Jul 242007
Part of the Carnival Midway Games Series - Previous in series         Next in series

A quick recap:
old carnival

In Carnival Midway Games Revealed (Part One) I gave my credentials and revealed the “secrets” behind winning some midway classics: Ladder Climb, Machine Gun Star, Basketball, Balloon Darts, Test Of Strength, Speed Throw and the Chicken Catapult. I also addressed the reasons that very few, if any, carnival games are rigged these days, befriending carnies, and choosing where to play.

In this installment I’ll cover some more general tips as well as covering another half dozen or so games. I’ve also got a request for y’all, at the end. First some basics:

If you can flirt, you may not even need to win. True carnies spend a lot of time on the road. The majority of the men feel they’re quite good with the ladies. They also know, from experience, that a well-placed “winner” may very well get them some company for the evening. If you want that teddy bear bad enough, flirting just may work. Whether you follow through or not is, of course, up to you


Bribes work as well. Most carnies are pretty heavy drinkers and few are opposed to other mind-altering substances if the price is right (like one of their boss’ prizes, for example). Cash goes a long way as well, but is much more difficult to hide from the overseers then material bribes.

Never try to play to a carny’s sympathy. I’ve never seen it work. Regardless of the game being straight or rigged, most carnies see themselves as con men. Life on the road isn’t easy and cynicism is the order of the day.

Patience and observation are the key. The more time you spend observing other people playing (people, not carnies), the more you’ll understand the game. Watch the angle the players are at, keep an eye on the specific equipment being used, and anything else you can possibly take in. These games are set-up and taken down quite frequently, so what works today may not quite work tomorrow. Observe and learn.

Alright, on to the specifics. First up, we’ll deal with the traditional midway games, then I’ll share some tips for a couple of games found in arcades across America.
cat rack carnival game

The Cat Rack: You may not recognize the name, but you’d surely recognize the game. This is one of the deeper booths and it has several rows of very hairy carnival punks (cats, monsters, whatever) lined up that need to be knocked over with a thrown baseball, softball, or beanbag. The Cat Rack is a classic because it is deceptively difficult. The punks have all that hair for a reason. It makes it difficult to gauge which part is actually solid and leads to the assumption that they’re much closer to each other than they actually are. The most common mistake at the Cat Rack is to throw hard. These punks are not difficult to knock over, they’re difficult to hit. Don’t worry about hitting them hard, just make sure you throw accurately. When I used to work the Cat Rack I encouraged people to lean over the counter as far as possible. Why? Because this puts them off balance and makes accuracy more difficult. A common derivative of this is to have plates that need to be broken. Again, these plates are much weaker than they appear (they’re cheaper that way), so concentrate on accuracy over power.

milk bottle midway game

Milk Bottles: Again, this game’s still around because it still manages to fool most of the people, most of the time. Although it takes more power than the Cat Rack, accuracy is still far more important here. The “trick” is that most people aim for the center where the milk bottles rest upon each other. You want to be aiming for the center bottom. 80 percent of the weight of a milk bottle is in the bottom 20% of its height. This isn’t because they’re “rigged”, it’s just a result of their manufacturing process. If you knock out the bottom bottles the top one is very likely to fall off the table as well. Many people try to hit the bottles at an angle. With a stack of three this is simply wasted energy. You’ll actually have to hit the bottles harder at an angle then you would if you hit them straight on. When the game includes five bottles the angle may be worthwhile, but only if you miss completely with your first ball.

Dime/Quarter Toss: For some reason this is one of the most popular games for young children. I suppose it’s all that glittering glass. The thing to remember is that the cliche “stops on a dime” exists for a reason. Forward motion takes space to be stopped: much more then is usually available on the slick surface of these glass plates. The “straight” way to win this game is to arc the coin so that it has almost zero forward motion when it lands on the plate. Don’t toss the coins, lob them. Then it’s just a matter of accuracy and bounce. The “crooked” way to ensure you take home a prize is to ensure your coin creates more friction than metal and glass traditionally would have. The most common method for doing this is to get a little spit on the coin, though I’ve found that saving gross old coins will cause a lot fewer conflicts with the carnies. When I was on the circuit I don’t think we stopped in a single small town where some local football star didn’t get the bright idea to coat his coins in the “stickum” made famous by Fred Biletnikoff and Lester Hayes. It’ll get the job done, but we also left more than one town early as a result of conflicts with the local team. A better bet may be to let the kids eat some sticky foods (funnel cake, anyone) just before playing and then simply act innocent when they win.

balloon race game

Water Guns / Balloon Races: These are the games where observation is very much king. As pointed out in the first installment, carnivals aren’t known for maintaining their gmae equipment. There can be a dramatic difference between one station and another in these games. Some guns have better water flow then others, some targets are more sensitive then others, and some compressors have better airflow then others. The only way to know for sure is to observe a lot of games and see which ones win more often. Many people suggest looking for old or new balloons on the balloon pop version of this game, but having personally run a few thousand balloon races, I haven’t seen a notable pattern of new vs. old. However, if you were to come by more than a couple of hours into my shift and befriend me I could almost assuredly tell you which stations were most likely to take home the prize.

