How Carnivals Scam You

The warm night air, the lights, the smell of funnel cakes and vomit, the terrified shrieks of people who for some reason are riding the Zipper even though they know perfectly well that it was probably hammered together in 25 minutes and hasn't had any parts replaced in 25 years ... there's no experience quite like the county fair in the summertime. There's just something nostalgically stupefying about it. You know those rides might kill you, but what the hell. You know the carnival games are probably scams, but what the hell. You didn't die on the Zipper, so maybe your luck will hold up with the ring toss.

Except now there's no longer any doubt about it — carnival games are scams, and we can prove it. Armed with this knowledge, you can now turn down the entreaties of those creepy carnies secure in the knowledge that this will not be the time your luck finally changes, because luck has nothing to do with it.

The free throw or three-pointer

You're a master of the three-pointer, so you know, you absolutely know, that you can make that shot and win the giant SpongeBob Squarepants. But when you actually try to do it — you miss. What the heck? Is it performance anxiety? The hopefulness followed by accusatory disappointment on the face of your girlfriend/boyfriend/child/other when you can't make a shot that any high school basketball player could?

Actually, it isn't you. It's the game. According to BGR, on a regulation basketball court the three-point line is 24 feet from the rim, and the hoop is 10 feet from the ground. At a carnival, everything is just a little bit off. Not enough for you to notice — the hoop might be 11 feet off the ground, and the line might be 28 feet from the hoop. But because you're used to making a three-point shot from those regulation distances, you're going to misjudge the shot at the carnival pretty much every time. That's not quite enough of a disadvantage, though, so game operators have added a few extra, err, challenges. The hoops may be oval-shaped instead of round, which isn't obvious from where you're standing. The shape gives you around a half-inch margin of error, and add to that an overinflated, extra-bouncy ball and if you don't shoot with the kind of precision only Ray Allen possesses, you're going to walk away with a much lighter wallet and no giant SpongeBob to show for it.

The balloon pop

Any toddler who has ever accidentally ended a party balloon with something only reasonably pointy knows that balloons are fragile things. And yet for some reason, you can't pop one of the stupid things with a freaking dart at the county fair. Why?

There's a reason why those fair balloons look kind of limp and unenthusiastic — according to AARP, they're under-inflated, which means they have thicker skins than party balloons. In fact those balloons might only be holding a third as much air as they're capable of holding, which means they're going to be pretty resilient. Thick skins aren't as susceptible to damage as the much thinner, over-stretched skins of the typical party balloon. And the darts aren't regulation, either, so if you're awesome at darts when you're down at the pub you're going to be a little more challenged by the lighter version they give you at the fair. And never mind that the points are also a lot duller than they are on a regular dart.

So why haven't you ever noticed the limp, floppy, under-inflated balloon phenomenon at the county fair? The balloons are lined up close together, which makes their diminutive size less obvious — but they are also arranged in a rainbow of colors, and those pretty colors help lull you into a false sense of security because rainbows can't ever have evil intentions, right? Sort of like the bioluminescent lure on an angler fish, only way more evil.

The milk bottle game

Throw a ball, knock over a few bottles. It's bowling for people who would rather blow 35 bucks in five minutes than spend the same amount of money on 10 games and a pizza. Like all carnival games, the milk bottle game is designed to look deceptively simple. And it is — it's very simply rigged to make it next to impossible to win.

According to Mental Floss, there are a few different techniques game operators use to stack the odds against you. First, the milk bottles on the bottom of the stack are probably a lot heavier than the ones on the top. They might be filled with lead or cement. Or, the game operators may be using some simple laws of physics to make it impossible for you to win. If they line up the bottles so one is just a little misaligned, that bottle will absorb most of the impact of your throw, which means the other bottles will stay upright and mock you for being an idiot. Which will probably make you mad enough to shell over another fiver so you can put those little stinks in their place, except you won't because the game is rigged.

And it's not your imagination that that baseball feels lighter than the one you played with in college or as a child — it is. A lighter baseball has a harder time taking down a stack of milk bottles, so duh.

The ring toss

This one looks like it should be easy to win. It's a game of skill — just toss the ring in exactly the right way, it goes over the bottle, and SpongeBob is yours. Now, if you really just feel in your heart like this is your game, you might want to take a step back for a moment and watch the other players. How many of them are actually landing a shot? Mostly no one, except the carnies, who love to show us suckers just how easy it is.

Now consider this: According to Mental Floss, the carnies are standing right next to the bottles, so they can just drop the ring from above, easy-peasy. Now pay attention to what happens to the ring used for the demo. Does it end up in the stack of rings the next sucker buys for 10 bucks? Nope. That sucker gets a different stack of rings — the rings meant for the game are slightly smaller than the one the carnie used, and they're made from a hard plastic, which tends to bounce. And that means if the player does get a ring all the way over a bottle neck, it might end up bouncing off anyway, and then the player ends up empty-handed. Just think, that sucker could be you. If you want to avoid this terrible fate, just keep this in mind: If it looks simple, it's almost certainly because there's some deception.

Tubs of fun

The Tubs of Fun game was the opposite of fun for this guy in New Hampshire, who spent his life savings trying to win an Xbox Kinect. Now you almost feel like you should be laughing at anyone foolish enough to get swindled out of $2,600 by a carnie but you just can't because you've almost been there ... just about everyone knows the feeling of getting lured into a game and then suddenly you're down $40 and you have a stuffed turtle that's worth about a buck and a half. Except you started to feel actual nausea at the $40 point, which saved you from going any further.

