If you're heading to a carnival to play games, expect to get played yourself. Not all is fair at the fairgrounds, even if the stakes are just an oversized teddy bear.
"It's not that every carnival game is rigged, but any can be, and many are," says Bill L. Howard, who's been investigating carnival games since 1978 and wrote Carnival Fraud 101, a guidebook for law enforcement officers on tricks of the trade.
"Even if you manage to win the big prize, what you usually get is a stuffed animal ... that's often filled with confetti, not stuffing. You're better off buying your grandkids something that's better quality at Walmart for a fraction of the money you'll lose to these guys."
Here's how you're kept from winning — even that bear — in seven common "games of skill."
1. The Milk Bottle Pyramid
Knock them all over and win a prize, promises the barker. The reality: Bottom pins can be filled with lead, making them as heavy as 10 pounds each. The softballs you throw may be filled with cork to make them lighter than regulation balls. And the bottles may be stacked against a backdrop curtain that helps prevent them from falling.
2. The Basketball Shoot
Carnival rims may be smaller than normal and oval-shaped, not round, and may be positioned higher than regulation to prevent a score other than with a difficult high-arching swish. Balls are overinflated to make them super-bouncy.
"And there may be netting or other items behind the rim designed to interfere with your depth perception," notes Glenn Hester, a Georgia police officer and magician who investigates carnival games fraud. He's got a book too, Carnival Cop.
3. The Balloon Dart Throw
Balloons are underinflated to deflect even well-thrown carnival darts, which are often lighter than store-bought types. Their tips may be dulled or broken off.
4. The Ring Toss
The rings are just a hair wider than the neck of the target bottle or spike, says Hester, and are made of hard plastic to facilitate extra bouncing. If the carny shows it can be done, you should suspect he's using a larger ring than you're given or that he scores by dropping it from directly overhead, a move that, like the Basketball Shoot, is virtually impossible from the player's position.
5. Tubs of Fun
The goal is to toss two softballs into a large tub. You may remember this as the Bushel Basket Toss. But farming baskets have been replaced with plastic "muck" buckets from home improvement stores so that the ball gets extra bounce.
The real trick: "From inside the booth, the carny tosses a softball and from his vantage point, it stays inside the tub," says Howard. "Then he gives you the second softball for a practice throw — and it stays in for a win." Why? The carny's first ball remains inside the tub to deaden it and prevent your toss from bouncing out. But once you hand over your money, he removes both balls and hands them to you. Without a deadening ball, guess what? Your first toss bounces out.
"You might as well throw your second ball across the midway because no way it will stay inside the tub, either," says Howard.
6. Shoot the Star
With an air gun, you try to shoot a pattern around a paper-mounted star so that it falls free, but the real bull's eye is on you. To thwart your marksmanship, the provided ammo is smaller than traditional BBs and in short supply. Plus the rifle's sights may be tampered with and its air pressure reduced so that many shots simply bounce off the target paper, says Howard.
7. The Duck Pond
In this favorite among younger children, the goal is to retrieve a plastic duck with a fishing pole from a makeshift pond — and nearly everyone is a winner … sort of. "The ruse is to get you to keep playing for the better prize," says Howard. "But on the bottom of each duck is an indicator of the prize category and 99 percent are marked for a 'slum' prize — carny jargon for junk."
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.