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How to Beat Popular Carnival Games

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Ferris WheelSpring is almost upon us and you know what that means, carnivals! In the spirit of this morning’s post, which was about long cons, let’s talk about some short cons… carnival games. That’s right, most, if not all, carnival games are diversions designed to separate a fool from their money… one dollar at a time.

For this article, I have to give a shout-out to one of my friends, John, who used to work the carnival that come into town (for anyone from the Stony Brook area of Long Island, it was the carnival that used to come into town and set up shop near SUNY Stony Brook). Back then, we used to visit him all the time as he ran all the stupid games and he told us the inside scoop on a bunch of the games. If it weren’t for John, I’d probably still think those carnival games were fair and that I really did have a chance to win that five foot tall bear.

In this article, I’ll point out some carnivals games, what the con is, and how you might be able to beat it. But remember, just like the lottery, the only way to win is if you have fun while you do it because chances are you won’t win much.

How To Win Carnival Prizes

I was wrong about not being able to win. You can but you have to approach a carnival like a casino. The only place you can win at a casino is in games where you play against other people, like the poker room. You won’t win playing blackjack or pai gow or roulette, you can only win consistently if you take it from other people. You can’t beat the house, no matter how incredible your system.

How does this translate in the carnival? Play games where you’re competing against other players. Common ones include using a water gun to inflate a balloon and rolling balls or bags into holes to get your horse across the racetrack. In those games, there is always a winner and the prize is based on the number of contestants. The carnival operator wins because the cost of the prize is less than the entry fees for the players, so take advantage of that.

Skill Games

Shoot A Basketball

On a regulation basketball hoop, the rim is twice as wide as the basketball. The game is hard because the hoop is ten feet in the air. In the carnival version, the con is that the rim isn’t going to be twice as wide as the basketball, so it’s much harder; and the hoop might be higher than ten feet! (oh, the hoop might be an oval too) The first thing you need to do is determine if it’s even physically possible. A common con is to have the rim be too skinny for the ball, so the ball can never go through. Another common con is for the ball to be overinflated, so it’ll clang off the rim more easily.

Darts & Balloons

Another common carnival game, the game requires you to pop a certain number of balloons to get a prize. The con here is that the darts are dull, the balloons are under-inflated, and the skin of the balloon may even be slightly thicker. The trick here is to give the dart more arc, rather than a direct shot, because the arc will help the tip catch the balloon. If you can, try to heat up the tip of the balloon and give yourself an edge (or don’t play!).

Guess Your Weight or Age or Birth Month

The funny thing about this game is that it’s really not even a game, it’s just a matter of math. Most of the time, the prizes are not even worth the entry fee. If they were wrong every single time, the operator still comes out ahead. To help give them an edge, the hope is that you pick weight or age because they have some information to work with. If you want to lower that information, go with birth month and always have the operator say the month (they try to play games with mis-writing and getting you to say your month) before you agree or disagree.

Bottle Throw

In this game, there are three or five bottles stacked in a pyramid and you have to knock them over with one throw. The key is to aim at the base of the lowest level because the bottles are heavy and not equally weighted. The ones at the base are usually heavier and their weight is distributed to be heavier at the base, so they are harder to knock down. Don’t aim at the middle, aim at the base.

Shoot Out The Star

No scam, this is just really really hard (OK, the barrels might be bent from age, thus messing up your first few shots, but otherwise it’s legit). Many places recommend that you try to shoot around the star to knock it out, rather than hit the star and punch it out. The consensus is that it’s really difficult and you should skip it.

There are plenty of other carnival games out there (throwing hoops, banking balls into baskets, etc.) but we never messed with this at the Fair so I didn’t really spend much time with those. If you’ve learned nothing from this article, learn this – all carnival games are all cons, so if you’re going to play, at least have a great time doing it! :)

(Photo: jasmic)

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28 Responses to “How to Beat Popular Carnival Games”

  1. Most orignal personal finance post I’ve read all year! Not just on Bargaineering, but everywhere. I thouroughly enjoyed this Jim.

    I have beaten the basketball game, the funny thing is when people who think they are good at basketball insist on trying over and over.

    • Jim says:

      It’s almost spring, gotta prep for the carnival season! (plus, my alma mater’s Spring Carnival is less than a month away, which is what keyed me onto this idea)

      • Lillian Buchaneer says:

        Hi. Stop jacking with the carnivval games and make them fair alright. understand mr jim bob whats ur face?

