We've all huffed that "all these games are rigged" as we walked away from a carnival stall without a teddy bear, but is that old chestnut actually true?
Inventor and former NASA engineer Mark Rober put it to the test, and some of his results may surprise you. Rober sent a team of spies to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, where they spent a day keeping track of how many people played each carnival game, and how many players actually won.
He concluded that some of the most popular and fairground games are "borderline scams" that almost nobody wins, but also used his scientific mind to give advice, so you can even the odds during your next trip to the county fair.
One of the largest categories of games at carnivals or fairs are ones that are obviously up to fate, not skill. Some, like plinko games or prize wheels, even own up to this fact. Figuring out your odds of winning at chance game are as simple as counting the winning spots, cups or zones and dividing by the total number of possible outcomes.
But Rober warns that carnivals use tricks like light, bouncy balls to make it even harder to aim your shot. That makes these games totally unpredictable. As Rober also discovered, even the "skill" games are hard to beat for some sneaky reasons...
While there is an element of skill - like your strength, accuracy or intelligence - involved in some carnival games, the carnies will always stack the odds against you. At the basketball toss, the hoop had been raised, moved back and titled so much that making a basket is even harder than pulling off a three-pointer.
The many ball-throwing games have also been "rigged" against you. Rober found one game that measured the speed of your pitch was off by at least 15 miles per hour. And yes, they do weigh down the milk bottles. Only 1 in 14 players actually manage to knock the pyramid of bottles over on their first try.
The odds for the basket toss game are a little better at 1 in 10, but of course the light ball is meant to bounce out on every throw. Aim for the bottom lip of the basket to improve your odds.
Finally, Rober proved that some very popular games are basically impossible to win, and his spies didn't record a single person winning a prize. The game where you try to land a ring over the neck of a bottle seems like a test of skill, but it's so difficult that it's basically impossible. The ring is simply too small to toss over the bottles.
The ladder game was the most difficult one Rober studied. There's a subtle trick making it hard to climb the ladder: it only has one anchor point, so unless you keep your body mass in a straight line over the ladder's center you'll fall off every time.
Rober says players should still "play the games if you think they’re fun, just know the odds are heavily stacked against you." After all, even if you "win" a game your prize probably costs less than 50 cents, so the carnival always wins.
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