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When you’re at the fair, the world is a rosier place. The sun is shining, and the air is filled with the smell of corn dogs and funnel cake. There’s music, laughter, screams of delight coming from the rides. It seems like you just can’t lose.

And then, you decide to play a carnival game. There’s something about these games that disarms our rational brains. We’re willing to spend $10, $20, $30 dollars for a shot at winning a giant stuffed animal that we don’t even really want.

SIMMONS: Everyone, like 90 percent of the people, came there with a lot of hope and they left, you know, just super pissed off. The boss literally said to me, Don’t give away any of the big ones. And they would make the rules even tighter. It was a mafia!

For the Freakonomics Radio Network, this is The Economics of Everyday Things. I’m Zachary Crockett. Today: Carnival Games.

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To understand carnival games, you have to start with the people who manufacture them. In the small town of Pacific, Missouri, you’ll find a giant warehouse full of balloons, milk jugs, rubber ducks, and darts. It belongs to a family-owned business called Redbone Products. And if you’ve played a carnival game at a fair or an amusement park in recent years, the odds are pretty good that it came from them.

TURNER: My dad has been in the business basically his whole life.

Olivia Turner is the company’s general manager. Her dad founded Redbone back in 1996. And, like many people in the business, he worked his way up from the bottom of the amusement hierarchy.

TURNER: He started working at Six Flags in Dallas when he was 15. And when they were opening the park here in St. Louis in 1971, they asked a group of guys if they wanted to come open a park and be managers — and he said, “Yeah, sure.”

Olivia’s dad, Steve Turner, eventually joined a company that had been supplying carnivals with games since the 1930s. When the owner died, Steve took over. Turns out, that’s a pretty typical story in the carnival game business. It’s a tight-knit group of suppliers. Everybody knows each other. And many of them come from families that have been in the trade for generations.

TURNER: My dad was doing some ancestry work and he found a photograph of his great-great grandfather operating a carnival game. We were like, “Oh my gosh, it’s in our blood!”

Today, Redbone supplies games — and all the pieces and parts that go in those games — to carnival operators in 21 different countries.

TURNER: So we have got ring toss, cat rack which is the game where you throw the baseball at the clown. Balloon pop. Basketball is always huge — everyone needs a basketball game. 

The company makes most of its revenue from the game parts that need to be constantly replaced.

TURNER: The biggest seller we have is balloons. I mean, you would be shocked how many balloons we go through. Then you have balls and ducks and stuff like that. And carnivals are ordering those weekly as well, because stuff gets lost, stuff gets dirty.

One thing you might notice about carnival games is that most of those bits and pieces have custom specifications. Take the ring toss game, where the player throws a plastic ring onto a glass bottle.

TURNER: While you may look at it and say, ‘Oh, that’s just a glass bottle,’ we look at it and see something completely different. There has to be the right specs at the bottom and the top, and a lip around the top. And you know, what is that ring made out of? Is it going to make the right sound when it hits the bottle to attract customers?

One important part of that design process is making sure the odds are in the carnival operator’s favor. Those basketball hoops? There’s a reason your shots off the backboard never go in.

TURNER: They’re not regulation rims. A regulation rim is 18 inches. Those are huge — you would have way too many winners. So, the basketball rims are a little bit compressed, or smaller. They might be a 13-inch rim, or 15-inch rim, or a 10.5. You have to aim for the center or the sweet spot to get it exactly in.

Carnival operators pay top dollar for this kind of ingenuity. Redbone’s games cost from $3,000 up to $30,000 apiece. And Turner says she sells around 40 of them a year — either directly to amusement parks, or to smaller companies that own their own games and contract with carnivals and fairs. Once those games are set up on the midway — that stretch of the fairground with all the vendors — it’s up to the public to decide where to hand over their money. And some of those carnival-goers take this task very seriously.

GRYCZAN: I had always been fascinated with carnival games. Even as a kid, I always, you know, had that envy of seeing somebody walking down the midway with a big prize and wondering how they did it.

That’s Matthew Gryczan. He’s a retired journalist and an engineer. And you could say he has a bit of an obsession.

