Step Right Up and Test Your Puzzly Skills! It’s Carnival Time!

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

The local carnival has already come and gone in my town, but there are many more county fairs, state fairs, and amusement park visits in the immediate future. After all, summer is almost here.

With carnivals and fairs, there are certain universal attractions. The Ferris wheel. The burlap sack slide. And, of course, those devious midway games.

Games of strength, games of dexterity, games of skill and chance… carnival games are tailor-made to separate you from your hard-earned dough. But we’re not any run-of-the-mill rube or mark for the carnival crews to exploit; we’re puzzlers!

So is there anything we can do to improve our odds?

You betcha.

Let’s look at a few classic carnival games and how we can increase our chances for stuffed animal prize success.

[Image courtesy of BGR.]

One of my personal favorites is the basketball shot. It seems simple, since all you have to do is make what looks like a regulation three-pointer.

But looks are deceiving. The hoop is usually higher than normal, as well as farther away. In addition, the ball is overinflated to increase unfriendly bounces, and the rim of the hoop is often bent in an oblong shape to discourage successful tosses. (At one carnival, the hoop was so warped that my friend’s toss actually landed ON the hoop, proving there was no way to successfully make a basket.)

Assuming the hoop actually allows for a ball to pass through, your best chance is to avoid the backboard entirely and go for a clean swish.

[Image courtesy of Art of Manliness.]

What about the rope ladder? The rope ladder seems like the fairest carnival game, since there’s little visual trickery involved. It’s all about balance after all.

But, as expected, it’s harder than it appears. Since the rope’s peak is anchored at only one point — not the two points of contact at the bottom — it’s far easier to tip over. You have to keep your center of balance as close to the center line of the ladder as possible. But it’s virtually impossible to stay in the center of the rungs as you climb, because lifting yourself up and away from the ladder — as you would in normal climbing — makes tipping over likely.

Many websites recommend using your left arm and right foot in tandem, then alternating to your right arm and left foot. If you have a strong center of gravity, that will definitely help. Be sure to stay low and flat, which will allow you greater control of the ladder. Ignore the rungs and focus on using the outside ropes to pull yourself.

And, of course, keep an eye on the operator. Some will hold the ladder steady for you at first, and then let go at an inconvenient moment for you.

[Image courtesy of Art of Manliness.]

Water guns and pellet guns also make appearances in carnival games, with the “shoot the star” game being among the most infamous. The goal in this game is to shoot away any traces of the star from the paper.

It goes without saying that the BB gun will not shoot true, so take a few practice shots to get used to adjusting for the gun’s idiosyncrasies.

Your instinct will be to aim at the center of the star and work your way out, but that’s guaranteed failure. Doing so creates little flaps of paper as the center is eaten away, and those flaps will fold and bend as they’re hit, rather than tearing away.

The recommended tactic is to shoot a circle around the star, which prevents those little energy-absorbing flaps from forming. Granted, if you are successful with this tactic, the star itself will become a flap near the end of the game. It’s best to leave the top part of the circle connected last, since gravity at the very least will be on your side. (If, for instance, you shot away the top part of the circle first, the circle could easily fold or tip down, making it much harder to hit.)

This is definitely one of the tougher midway games. The FBI actually studied how the size of the star affects players’ chances for success, and it turns out the smaller the star, the better your odds. (Specifically, an inch or smaller in diameter is your best bet. If the star is wider than 1.5 inches, you’re outta luck.)

This video features a terrific statistical breakdown of the odds of various carnival games and some techniques for beating them. (It also confirms what we’ve all long suspected… that no matter how quickly you win a prize, you’ve already overpaid for it.)

And before we go, let’s conclude the post with a few more tips for not getting scammed. After all, for the most part, we’ve treated these games as difficult, but ultimately winnable. That’s not always the case.

So make sure to watch a game for a while before you play. Some unscrupulous operators will use different balls or equipment in demonstration than you get to use when your money’s on the line. Be aware.

Also, when trying out a game, always try to stand where the operator was standing. Most carnival games involve showing you “how easy it is to win” in order to sucker you in. But if the operator won’t let you try to recreate exactly how they did it — including which ball and where they’re standing — you might be playing an unfairly rigged game.


Got any other advice for carnival game enthusiasts? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.

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