Carnival Games

If Boston Celtics sharpshooter Ray Allen walked into a carnival, could he win a teddy bear at the basketball booth? Could gold medal-winning Olympic softball pitcher Jenny Finch toss a change-up into a barrel? Could Jeanette Lee, a.k.a. “The Black Widow,” shoot a cue ball powerfully and accurately enough to knock a small tee out of a small circle? If so, how much money would they have to spend to do it?

These important questions have been on my mind since I attended a local carnival recently and saw these games in action.

Let’s start with the basketball game. It seems simple: five bucks will get you three shots at a basket. The distance is about the same as a foul shot, but the hoop is higher than 10 feet, the ball is inflated more than usual so as to be extra bouncy, and the rim’s diameter is not regulation size.

My girlfriend and I, both capable shooters, attempted a total of about 20 shots and made a total of zero. I didn’t see anyone else make one either. So, what gives? It was hard to get a good look at the rim from the side (or, obviously, from above) but I’m pretty sure it was wide enough to fit a basketball.

So was I just having a poor shooting day? Would Ray Allen have fared better? I didn’t randomly choose Allen as my example, by the way. He is regarded as one of the best pure shooters in the NBA (fifth best free throw percentage of all time), has performed well in pressure situations (hit seven three-pointers in Game 7 of 2008 Finals), and as Jesus Shuttlesworth in He Got Game, lived in Coney Island and likely had a lot of practice with this particular boardwalk game.

Even so, I’d love to see how much of his $170 million in career salary earnings Allen would have to spend before winning a prize.

Carnies are better at cheating than they are at grammar.

The softball toss involves a barrel tilted at a 45-degree angle. The goal is to get the ball to stay in the barrel. This is a tricky game because I have seen many people toss it in—you need a soft, high arc that lands just past the bottom lip—but when a contestant is one conversion away from a throwback jersey you can guarantee that ball is popping out.

Jenny Finch is accustomed to throwing underhand, which is the technique required in this game. However she is known for her exceptional fastball, so maybe she’s not the best choice. Perhaps a Gold Glove second baseman like Ryne Sandberg, who has made that soft toss to start a double play thousands of times, is a better option. Does it matter? No, because the game operator will do something—I’m still not sure what—to prevent the meaningful toss from staying in that barrel.

The billiards game was new to me. Three pool balls are set up in a triangle surrounding a small tee. There is a narrow strip of felt about chest high and the object is to shoot the cue ball into the other balls with enough force to knock the tee outside of a small circle drawn on the felt. After taking a couple of free shots and watching others do the same, I learned that a good shot would do the trick. In other words, it wasn’t that difficult.

The prizes for this game were the best of any at the carnival: knocking the tee out of the circle 10 times would get you an NFL jersey, an iPod Touch, and a Nintendo Wii. AND you would get any money back that you spent on the game. The only way you would not get free stuff is if you quit before you made it to 10!

The quality of prizes (at potentially no cost) of course made me even more skeptical, so I Googled this particular game. I came across a post on carnival cheats on the Professionals Against Confidence Crime website that mentioned the game, and I found my answer. Apparently, if the tee is placed in the small space between the three balls or against the back of the front ball, it is not too difficult to win. But if the tee is touching the back balls, they will absorb the hit from the cue ball and the tee won’t move. I didn’t do too well in physics but it makes some sense to me.

How would The Black Widow do? Like most contestants, she’d succeed until the tee was moved. Then she’d probably figure out a way to hit it past the balls and spin it back, thus negating the carnival operator’s ploy.

As for the rest of us? Stick to Whack-a-Mole.

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