GRYCZAN: There was a carnival in downtown Detroit, and I went down there and saw this game called “Cover the Spot. It had five metal discs, and the solution is to try to drop those discs onto a painted spot so that you can’t see any color. I would stand there with a mechanical clicker and see how many people played and what the odds were that they would win it. I’m watching it being played and I saw, yep, there’s a geometric solution to this. So then I went back home and I built a scale model of the game.

Over several years, Gryczan collected data on more than 40 carnival games all over Michigan and Ohio. He compiled his findings in a book called Carnival Secrets. In one instance, he stood at a carnival for four hours and observed 316 shots on a Redbone basketball game. He found that only 1 in 40 shots went in. That’s better than ring toss, where the odds of winning are around 1 in 700 shots. But Gryczan says carnival workers aren’t too preoccupied with your odds.

GRYCZAN: If you asked — ‘Well, how hard is this game to win?’ ‘What are my odds? Is it one in 20 or one in 50?’ — the carny will look puzzled because he or she doesn’t think that way. They think in terms of what they call “throwing stock.” 

Which means: how much they pay out, in prizes, for every dollar that they take in.

GRYCZAN: They look at it like, “I don’t really care what your odds are of winning. I care about what my odds are of losing.”

And what those odds are is up to them.

GRYCZAN: If you find that you’re throwing too much stock, if you’re up to 50 percent, then you’re probably saying, “Well, I have to move the glass plates further apart,” or, “I’ve got to change the angle on my whiffle board.”

Carnival operators will also do everything they can to protect against people like Gryczan, who know all the tricks.

GRYCZAN: Yeah, we’re called “sharpies.” A number of them have signs on the side of the joint that says, you know, “One prize per day,” or something like that. So that way you can’t go in and clean them out.

CROCKETT: So there are, like, professional teddy bear winners out there at carnivals.

GRYCZAN: There’s a few. There’s a few.

Gryczan doesn’t really have a problem with any of this. He says game operators have to make a living somehow. But sometimes, they take it a little too far. That’s coming up.

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Carnival games are designed to be hard to win. But in some cases, the company that owns the booth can make it nearly impossible.

SIMMONS: “Step right up, everyone, to the carnival game alley where the prizes are big and the fun is endless!” — that was one I would do all the time. People would come right on over. Or I’d do like a really strange dance, you know what I mean? Red Bulls and 5-hour Energy — that was my go to.

That’s Elliot Simmons. He worked the games at a carnival in Illinois for three summers. From day one, he was given strict instructions to regulate the number and size of the prizes he awarded — at any cost.

SIMMONS: One of the first things they told me was, “Don’t let the boss man see anyone walking around the park with anything that’s not like the little plushies,” you know? At the end of every day, we would turn our money in, count how many prizes are on the wall, go in the back and count how many prizes were in the tubs. If those numbers were off, they would get really suspicious.

Now, the prizes themselves — they’re not especially precious. Game operators might pay around $1 dollar for an inflatable guitar or a small stuffed animal. Even the biggest plush toys — which are rarely ever given away — top out around $60 bucks. And some of them are truly bizarre.

SIMMONS: They had one of those penguins with the bloodshot eyes, you know? It’s like the stoned penguin. And, like, it’s interesting for a kids’ prize, but okay.

Then you have the infamous live prizes, which can be an inventory nightmare.

SIMMONS: We had a game where you would win a goldfish. They would just leave the fish there. And one morning I came in and literally like 50 dead fish. 

If you operate carnival games, you’ve got to keep your costs down. Because, as Matthew Gryczan says, your margins are pretty tight.

GRYCZAN: They’ve got to pay privilege, which is rent on the midway. They have to pay labor. They have to pay utilities. They’ve got to pay transportation. They have to pay for the prizes. And they have to make a profit on top of that.

The rent alone might be $1,500 per day. At $5 per play, it would take a game operator 300 games just to earn back that one cost. And that’s assuming everything goes smoothly.

GRYCZAN: It’s a seasonal business, too. You’re only open, you know, roughly between April and October. And it’s weather-dependent. If you have some rainy days, you could come up with some big losses.

