spinning at a particular second after insertion of the coin had started the clock mechanism, so that they came to rest at predetermined positions.

Surprisingly, a good many people managed to acquire this complex skill.  Or perhaps not so surprisingly.  People have always been as ready to adapt their ingenuity to the dubious as to the respectable enterprise.  At all events, the takings of one firm of manufacturers suffered a gigantic drop during the period before the reel-timing method was discovered.  Once discovered, of course, it was easily scotched by mechanical means.  And to date, I know of no new method of baccarat cheating the slot machines.  Nor, however, is there any diminution of the number of players who have convinced themselves that eventually they will find some new way to beat the reels.