Ah yes, the old shell game. You knew the pea was under one of three shells. You saw the operator put it there. You followed his movements closely. Then you placed your bet, picked your shell, and lost your money.

That's the way it always goes.

No matter how many times you play and how closely you watch, you can never pick the right shell – because there is no right shell. The pea is palmed and there's nothing under any of them.

It's the same with Three-Card Monte. Keep a gimlet eye on the face-down money card as the dealer shuffles it amongst the other two. Then place your bet, pick your card, and lose your money.

This is a game that the dealer or operator always wins, so there's no point in playing it -- unless you're the guy shuffling the cards or sliding the shells.

In fact, it's a confidence game that's usually played on rustics, since they're the only ones sheltered enough not to have ever heard of it or ignorant enough to fall for it.

It's not the sort of game you'd play on a judge, even a rube judge.

And yet, the Coffman Law Firm of Beaumont was one of four firms that thought they'd play a game in U.S. District Court.

It was a shell game with a capital S: a class action suit against Shell Oil over credit card receipts at its gas stations. Only there was no legitimate cause of action.

Amazingly enough, they got the better of U.S. District Judge Blanche Manning. She tried to figure out where the pea went.

But Judge Frank Easterbrook of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit wasn't born yesterday. He concluded that Shell's practice of printing the last four digits of customer account numbers on receipts harmed no one.

Coffman, et al. was found lacking in class.

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