Here’s why you always lose at the carnival

August 30, 2017

You know how it goes: you’re at a carnival with your friends or family, you walk past booth with a stack of milk bottles, your kids see that huge cuddly bear, and they start screaming at you to win if for them. You pause, thinking to yourself “Yeah, I can knock those down. How hard could it be?” So you try and you try, heaving a baseball downrange, the cash in your wallet dwindling at an inversely proportional rate to the increase in bubbling rage inside you as you fail.

Here’s the thing: you’re not losing to the game. The game is probably designed to beat you.

Now, not every carnival game is rigged, but many of them are, and have been ever since carnivals existed. Heck, the term “mark” – a word denoting the target of a conman’s scheme – comes from carnival operators literally marking the backs of potential rubes with chalk so other carnies could swindle their cash with their own rigged games. Things have changed over the years, and many states actually have regulations in place to ensure that carnival games are fair and winnable feats of skill. Even so, it’s best to remember that, like in Vegas, the house is usually going to win. Here are a few games you should probably avoid if you’re not 100% willing to part with your money:

Bucket toss

It looks so easy – just chuck a ball into an angled bucket a few feet away. But no matter how hard you try, the ball just bounces right out. Now, some buckets may contain a spring or other bouncy material inside to keep you from winning, but honestly, they don’t even need that. All they need is basic physics.

When the carnie shows off how simple the game is, they’re usually chucking the ball into the basket from an angle, allowing them to slow the ball down with the interior wall. They’ll also leave a second ball inside the bucket to deaden the ball’s velocity. But once they hand you both balls to try for yourself, you’re already screwed. You’re likely chucking the ball in dead-on, and since there’s nothing inside to provide friction, it’s just going to bounce right out.

Target practice

You’ve got an air rifle and a handful of BBs, and your goal is to shoot out every piece of a red star on a target. Beating this one already requires more skill than most carnival games. In order for carnies to maintain an edge, they’ll often provide you with smaller BBs, reduce the air pressure in the rifle, and even mess with the sights on the gun to ensure that even the best sharpshooters have a hard time with this one.

Ring toss

“Just get the rings on the bottlenecks,” they said. “Stand an arm’s-length away,” they said. $20 and two minutes of hollow ‘plunking’ sounds later, and you’ve got nothing to show for your efforts except for an empty wallet and a deflated ego. The ring toss is perhaps one of the most deceptive carnival games around, and it knows exactly how to get inside your head to make you part with your cash.

The carnie makes sure you stand within arms-length of the bottles to make it look as effortless as possible. You think you’re at an advantage, but you’re really not, and it’s because of those damned rings. The rings are barely wide enough to fit onto the neck of the bottle, and they’re often made of hard plastic. If you’re dropping them straight down on top of your target, you might have a chance (and carnies will often do this when showing how ‘easy’ it is), but since you’re throwing them head-on, the rings will usually bounce right off.

Balloons and darts

The fair way to set up this game is to make sure all of the balloons are fully inflated, and that the darts are nice and sharp. The carnie way is to do the exact opposite – mildly inflated balloons and dull darts ensure that you’re either going to miss, or the darts are going to bounce right off.

Milk bottle pyramid

Throw a ball at a stack of milk bottles and watch them tumble to the ground… or not. The bottles at the bottom of the pyramid are often weighted (sometimes as much as ten pounds), and take a ton of force to even get them to move, let alone fall off the platform. This is bad on its own, but carnies will often provide you with a softball with a large cork center – meaning it’s even lighter than a normal softball. The best way to beat this one is to aim at the base of the pyramid to try to shove the bottom bottles clean off. Or maybe just walk past this one.

Free throws

It’s basketball! How can anyone possibly screw this up?

Well, for one, they turn the hoop into an oval.

Yep, like the ring toss and bucket game, carnies are using your sense of depth perception and your own hubris against you. When you’re standing head on, the hoop looks perfectly normal. Walk up close, though, and you’ll notice that the hoop isn’t circular, but rather a flattened oval shape that the ball barely fits through. And to mess with your head even more, carnies will often overinflate the ball, making it bounce wildly if you even manage to get it near the hoop. It’s so unfair, even LeBron James would have a hard time making this shot.

Crane Games

Modern carnivals often contain arcades that include crane games and other electronic amusements. The thing about crane games (or claw machines, as some call them) is that they can often be more deceptive than their less mechanical counterparts precisely because rigging them is as easy as pushing a few buttons.

It may look like a piece of cake to grab that squishy Minion or prized iPhone in a single go, but there’s a lot more that actually goes into snagging a prize than you’d expect. Crane operators have access to an internal computer, which allows them to customize pretty much anything they want, from how often the claw grabs at full strength, to when in the process to activate the claw, to even the speed of the crane itself. Operators can effectively set win percentages, ensuring that customers will only ever win when the machine wants them to. There’s still skill involved in properly lining up the crane and knowing when to push the button, but other than that, most of what happens next is more or less out of your hands.