  2. Michelle says:

    I love the basketball game… a nothing-but-net shot or thousands of times at a free throw line really does payoff (in prizes)! The rim is notably smaller, and if you dribble before you shoot, you can feel if it has too much air. If you ask, they’ll usually let you dribble test the balls and pick your own. It helps close the odds a little bit.

    One of my other favorites games is the Basket Toss. Lob the ball in at angle (using the sides of the basket) and avoid the backwall of the basket… it pops the ball right out.

    Happy game playing!

  3. I love games. I’ve probably wasted quite a bit of money playing them, but I’ve come out ahead on some of the hardest games. My favorite game is the pool (as in billiards) game. It’s hard even when fair. You have to make all 4 balls in 4 shots, not counting the break. Practice on someone’s home table, it’s not picnic. You have to call every shot.

    Their con is the fact that the pockets are smaller, the table may not be level, the rails don’t bounce truly and the equipment is bad. That being said, you can beat if you have a decent pool shot. Don’t attempt any bank shots. The key is not to leave any balls on the rail when you break. The only way to do this is with a very soft break. Try to leave all the balls on one side of the table and set yourself up for a series of short shots. Good luck.

  4. Dave says:

    I knew all of the games were rigged, and even if you won, the crappy prize you got wasn’t worth the entry fee…

    I have a friend who used to work at an amusement park in their “carnival games” area and all the games were basically the same thing that you’d see at a real carnival, so you really couldn’t win.

    He used to work at the game where you had to move a metal ring around a bent, rotating, metal rod without it touching (or a buzzer would go off). The game is virtually impossible but the prize was one of those giant 5 foot stuffed animals. After he quit, he actually found one of the machines on ebay and bought it, and practiced the game all the time. He now goes to the amusement park every few weeks and wins a giant stuffed animal, then sells it on E-bay for $50-100. He has a room in his house stuffed full of them!

  5. John says:

    Haha, nice post. I strangely found it very informative and useful…

  6. Eric says:

    LOL. This is hilarious yet interesting. I stay away from the games since I know we’re the ones at a disadvantage. Fun tips anyways.

    • Jim says:

      I play sometimes for fun, just like how I eat funnel cake even though I know it’s horrible for me… a little in moderation is OK. Life is about living, not about picking the mathematically favorable games to play. :)

  7. Adam (golferadam) says:

    I was just thinking about this the other day…how to get the best of it on the carny games. Unbelievable that this became a post. Very informative.

  8. MLDina says:

    Thanks for the fun post! I’m from Long Island, and definitely remember the carnivals.

    Most of the time I’m just going to the carnival for fun, the prizes really aren’t too exciting once you’re over the age of 10, but it’s still fun to win. I’ll have to try your tips.

  9. Patrick says:

    Great post. It’s so hard to win those games at the carnivals. What makes it worse is that usually your date is the one that puts pressure on your to win the games along with most guys being ultra-competitive.

  10. Mike says:

    That was a fun read! I’ve heard a couple of the ways to win but not all of them. I’ll still stay away from carnival games, though.

  11. Revrj says:

    The person who is buying the stuffed animals must be an idiot they only cost a few bucks wholesale. When I worked the shows they were only $10.00 for the huge ones.

  12. bill says:

    as the former operator of a hy-stryker game (swing the hammer, ring the bell on the pole) i can tell you that i can make it as easy or as hard as i want for you to win. we gave all children a prize, one costing from 16-38 cents. we tried to adjust the adult game so 1 in 3 won a prize costing from 40-65 cents. so, we won every time, even if you rang the bell. try not to pay over $2 to play. still a lot of fun, especially if you can get some girls to play with you.

  13. Mo says:

    Hey does anyone know the actual name of that game .. where you have try to get metal ring around a bent, rotating, metal rod without it touching…?

    Like what would I put in google in order to find this game?

  14. james says:

    well i have been with a carnival forbout 6 years. you have a good grasp on most of it but not all of it. the dart game is simple has nothing to do with dull darts or underinflated balloons. i never charged a miss. do the math like this. $2 a dart or 3 darts for 5. trade up 3 smalls one medium. 5 dollars 3 mediums for a large 15$ 3 large for an xL $45 3 XL for a jumbo or choice $135 dollars for a $12 piece of stock

  15. bill says:

    as an amateur operator of a game where the object is to hit a lever with a hammer, causing a puck to ring the bell, i tell you that i can make everyone win, or EVERYONE lose. there is a little adjusting screw under the lever that governs the distance it travels. long travel-all winners, shorter travel-few winners, very short travel-NO winners. we try to keep the adult version adjusted so that 1 in 3 win. on the kids version, all the kids win. we make 60-70 cents on every kid, and 20-30 on each adult. others may adjust theirs differently, but that’s our business model.