At the park where Simmons worked, operators used tricks to attract as many customers as possible to the games.

SIMMONS: The owner’s son, he would just give him one of the big prizes to just walk around the park with, like, advertisement, you know? To make people be like, “Oh, wow. So, that kid won. Let’s go!” And that worked so well. That worked so well. Whenever he was at the park carrying that around, we had just tons and tons of people come over, lining up for the game that I was working, knowing damn well none of them were going to win. And if I did let them win, I’d probably be fired.

That sometimes meant outright ripping them off.

SIMMONS: The first game I ran was the milk toss game. You know what I’m talking about? Like that ten-gallon milk carton? And you’re supposed to throw a softball in there?

CROCKETT: Oh yeah, I’ve seen those.

SIMMONS: I came in one day and the owner of the park was in the back, hammering the rim to make it a bit wonky. He would say, “If someone does get it in, tell them that they were standing too close.” So we had these back-pocket reasons at all times why they didn’t win if they actually did. It just sucks when you see some kid’s just genuinely enjoying their day and super happy when they get it in. And then you crush their dreams.

Carnival workers have names for this kind of thing.

GRYCZAN: If a game is “gaffed,” it means that it’s essentially rigged. It’s to the point where nobody can win it.

But Gryczan says these exceptionally unscrupulous operators are outliers, and that most games are run in good faith.

GRYCZAN: By and large, they’re good small business people. These carnival operators are investing tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars in their games and they want to run the grifters off the midway. They don’t like it. It gives the carnival a bad reputation.

And just because a game is hard to win doesn’t mean it’s unfair. Part of Olivia Turner’s job at Redbone is to be sure of that.

TURNER: There is not one game that we sell that cannot be won. These carnivals and amusement parks are under very strict rules from the states that they’re in. So, they get checked and monitored often. And if they’re not following the rules, then they would get in huge trouble.

Gryczan has a simple trick to protect against renegade operators.

GRYCZAN: Before you take a softball and try to knock down three metal milk bottles, you have every right to say to the carny, “I want to see those. I want to hold them. Are they full of lead to the point where I can’t even, you know, push them over?” There are no stupid questions — it’s your money!

One question remains: Why even take the chance? Why spend $20 bucks to win a cheap toy in the first place?

GRYCZAN: It’s a piece of carpeting with a couple of little eyes stuck on it. But it’s a trophy. And for a teenage guy that wants to impress his date if he’s got one of these under his arm or she’s got one under her arm, you know — that’s part of how this all works.

People have lost astronomical sums of money pursuing these trophies. In 2013, for instance, a man spent $2,600 — his entire life savings! — attempting to toss a softball ball into a bucket at a New Hampshire carnival. In the end, all it got him was a human-sized banana with dreadlocks.

Now, to be fair there are carnival games where the player quote-unquote “wins” on every try. Like duck pond, where you pick up a rubber duck with a fishing pole and get whatever prize is written on the bottom. Carnival workers call them “hanky-panks,” and they’re mostly geared toward young kids. The prizes are usually worth less than 20 percent of the price of one turn. But to Gryczan, the carnival is a metaphor for life. And in life? Well, you don’t always win.

GRYCZAN: There’s something fun about a bunch of lights and noise, eating food that’s no good for you, trying out a game and just having some fun. 

Elliot Simmons is a little less romantic about it.

SIMMONS: If it’s too good to be true, it is. You know what I mean? And don’t get too excited when you think that you won the big prize because life is going to kick you in the ass.

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For The Economics of Everyday Things, I’m Zachary Crockett. This episode was produced by Sarah Lilley and mixed by Jeremy Johnston. We had additional help from Eleanor Osborne and Lyric Bowditch.

SIMMONS: Kids would cry, parents would yell at me. They would try to cheat. It would really get people worked up. It made it an exciting day for me, you know what I mean? 

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  • Matthew Gryczan, retired journalist and engineer.
  • Elliot Simmons, former carnival game worker.
  • Olivia Turner, general manager of Redbone Products.