According to AARP, here's how the scam works: The carnie drops a ball into the tub, and that close proximity means the ball isn't carrying enough force to bounce out again. The carnie then hands Ball Two to the player for a practice shot. The ball stays in because the first ball provides some cushion — and the player thinks, "This is easy! That Xbox Kinect is mine!" But then the carnie empties the tub, and now there's nothing stopping Ball One from bouncing out, and the player thinks, "This is easy ... why can't I win ... just a few more dollars..." And then he's down $2,600. This story's moral: Just keep walking past the Tubs of Fun and get yourself a funnel cake instead. Oh, and you can buy a refurbished Xbox Kinect for $50.

The ladder climb

If you haven't spent hours practicing for this game, you're not going to win it. According to former NASA scientist Mark Rober, the ladder climb requires real skill, and not just the kind of skill that you get from being a softball star or spending a lot of time with weights or even walking on a tightrope. The rope ladder is supported on the end at only a single point, which means that you have to keep your center of mass directly over the middle of the ladder to keep the ladder from spinning on you. Even walking on a slackline doesn't prepare you for this challenge because that lets you wave your arms for balance. On a carnival ladder you need both hands to hang on to the rungs.

One way to make the game a little easier is to keep your feet and hands at the outside of the ladder and keep three points of contact. But it's still really hard to do, which is why a resort doesn't mind uploading a video (above) divulging the "secret." It will still take practice, but it is possible to train your body to keep that center of mass in exactly the right place. Once you've mastered it, don't get too cocky — you're not going to be able to win over and over again because the carnival won't let you. This is probably the only game at the carnival that has a "one win per player" caveat.


In this game, players have to toss the ball against a board in the hopes that it will bank into a basket. This is another one of those games that the carnie makes look really easy, but again it's all about where he's standing compared to where you're standing. According to Mental Floss, when you're standing right next to the board, a light toss doesn't have as as much bounce as it does when you shoot from the player's position. The carnie will score every time, while you will likely miss every time. 

And some of these Bank-a-Ball games are rigged in an even more insidious way — there may be a spring behind the tub that helps ensure that the balls don't stay put. And according to Reader's Digest, the game operator might even cheat while demoing the game from the player's position — you might not notice that your smooth-talking host is leaning a little over the line when trying to show you how "easy" it is to win the game. Or, there could be a special heavier ball for demonstration purposes — which you, of course, will never have the opportunity to use yourself.

Shoot the star

This game really seems like it ought to be easy, and one of the reasons it seems that way is because we all know how simple it is to shoot holes in people or to make whole vehicles explode because, you know, we've seen it on TV. But there are some limitations to just what a BB gun can do to a flimsy piece of paper.

The object of this game is to completely blast away a star printed on a piece of paper. The first problem is that you're not going to be getting a BB gun with much accuracy. And AARP says the guns are rigged in other ways, too — the BBs might be smaller than standard, and the guns just aren't as powerful as real BB guns, so the BBs are just as likely to bounce off the paper as to actually tear through it.

To give yourself the best chance of winning, you need to shoot around the star and cut it out of the target. If you just shoot the star itself, you're going to come up against some simple laws of physics. "Newton's Third Law tells us that you can only push on something as hard as it can resist your push," says scientist Mark Rober. "So at the end you have these barely supported pieces of the star that just move out of the way when the BB comes without building up enough stress to rip the paper." You lose. Again.

Those prizes look cheap because they are cheap

Statistically speaking, the amount of money you have to spend to actually win a game vs. the dollar value of the prize is way out of proportion. According to Mark Rober, carnival operators don't usually lose money even if you win on your very first try. Prizes are often worth a fraction of what you spend on the balls or rings it takes to win them. The example Rober cites says you might spend a buck and a half for a prize that cost the carnival around 45 cents.

The painful truth, though, is that you almost never win on your first try — so you might be down $5, $10, or $15 before you actually score that 45-cent prize. And if you're lucky enough to win the big prize on your first try, the carnival might be out $6 for your $1.50, but good luck. In many random-chance games, you're much more likely to spend upwards of $30 before it becomes statistically probable that your ball will end up where it needs to be for a big prize.

Many games of 'skill' are actually random chance

There are a lot of games on the midway that look like games of skill but that are designed in such a way that any skill-based advantage you might have becomes null and void as soon as you toss the ball. According to Mark Rober, the trick is in the bounce factor — ping-pong balls, for example, are designed to be extremely bouncy, which means aiming them at hard surfaces is pretty much pointless. If you're just a little bit off with your aim, the ball or ring or whatever you're throwing will bounce and you'll end up with a totally random chance at getting that ball or ring where it needs to be in order to score a prize.

Nevertheless, Rober says these are the games you should be playing if you aren't a baseball star or a basketball champ. Like slot machines, those random chance games may occasionally pay off right away, which means there's always that small possibility that you'll walk away with the big prize before you've actually squandered your life savings.

But lots of people win ... don't they?

What about those people walking around the fairgrounds with giant prizes? That's the biggest obstacle between the money in your wallet and your kids, who are sure you must be lying when you tell them they can't play the carnival games because "no one ever wins." It turns out you've been right all along — those people walking around with giant SpongeBobs might not be winners. In fact, they're probably earning less money from the job of walking with a giant SpongeBob than you would have blown trying to win that giant SpongeBob.

According to Theme Park Insider, carnivals will sometimes hire people to walk around with big prizes because if you're operating a successful carnival game, you never give out big prizes, and if you never give out big prizes, people are going to wonder whether or not your game is winnable. So you do what carnies have always done — you engage in the time-honored tradition of misleading people just enough.

The only way a carnival game can truly be enjoyed is if you think of it like a video game — it's fun to play whether you win or not. That's hard to do, though, because putting a ping-pong ball in a fishbowl is way less cool than taking out a horde of zombies. Without a prize, what's the point? Really the better approach is to just look the other way when those game operators call out to you. And get a funnel cake instead.