Rossen Reports: Are carnival games cheating you — and your kids?

You’ve probably noticed some carnival games are hard to win. So we’re exposing the secrets ways carnival workers are playing you with our hidden cameras, and go a step further — showing you exactly how they do it.

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Carnival games can offer big prizes that seem so easy to win. And sometimes, people do! But ever wonder why some games are just so hard?

We rolled our hidden cameras from Missisippi to Indiana, crashing carnivals and revealing the tricks behind some of the most popular games, from the shootout to milk bottles and the tub toss.

Our first stop was the basketball toss. It’s one of the most popular games on the midway. Undercover, we watched kid after kid lose. Then I tried to play, and couldn’t make a single shot. So we brought in a real athlete: Carly Thibault, a top college basketball shooter. If anyone can make a free throw, Carly can. But at the carnival, she made 13 tries, and not a single basket. “Two or three of them bounced around on the rim and popped right out,” she said. In fact, we watched more than 100 tries. And only two customers made a basket.

“This game is — the way it’s made, it’s designed for the player to lose,” said Bruce Walstad, an investigator who specializes in rigged carnival games. When most people go to the carnival they think they’re shooting at a round hoop. But Walstad revealed that the hoops are often ovals. “Your chances of sinking the ball in that basket are slim to none,” he told us. And, he said, it’s no mistake. Believe it or not, some carnival rims are actually made — on purpose —smaller, and oval.

Richard Margittay, the author of two books on carnival games
( told us we could buy the smaller carnival rims and steered us to a website where we bought one with ease.

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And there’s another secret too: Balls are often overinflated, and so springy they bounce right off the rims. It happened to us almost every shot. So we went back to the carnival with our cameras out.

I introduced myself to a carnival worker, and told him that experts say some of these games are rigged.

“I don’t know about that,” he replied. “I know mine ain’t.

He told us that just before we walked up, one boy won. The worker admitted his rims were oval. So we asked: Does that seem fair? “Not regulation goals,” he replied. “Of course it seems fair. If the goals were open this big, guess what? Every person that shot would win.”

Experts say some rims are so small, even if you made the perfect shot your odds are still low. “You’d probably have a half inch margin either way,” Walstad told us.

Next, we turned to the simple tub toss. The carnival worker told us that what you can’t see is a spring behind the tub that bounces the balls out.

I tried, but couldn’t win. So to get me to play again, the worker showed me how to do it, making it look easy.

How does he do it? Experts Richard Margittay and Bruce Walstad say he cheats. Here’s the trick: Before he plays, he puts three balls in. But he only takes two balls out for his shot, leaving one in the tub. Now, when he plays, there’s a ball in there, cutting down on the bounciness. It’s a perk you don’t get when you play.          

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The reasons that works, said Walstad, is that the ball in the tub deadens the shot ball so it can’t fly out. “But when your money comes out to play and I give you the two balls to play, out comes that helpful deadening ball in there,” he said. The result? “You lose every time.”

The carnival worker told us his game isn’t rigged, and the carnival director told us that none of them are.

“That’s a thing of the past,” the carnival general manager said. “We get very few complaints. We monitor our games, we background check our employees.”

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We took a look at the old classic milk bottle game. Walstad set up a game for us, using three one-pound regulation milk bottles. “Bottom two are lined up perfectly,” he said. I rolled, and knocked them all down. Then, I tried it out on the Indiana midway.

I lost. I wasn’t the only loser — other customers couldn’t win, either. Even the game operator himself couldn’t knock them all over.      

“If the game is set up fairly with both pins even, you can knock all three down,” said Walstad. But if the carnival worker brings one of the pins forward — even by a half an inch — that front pin absorbs all of the ball’s energy, and you don’t win.

Of all the games we played, experts say shoot out the star is the trickiest. To try it, we brought in a former special forces sniper, who can hit a nickel-sized target with ease.

He flat-out lost the $5 game. So we asked the carnival worker: Is this game winnable? He pointed out several winners. But my buddy, I told him, is a special forces sniper — and he couldn’t win. “I’ve had a lot of shooters come over here and can’t beat this game,” the worker said.

Experts say, the pellets are often too small for the gun. And the sights are off, causing ammo to fly all over the place.

When we pulled our cameras out, we asked the carnival worker if the sights on his guns were regulation. The guy running the shootout didn’t want to talk anymore.

“When I see a small child standin’ there handin’ over their allowance money to play a game that I know they cannot win, that really angers me,” said Walstad. “It’s theft by deception, end of story.”

In some cases rigged carnival games are illegal, but laws vary from state to state. And of course, there are games that are fair, that you can win. And experts say some carnivals are better than others. They advise you should play games where you’re competing against other customers, where someone is guaranteed to win. And there are also games for little kids, where you win a prize every time.

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