A person who poses as an innocent bystander at a confidence game but actually serves as a decoy for the perpetrators of the scheme.

This is a poker term used to describe a player that is paid by the card room or casino to play poker. A "shill" is similar to a "prop", the difference being in that the shill plays with money belonging to the employer. Shills have the advantage over "props" because they cannot lose.

In the parlance of the confidence game, a shill is a type of con man, or, more accurately, a role a con man plays in the big game. The term applies generally to anyone who acts as an outsider (as opposed to, logically enough, an insider).

A shill may perform a variety of tasks, each to a different end, but the unifying characteristic is that the shill is like an actor in the performance of the big game. In this way, ropers are shills, but fixers, lookouts, and muscle usually are not.

Aside from acting as a roper or an insider, a shill may contribute to the big game in one of these ways:

  • In its most basic sense, the term shill refers to a long con operator who simply poses as a person taking advantage of the little game, often successfully. At times, however, it is necessary for the shill to appear to be unsuccessful. For instance, during the sting, if it is necessary for the mark to lose money, it often helps cool the beef if one or more shills also lose money. This makes the mark's loss more palatable.

  • As above, the shill may act as a cooler (or smoother). For example, if he "loses" money just like the mark does, he may help to cool the beef. If the cooler loses more money than the mark, the mark may feel better knowing that he is better off. If the cooler commiserates with him, he might feel better still. The cooler can also provide false information, for instance, telling the mark that the insider and/or the roper have left town, been arrested, lost money themselves, etc. Especially when the mark is upset with the roper (understandably blaming the roper for his loss), it helps to have a separate cooler who can fill this role.

  • The shill may act as a capper (in a different sense than as a roper). This is sometimes called by-bidding. The capper (or by-bidder) may bet against the shill to raise a bet or to eliminate the shill from competing when the shill is set to win.

  • Another role the shill might play is that of a booster. A booster firmly and clearly (but subtly) doubts the inside game while in the presence of the mark. Sometimes this involves questioning the odds or risk of the game and chickening out. Sometimes, instead, it is the insider whom the booster doubts. The aim of this angle is to lend authenticity to the little game (despite the fact that superficially it detracts from it). Ideally, the mark steps in himself and defends the insider or vouches for the little game and all its operators, perhaps because he, himself, has received a convincer. This is a sure signal to the grifters that the mark is hooked.

  • If a button is in the works, the shill may act as one of the button men, posing as a policeman or federal officer in order to scare the mark away (hopefully permanently), leaving the score behind.

  • Finally, and least glamorously, the shill may simply act as a stooge: a warm body intended to make the big game seem bona fide. A stooge may act as the insider's wife, the roper's secretary, a bum, a hooker, a waiter, etc.

The cardinal rule of shilling is "Keep your mouth shut". A shill who is new to the game might be eager to contribute to the con, but there is nothing more dangerous. The corollary to this rule is succinctly stated in David Mamet's Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning stage play, Glengarry Glen Ross (also a 1992 film): "You never open your mouth `till you know what the shot is." to which the seasoned might add, "and even then, you better be damned sure." Any shill (or indeed any confidence man, salesman, politician or other professional liar) who doesn't learn this and learn it well will simply not last. If he's lucky, all he'll lose are his friends.

Beyond this, just as for any con operator, the act must be convincing. This goes well beyond what Hollywood does. What actors in movies represent are often merely symbols of the characters they represent. Like Beijing Opera or Greek Tragedy, they wear masks which represent archetypes. Seldom is a villain so purely villainous as portrayed in the movies, and seldom is a hero so purely good. A good shill must wear his character with subtlety and authenticity.

It only takes one wrong word, or even one wrong look— one glance in the wrong direction— to queer the deal. Such a mistake not only destroys all of the work that went into the big game, but it creates risk— retribution, persecution or prosecution. That's bad mojo to those on the grift.



Shill (?), v. t.

To shell.

[Obs. or Prov. Eng.]


© Webster 1913.

Shill, v. t. [Cf. Sheal.]

To put under cover; to sheal.




© Webster 1913.

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