bushel baskets

Bushel Baskets: I can’t count the number of different methods I’ve heard for winning the bushel basket game. The thing is, it really is one of the easiest games on the midway, so many of them work often enough to convince their supporters. Having both worked this booth and won 95% of the times I’ve played it, I can assure you that my system is as close to a guarantee as you can get when it comes to the midway. The trick is to palm the ball and lob it lightly so that it catches the outer edge of the lower rim. As you toss it your hand should be above the ball, raising your arm in a smooth motion and tossing with your wrist. No need to put a “spin” on the ball. The very nature of tossing it this way will put a very slight one on it. This force will be reversed when its the basket, causing the ball to stop nearly dead as it comes into contact with the back of the basket.


SkeeBall: SkeeBall was invented in Philadelphia almost 100 years ago (it will be celebrating it’s centennial in 2009), found its way to midways everywhere in the roaring 20s and today is a staple both at carnivals and arcades. When I was but a wee lad I made my first solo trek to a carnival midway, pocket brimming with quarters, and met a man that appeared to be 100 years old himself. He’d be running the SkeeBall concession on that particular circuit since World War II and could literally score a 40 or 50 every roll even with his eyes closed, blindfolded or backwards. He taught me his tricks and they’ve never failed me. He taught me to position myself in front of alley A while playing on alley B, which would be the alley to the immediate right. This allows me to roll the ball at an angle so that it impacts with the side rail approximately 3/4 of the way up. Once you’ve found the magic spot for the particular SkeeBall variation you’re playing it’s just a matter of zoning in on the speed necessary to hit 40s and 50s on a regular basis.

claw game

The Claw: Modern claw games are the exception that proves the rule when it comes to rigged games. Modern games are programmed in the same way slot machines are to only “pay out” after a certain number of plays. This setting is adjustable, so observation is key once again. Simply wait for a winner, then count the number of players before the next winner. Lather, rinse, repeat, and the pattern should become clear. This will tell you when you have a chance of winning. Getting the claw positioned over the prize you seek is entirely up to you. Note that I said “modern” claw games. The older versions have no such “timing” device and count on the challenge of the game and the low cost of the prizes to ensure their profit margins. It’s also possible to turn off these regulators altogether meaning it’s possible to win 9 times out of 10 on a particular machine in the morning, only to not have a chance for 20 plays in the afternoon.

I hope these tips will lead you to success on your next visit to the midway, whether that means winning the girl, or being your child’s hero once again. The most important thing to remember, is that midways are there to be fun and exciting. The prizes are great, but it’s the joy in playing that should be the real draw.

Oh, I almost forgot! If anyone knows any tips or tricks for the “jumping metal fish” game that’s recently arrived on numerous midways I’d love to hear them! They’ve got one at my local amusement park and it’s driving me absolutely insane!

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  8 Responses to “Carnival Midway Games Revealed (Part Two)”

  1. […] are many more games out there that I’ve worked over the years. In part two I share the insider secrets to another 7 midway games: Cat Rack, Water Gun / Balloon Races, […]

  2. Hi, I’m a reporter at the Baltimore Sun. I’m doing a story on carnival midway games and would love to talk to the author of this story, either by phone or in person. Could you please e-m,ail me back, or call me at the Baltimore Sun, 410-332-6009?
    Kevin Cowherd

  3. what is the angle of the bushel basket thank you

  4. […] Post   |   Print This Post   | Part of the Carnival Midway Games Series – Previous in series         Carnival season is upon us once again. Z and I visited our first […]

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  6. Good day!
    It is very informative and has a very good quality in it.
    I like it…

    Thank you very much for your time.

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  7. @miragana: Glad you found it useful!

  8. […] several cases both of these changes occurred. For example, the classic bushel basket game which I win 90% of the time I play. Traditionally (and up until last year at the Boardwalk) you pay […]

  9. You are right on many things and only wrong on a few.
    I have spent almost 30 years as a carny. From a carny brat to a lotman laying out the games of the lots.

    I have put together an ebook on 53 carnival games.
    The Hanky-panks, alibi’s, games of chance and ofcourse
    the flatstores. It is in early edition so the price is excellent for the knowledge.

    You might find it interesting.

  10. nice to see you were never with it. but this page is funny as hell. i hope no one takes you seriously. btw.. you have some brown stuff comming out your nose and ears.

  11. Can anyone tell me how the basket game fa fixed back in the 60″s. You would toss a softball into a basket, which was close to you, I mean you could touch it. You had to get three balls to stay in. But somehow one would always bounce out. Thanks

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  14. how do you win the bunny rabbit game? the one where there’s a few container like things in a play pool and you have to toss the light weight balls into them? the fair is coming soon and i’m DYING to know if there’s a secret to this game!

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