The science of carnival game scams and tips to beat them

Originally published at:


I call shenanigans!


They are called “Fun Fairs”. I have never understood this.


Science, schmience! Woody Allen said all you needed to know. As a kid he remembered a hurricane flattened virtually everything at the amusement park at Coney Island. The only thing left standing on the midway were the wooden milk bottles.


For most carnival games that have a skill requirement, there’s someone who works for the enterprise who periodically demonstrates how easy it is to win. For example, I’ve seen people (usually quite young) who repeatedly and very quickly crawl across the single-anchor rope ladder and touch the far wall before landing on their feet. They also demo the ball toss and ring toss games. This video doesn’t explain how they obtain those skills. I’d like to see another one that explains how they win.

1 Like

The basketball hoops are ellipses in the ones I’ve seen. They don’t let you examine them from the side.

Also the hammer to ring the bell one is very doable, but instead of hitting it squarely and hard, you clip it – almost miss it – so that the impact is as far from the fulcrum as possible.


As someone who had a family midway in the family for almost 50 years, and who worked every summer at said midway for about fifteen years, I can speak with some authority on “carnival games”, at least in Canada:

  • Here, games are tightly regulated, as they must be games of “skill”, not chance. Games of chance (crown & anchor wheel, birthday game, anything “slots-like”) are regulated, can only be played by those over 18, etc. etc.
  • There wasn’t a game on our midway that couldn’t be won, just some of them were exceedingly difficult. The “key” to many of these games is that the perceived difficulty was often far far less than the actual difficulty, which is what got folks to play in the first place.
  • Many of the games could become exceptionally easy if you played them enough. Experienced barkers (we called them “jointies” as they worked a game “joint”) could often effortlessly win at the games, which helped get people to play.

As the author says: the best rule of thumb is as follows: The bigger the prizes offered, and the cheaper the game, the more difficult it is to win. There’s a reason the biggest prizes are on the bottle ring toss - because yes, you can win, but it will require a great many tries to do so. (That being said, my uncle eventually managed a 1:10 win ratio on that game, so it is learnable) :slight_smile:

And yes, we wholesale prizes, so they are dirt cheap. They’re not “scams” though - the underclocked radar gun shown in the video, for example, would totally get that game fined up here, so I suppose YMMV depending on your jurisdiction. :slight_smile:


Just like Vegas. Or Wallstreet.


Fined over $20,000 per day? You might have the Goldman Sachs problem, where the profits dwarf the fines.


I enjoyed this video. Thanks for sharing it.


A friend spent $460 CAD @ 3 balls per $5 trying to win his younger twin brothers giant toy animals at a fair. He succeeded after roughly 1350 balls thrown. :man_farmer:t6:


I spent a summer as a carnival barker when still in high school. I got pretty darned good at the Jacob’s Ladder game, and IMO he didn’t really demonstrate anything other than how to fail at it.

The “secret” is to always keep your weight distributed between left hand and right foot, and then when you move to the next rung, switch to right hand and left foot. Although you may have more than two points contacting the ladder at once, your weight should be predominantly on two opposing points (not three, as he mentions). It’s not that hard, with practice, but it probably costs $100 or so to develop that proficiency.


Another rule at the Boardwalk is that staff working the booths are not allowed to play the games.

1 Like

Remember this story?

1 Like

I worked the ladder for while. You get so used to it that you start walking up it, then you do it backwards, then you learn to do it while drinking beer. Diagonal balance and lateral symmetry is all it takes.

1 Like

Most of the basketball ones I’ve seen use a smaller than regulation rim. Especially the shorter throws. The rim is only an inch wider than the ball, the ball is overinflated (not so much for size, but for bounciness), but it “looks” super easy.

A regulation ball is 9.55", while the hoop is 18". It doesn’t take a whole lot of reduction to drastically reduce your odds.

The ones I noticed were at the San Genaro festival in Little Italy in New York City in the late 1980s and they looked wider from the front but they were actually narrower from the side although they didn’t really let you go to the side.

1 Like

He ended up doing pretty well though. Not only got his money back, but he got the Xbox as well!

Such is the world we live in now.

This topic was automatically closed after 5 days. New replies are no longer allowed.