Try Your Luck at the Carnival — But Don’t Expect to Win

Scientist explains why carnival games odds are stacked against you: Internet Scambusters #803

Carnival games are fun. And we should think of them as just that.

Because many of them are impossible to win and some are out-and-out scams, according to scientists Mark Rober.

In this week’s issue, we outline the findings of the ex-NASA scientist’s amusement park research and point to your best chances of winning.

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Let’s check out today’s…


Try Your Luck at the Carnival — But Don’t Expect to Win


If you play the lottery, you probably know you face incredible odds against winning.

That’s because lottery organizers tell you upfront. For example, the odds of winning the Powerball grand prize are 1 in 292.2 million.

But still, people continue to play.

The same goes when we play any game of chance. We know the odds are against us, but we still think “someone’s got to win.”

In some cases, winning plays are predetermined, as with slots at a casino.

And in other cases, the chances of winning are almost impossible because the game has been designed that way.

No one tells us the odds, but the chances of picking up that fluffy toy with a miniature crane grabber in the local supermarket or amusement arcade are almost zero. It looks easy but the machine and the way the toys are anchored work against you.

But still, we try.

Now, step into the carnival showground where you can try your luck with blunt darts, lightweight bean bags to hurl at weighted bottles, and hoops to throw over prizes that are just a bit too big to fit.

Well now, a scientist has taken the trouble to show just what a rip-off some carnival and amusement park booths really represent, notably the ring-toss.

Out of Reach

Former NASA scientist Mark Rober visited an amusement park in California to identify why so many prizes are, literally, out of reach.

He says:

“It’s no secret that carnivals exist to make money. To do that effectively, they employ a bunch of little tricks to make you over-estimate your chances of winning, in some cases to such an extent it’s basically a scam.”

For example, the basketball toss you see at a lot of carnivals is designed to fool you into thinking that a standard throw (which you’re pretty good at, right?) will be enough to land that giant panda.

But, in fact, the hoop was set a foot higher than a standard one, and the three-point line was four feet farther away than normal. But it was made to look nearer by clever positioning and sloping of a tarp behind it.

As Rober says:

“(I)f you have a deadly three-pointer locked into your muscle memory, you will tend to miss short, which is exactly what we saw a bunch.”

He estimates that an average carnival brings in around $20,000 from games on a good day. But very little goes out of the showground in prizes.

Rober and a group of volunteers tried 24 of those games with various levels of success.

They found many factors that distort players’ observations, making games seem easier than they are. An example would be the slanted design of a beer pong table, so that the balls bounce in a different direction than you expect.

Even if you win, you likely didn’t do as well as the carnival operators. Say that your chances of winning are 1 in 10 (which the operators never disclose) and playing costs a dollar a pop.

That means players collectively have to pay an average $10 for each win. But the prize, bought in bulk, probably cost around two or three dollars, leaving the operators with a healthy profit.

In an even more alarming case, the group found that a game that cost $1.50 to play only earned a prize (if you won) worth 45 cents!

Some games, Rober claims, are “borderline fraudulent” because they’re virtually impossible to win.

For instance, a game that required players to totally obliterate or remove a star from a piece of hanging paper by throwing darts at it, could not be successfully completed. As a scientist, he explains that Newton’s Third Law will not let you achieve your goal!

And in a ring throwing game, none of the 840 attempts the group monitored won a prize.

Best Chances

But it’s not all bad news (or bad luck). Rober’s research established which games offer the best chances of winning and which one players can improve their skills on.

His key piece of advice is:

“If you want the feeling of winning a game, do not stop at any booth that offers really big prizes.”

If the science behind his arguments interests you and you want to learn more, see Rober’s YouTube video: CARNIVAL SCAM SCIENCE- and how to win.

You’ll also find other fascinating videos from Rober and others exposing the scams behind many games, including arcade machines.

However, we don’t want to spoil the fun too much for you. As with all prize games, the attraction may be in thinking you managed to beat the odds. If that’s what motivates you at the carnival, knock yourself out!

Alert of the Week

Staying with YouTube, here’s an interesting video about another activity many of us consider to be a rip-off — the amount of money we pay for printer ink.

In this video, a former printer salesman explains how a $50 ink cartridge costs $1 to make. Of course, there’s a lot more to ink prices than that — such as the subsidized price you pay for the printer.

But still…

Here it is: Ink Cartridges Are A Scam.

That’s all for today — we’ll see you next week.