  16. ben macken says:

    I think the games to watch are balloons and the milk carton toss the easist one to win a prize is the one where you toss a plastic whiffle ball on top of milk jugs

  17. Brad says:

    Also as an operator of carnival games, I can tell you the MAJORITY of the time the games are NOT rigged, at least in quality carnivals. If you want to play a game, I’d suggest first looking at the conditions of the rides and the midway in general. If a show looks like its not well taken care of, that’s a good indication to not play the game (or go on the rides for that matter).

    That’s not to say some games can’t be adjusted for difficulty. That goes without saying. A business can’t afford to give a big piece of stock away every time someone plays a $2 game.

    Modern carnival games operate more like a store, especially if they are “Prize Every Time”. That means we need to get a certain amount of cash for a certain size prize.

    Skill games work basically the same way, but because the size of the prize is bigger, so is the amount you need for it. In fact, if a game on a midway is taking more money in than its kicking stock out, we give out some prizes so they are walking around the midway. Thats called a “floater” and is a great advertising tool. If nobody wins, nobody would play.

    As for the value of the prize you get for the money you spend, that can vary, but the chances are games that offer bigger prizes for winning are more difficult to win. Mad you got a tiny stuff animal for playing a $2 game popping balloons? Of course you did, its a very easy game, and really, what did you expect for $2?

  18. Lolz says:

    Last year at the carnival I tried the basketball one, which I never won at. I’m a really short person and have no skills at basketball, but somehow last year i got it in perfectly on the first try. Now that was a one in million chance. The guy’s jaw dropped (and wow he was missing teeth) and he wasn’t thrilled with giving me the 5 foot tall dolphin stuffed animal that I won.

  19. neo says:

    I can beat the three block baseball throw. won a junior motorbike. I’m tall and a downward throw knocks em off. they say a soft lobb does it too

  20. Anonymous says:

    how do you do the game where you have to knock onver the bottles and they have a twenty $ note in them and you have to throw behind the line and there are bars across the top.(kalgoorlie fair)

  21. poppa says:

    Summer job from 14 to 21 was running various games for a (reasonably) honest operator. As stated earlier in this thread, cost of prizes versus the odds of winning is key. Some of these may be dated or subject to better regulations and/or inspections today.
    Almost all games have way of manipulating the odds.
    Generally speaking the smaller the crowd the higher the odds against winning. Still need to pay staff/lot rentals a base amount whether there are 200 marks out there or 10000.
    Ways to manipulate odds on various games
    -pinball style horse race against other players.. dials in the booth could select a player to get bonus points. Slows the rate at which serious players gain tickets needed for those higher value prizes. Similar controls existed to manipulate rate at which the “water pistol” blows up the balloon.
    -toss ball into a basket- usually the baskets are mounted on a board whose angle can be adjusted. Tilt forward to decrease probability the ball will remain in the basket. To beat… lob so the ball tends to bounce up, aim for side and have a side spin so ball tends to lose speed going around the side of the basket.
    - ring toss games.. generally have a slightly stretched ring and/or a slightly smaller block that makes it easy to control when a winner is wanted.
    - Toss a coin on a dish.. dishes are usually waxed and tilted towards the back so coins slip off very easily. Look for a dish to be tilted towards the front to increase your odds of winning.
    - Prize every time games.. fish ponds, pick a duck, net a ping pong ball – simple to control how many are available for the large prize. Have known some operators to keep the large prize objects in their aprons and add only when the crowd was large.
    - “Milk” bottles- Made of metal, usually one in each set is extremely heavy and almost impossible to knock over when on the bottom layer. Want a winner ? Move that bottle to the top layer or remove it from play.
    - “Knock down the teeth” Typically an 8×4 piece of plywood with a rectangular hole cut in the bottom half. 6 white painted blocks of wood are mounted on a rod affixed in the hole on which they will pivot. These will fall back when properly hit by a softball. Remainder of board is covered with padding and canvas that is painted to create a face. Control.. the bottom of the faces have eye bolts at the back through which a rope runs. The rope is attached to the back of the booth. Tightening the rope pulls the bottom back so the teeth are leaning forward and are much harder to knock back. Loosen the rope so the teeth are straight and they fall back with the breeze.
    - Fallback control that applies to most games -Foul line or “no leaning” rules. Easy to insist the player was in violation to keep stock tight or to ignore violations to have lots of winners when things are busy and you want to drag in more marks.


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