Green’s Dictionary of Slang

thimble-rig n.

[SE thimble + rig n.2 (1). Sante, Low Life (1991), suggests this to be one of ‘the only major gambling games actually invented in the United States’. However, neither DSUE nor the OED’s first cit. (Hone’s Every-day Book, 1825) mentions this and Sante himself places its US appearance around 1860]

1. a version of the three-card trick, in which punters are asked to bet on which of three rapidly manipulated thimbles contains a pea; it is very rare that anyone other than the sharper’s accomplice manages to bet correctly; note Satirist (London) 5/08/1832 ‘The Thimble and Pea or Thimble Rig [...] is not a game, for that necessarily implies skill or chance, but it is entirely a sleight-of-hand trick, and, like all others of a similar kind, depends upon the dexterity of the hand, which will always in an adroit performer deceive the eye; at least, the hand may be used so quickly that the eye cannot detect the operation’ [for details of the game and its play, see Pierce Egan’s Life in London 12 June 1825, p. 158/1].

[[UK]J. Gay Trivia (1716) Bk II 20: Pass by the Meuse, nor try the *Thimbles Cheats. (*A Cheat, commonly practic’d in the Streets, with three Thimbles and a little Ball)].
[[UK]Thief-Catcher 14: There is another of the Tribe of Gamblers, who travel from one Fair to another [...] to play at what is called, Thimbles and Buttons. [...] the Thimble-player [...] is very regardless how much he exposes the Button to the View of the Countryman, but in reality, shifts it by a Trick of Dexterity betwixt his Fingers under another Thimble].
[UK]Hone Every-day Bk I 768: An unfair game known among the frequenters of races and fairs by the name of ‘the thimble rig’ .
[UK]G. Smeeton Doings in London 68: This pretty little game they call ‘the thimble rig.’.
[UK]R. Nicholson Cockney Adventures n.p. Bill Smith [...] would go and play at the thimble-rig, and he lost all his money, every farden, he hadn’t got a mag left.
Polyanthos Extra, and Fire Department Album 13 Feb. 1/2–3: Thimble rig! *** ‘Five, ten, fifteen or twenty dollars, you can’t tell under which cup the little joker is,’ exclaims one of a mob of gamblers & gaping spectators, who has his leg cocked on a stick, with three little cups about the size of acorns on his knee.
[UK]R.S. Surtees Handley Cross (1854) 340: Finest sportsman in the world [...] play dominoes, prick i’ the belt, or thimble-rig.
[US]N.Y. Herald 8 Feb. 1/4: [A rube visits a] ‘crib’ in park row, where [...] the ‘boys’ were playing the thimble-rig, commonly called the little Joker.
[US]G.G. Foster N.Y. by Gas-Light (1990) 184: This [...] is the celebrated game of thimble-rig.
[UK]Hotten Dict. of Modern Sl. etc. 108: THIMBLE-RIG, a noted cheating game played at fairs and places of great public thronging, consisting of two or three thimbles rapidly and dexterously placed over a pea, when the thimble-rigger, suddenly ceasing, asks you under which thimble the pea is to be found. If you are not a practised hand you will lose nine times out of ten any bet you may happen to make with him.
[US] ‘Parody on When This Cruel War Is Over’ in Donnybrook-Fair Comic Songster 10: Call me fond names darling – call me a ‘beat’ [...] whose fingers so nimble / To shuffle the cards or ‘rig the thimble.’.
[UK]G.J. Whyte-Melville White Rose (1899) 225: A merry blue-eyed boy, fresh from Eton, who could do ‘thimble-rig.’.
[US]Nat. Police Gaz. (NY) 15 Oct. 1: [pic. caption] thimble rig a la mode They Way They Do It on Rockaway Sands — How Beauty and Skill Conspire to Make the Rural Heart Sick and the Rural Pocket-Book Sicker .
[UK]C. Hindley Life and Adventures of a Cheap Jack 261: In my young days, there used to travel about in gangs, like men of business, a lot of people called ‘Nobblers,’ who used to work the ‘thimble and pea rig’ and go ‘buzzing,’ that is, picking pockets, assisted by some small boys.
[UK]W.E. Henley ‘Villon’s Straight Tip’ in Farmer Musa Pedestris (1896) 176: Suppose you screeve, or go cheap-jack? [...] Or thimble-rig? or knap a yack? / Or pitch a snide? or smash a rag?
[Aus]Crowe Aus. Sl. Dict. 85: Thimble Rig, a cheating game played with two or three thimbles over a pea.
[UK]Worcs. Chron. 19 May 6/1: He always plays at thimble-rig / And seems a man of pleasure.
[US]H. Asbury Sucker’s Progress 59: Thimble-rig, which is none other than the venerable cheat the Shell-game, is one of the few games of chance which are still played exactly as when they originated.

2. attrib. use of sense 1.

[UK]Reading Mercury 30 Aug. 3/4: The ‘thimble-rig gentry,’ ‘smashers,’ and pick-pockets were likewise numerous.
[UK]Lincs. Chron. 13 July 4/5: They tried to pick a quarrel and challenged the thimble-men to fight.
[UK]Crim.-Con. Gaz. 22 June 203/1: I saw Tom March [...] quite drunk with two thimble-rigmen.
[UK]Sheffield Indep. 2 Oct. 7/3: Gambling booths and various games of chance were prohibited, and some thimble-rig ‘gents’ taken into custody.
[UK]Stamford Mercury 18 July 3/3: There were two or three groups of the thimble-rig and card-trick fraternity.
[UK]‘Old Calabar’ Won in a Canter III 23: [A] thimble-rig table was driving a brisk trade.
[US]‘O. Henry’ ‘Modern Rural Sports’ in Gentle Grafter (1915) 42: You’re a ringer or a circus thimblerig man.

3. in fig. use of sense 1, corrupt, deceptive .

[UK]Paul Pry 30 Sept. 182/1: [T]he Jew thimble-rig solicitor, Joseph Abrahams.
[UK]Liverpool Mercury 7 May 6/3: It is with the presiding genius of the present ‘thimble-rig Government,’ to use a forcible expression of Lord Derby [...] and you will find you have been deluded.
[UK]Hansard (UK) 12 Apr. 1588/2: There is indeed the commencement of a thimble-rig Government.

4. trickery, deception.

[UK]Paul Pry 30 Sept. 183/2: [O]ne and all, the sporting world in particular, are subject to a little bit of legerdemain, and have the thimble rig played off on them to perfection, year after year by this precious Vates [a tipster].

In derivatives

thimble-riggery (adj.)

deceptive, cheating.

[UK]Morn. Chron. (London) 8 Oct. 7/2: The knot of low gamblers, with the usual thimble-riggery arrangements of costumed ‘touts’ and ‘bonnets’.