How to win at carnival games

A vintage "Spill the Milk" carnival banner advertised 
the game where you try to knock down milk bottles.
(You may enlarge by clicking.)

An article at The Art of Manliness explains the secrets behind state fair / carnival games: the milk can, the rope ladder, the high striker, shoot the star, flukey ball, one ball, and swinger:
Assume most games are gaffed. Gaffed is carnie speak for rigged. Gaffs in midway games lie on a spectrum that ranges from “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” to downright criminal. Most gaffs don’t make the games impossible to win. They just make you work harder. For example, it’s common knowledge that the basketball rims at carnival free throw shooting games are usually smaller than regulation-size and bent into an oblong shape to appear larger in the front. Moreover, the baskets are often hung higher than regulation basketball goals. You can still make a basket, it just take a bit more skill and finesse.
Bottom line, if a game looks really easy to win, assume that something’s been gaffed to make it harder.

Aren't all these games rigged?

Don't know if I agree with this view. I think nowadays most carnival games aren't gaffed at all, since a gaffed game could get shut down and choke off a revenue stream. These games work on a much simpler principle - the operator is more skilled than you are, so it's going to take a lot of your money to win the game. And if you do win (after spending how much money?) how much did they pay wholesale for that prize?

Want to win at the games? Spend a lot of time playing that exact game, with that exact equipment, until you get good. That's how the operators make it look so easy to win.

Read the rest: Beat the Carnies: The Secrets to Winning 5 Popular State Fair Games, The Art of Manliness>>

See also this Deceptology post for another game: The Cover the Spot carnival game>>


  1. Umm... as for carnie games like the shoot out the red star with a machine gun game - the gaff is not to cause people to lose by cheating. The carnie does not need to bend the barrel or load fewer shots into the gun to cause players to lose. He has a better gaff going on than that. The player is almost always going to lose anyhow! It’s possible, but extremely difficult - to shoot out the star with 100 lead shot.

    The gaff is that aside from rare events that players win on their own, the carnie picks who wins and when they win. He doesn't gain by cheating anyone into loosing. Instead, he chooses the winners by bending the rules. The carnie may or may not be having fun, but in every case, he is there to make money. He can't make money if there are no winners. No one will pay to play a game that can't be won.

    After a player is finished shooting, the carnie pulls up the target - if the player is to "win", he places his thumb over any remaining corners of the red star, shows the player there is no red ink on the paper, declares them a winner, and then quickly throws the target behind the counter - into a mountain of shot up targets. Hmmm, "Why don't they clean up that big mess behind the counter?" you might ask yourself. Because after you win, you might ask the carnie if you may keep the winning target as a souvenir. In order give answers like, "Woops - sorry, but I'll get shot trying to find your target in that big pile", the mess must remain. A backup method is to throw a few targets onto the floor after manually removing remnants of the stars.

    The carnie declares many more winners during slower days than busier days. His income is limited during slow days by the number of people who play his game. When other people see all those “winners” carrying his prizes around the park, the hope is that they will stop to play his game. On the other hand, during crowded days, there is no need to help people win - the place is packed and people will play regardless. His income during the busy days is limited by how quickly he can sell games. He compensates for the many prizes given out during the slow days by giving relatively fewer prizes during the crowded days. Carnies use this strategy on other extremely difficult to win games as well.

    So, the real secret to beating games like the machine gun game is to play during a slow day - avoid giving the impression that you will take the prize straight out to the car or a locker where the crowd will not see it. Don’t act as though you are so determined to win that you would spend $100 in the effort. Have a sweet cutie pie of a girl play while Homer, Bubba, and Sasquatch watch. The country cousins, being smarter than they look, fool the carnie by appearing to have large egos - as though they are not to be outdone by the cutie pie winning a man’s game. The carnie will bet that the boys will play and play and play after the girl wins. But, instead of the boys playing, they walk away with the prize after having won the game.

  2. Thanks for your excellent points.

    What most people seem to forget is that carnival games - just like "games" in many other places - are not played in isolation. It's not you against the game, or even you against the particular guy running the game. It's you against the entire carnival, which is a system set up to make money.


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