The sights and smells of the carnival midway are nostalgically familiar: funnel cakes, carousel calliope music, and the sounds of hearts breaking when amusement park goers plunk down a few bucks to try to win the biggest stuffed animal in the place. Not all carnival games get rigged, but some stack the odds. Here’s a look at five common fixes for midway games.
1. KNOCK OVER THE MILK BOTTLES
It’s probably the most straightforward game on the midway: A carnival worker stacks three milk bottles in a pyramid, hands you a softball, and you cash in on your best Nolan Ryan impression, right? It’s not usually that simple. Bottles stacked on the bottom are often filled with lead and weigh in at 10 pounds, and the softball you’re given puts an emphasis on soft—they may be filled with cork to make them lighter.
Here’s one more trick to watch for: If one bottle sits more jutted out than the rest (even by just half an inch, according to a Today Show hidden camera investigation), it absorbs the force of the ball from the others when you give it your best toss.
2. BALLOON DART THROW
Before you step back and let that dart fly, remember you’re playing with what the house gives you. Dull darts (and often ones that are lighter to throw than store-bought darts) are often used in the game, and some carnival employees even heat the tips to make popping balloons more difficult.
But the balloons are equally deceptive: They might look ready to burst, but they’re usually inflated to just 30 percent of their full air capacity, making them tough to pop. The reason the balloons are a rainbow of different colors isn’t just to make the booth more alluring—it’s a distraction technique, too.
3. FREE THROW
The basketball hoop rims on free throw booths at carnivals are probably enough to give LeBron James fits: They’re smaller than regulation hoops, and according to a 2011 Art of Manliness article, “bent into an oblong shape to appear larger in the front.” Bruce Walstad, an investigator of rigged carnival games, says the oval hoop is designed to make players lose. Even with a perfect shot, there’s only a half-inch margin of error for shooters.
The rims aren’t the only thing that wouldn’t fly with NBA regulations: basketballs are often overinflated to give them an extra bounce, and Glenn Hester, a police officer from Georgia who specializes in carnival games fraud (he’s penned a book called Carnival Cop) says that “there may be netting or other items behind the rim designed to interfere with your depth perception.”
4. RING TOSS
When a carnival worker slides a ring around a pole to show how easy the game is, that’s because the game is exactly that simple—at least from where the employee is standing (usually somewhere where he can just drop the ring from directly overhead and with a ring that’s wider than the one he’ll give you to toss).
The Carnival Cop warns about the pitfalls of ring toss games in his book as well: The rings are just barely wider than the bottlenecks, Hester says, and are made of hard plastic so they’re more likely to bounce around than loop around your target.
5. BALL BOUNCE
Though it doesn’t have quite the infamy of the Tubs of Fun (and the New Hampshire man who blew his life savings playing the game earlier this year), bouncing a plastic ball off a vertical board and into a basket is no easy task. Carnival workers told the Today Show’s Jeff Rossen that what players don’t see is a spring behind the tub that bounces the balls back out.
Like in the ring toss, carnival workers have prime real estate to make the game look easy. Carnival workers standing right next to the board can lightly brush the ball against the board when they throw—there’s a lot less bounce-back from that angle.