Carnival Games

Fair Midway carnival game  

There’s a special kind of sad associated with carnival games.

For most people, that is.

Anything else at the carnival, you shell out shekels to get something tangible in return:  A ride, a peek at the naked bearded lady, a corn dog.

…and while it’s not impossible for one to feel the experience wasn’t worth the full price of the ticket, one cannot deny one didn’t receive something in exchange for something else of value.

Not so with the games.

Oh, sure, there are plenty of Marks who realize it’s the equivalent of skipping their coins across a creek while shouting:  “Wheeeeeeeeee!” but far far far too many think they’re actually gonna somehow magically come out ahead on the deal.

Sad sad sad pathetic.

Now, it may come as a surprise to you to learn that carny Shills are capable of morals and ethics.

Their own peculiar brand of morals and ethics, to be sure, but morals and ethics nonetheless.

And in the Show, there are three ways Shills can make money off Marks.

A:  They can run a game where somebody wins something every time. B:  They can run a game where somebody has a chance of winning something every time. C:  They can run a game where it’s impossible for anyone to ever win anything.

[Question:  Which game do you think makes the most profit?  Which makes the least?  Place your bets now; we’ll pay out at the end.]

Game A [1] always has a pay out for somebody in every round.  Take the easiest and simplest to play:  The Pluck-A-Duck Game.  You have a tub filled with water, and a hundred identical plastic ducks floating in it.  Each duck has a number on the bottom.  The Mark pays the Shill, plucks a duck out of the tub, and whatever prize corresponds to the number on the bottom of the duck, that’s what the Mark gets to take home.

Here’s how it works: Say the Shill charges twenty-five cents per pick; ducks 01-thru-85 will garner a one cent prize, ducks 86-thru-93 a five cent prize, ducks 94-thru-97 a ten cent prize, ducks 98 and 99 a twenty-five cent prize, and duck 00 is the big pay out with a dollar prize.

The Shill has a 97-to-3 chance of turning a profit on every play, a 99-to-1 chance of at least breaking even, and a 1-to-100 chance of losing 75% of his investment outlay for that particular prize on that particular round.

Not bad odds if you can get ‘em…or make ‘em…

At an average profit of 82%-96% per round of play, the Shill can easily afford to give something away.  The Mark probably won’t break even or come out ahead on the deal based on the Shill’s prize costs, but, hey, they get something and at least the feeling that they had a chance.[2]

Game B is presented as a game of skill.[3] Knock-Down-The-Cans is a prime example: Knock all the cans down and win a prize of your choice.

Of course, the cans have been doctored and weighed so that they are nearly impossible to knock off their pedestal, even if the core of the oversize ball you were throwing wasn’t off-center.  But, hey, sometimes more through sheer blind luck than design somebody hits the sweet spot, the cans go down, and a prize is claimed.

Of course, it’s not one of the big prizes -- those are for folks that knocked down three cans with three throws -- but still, it’s a prize.  And the rules are openly posted and fairly administered.[4]

So no complaining.

Game C is an outright scam:  You can’t win.  Period.  You can lay quarters down all night and never ever come close.[5]

So what have we learned from this, campers?

With the ride / sideshow / corn dog, you are paying for convenience.  Yes, you could build your own roller coaster in your back yard, but the expense would be pretty hefty.  You could ask your aunt not to pluck her facial hair for six months then go visit her.  You could smuggle your own corn dog onto the carny lot, but it wouldn’t be as piping hot as the one you could order right on the spot.

You are sharing in the expense of the carny with thousands of other people who are attending it as well.  In exchange for the experience of the carny, you get the convenience at a fraction of the true cost because you are spreading it out with everyone else.

If they only sold one corn dog a night, it would cost a couple of hundred bucks.

But that logic breaks down at the games.  There both Shill and Mark think they’re going to put something over on the other.

No, strike that: The Mark thinks he’s going to put one over, the Shill knows he’s gonna take the Mark’s money.

And nothing wrong with that, right? A Mark’s gotta dream, right?

‘Twas ever thus.

…and to quote Robert Heinlein, “Sure the game is rigged, but don’t let that bother you.  If you don’t bet you can’t win.”

…only when the game is rigged so it’s impossible to win under any circumstances, it’s no longer a game, no longer even a pretext of a game, it’s outright theft.

Oh, and which game strategies are the most profitable, and which are the least?

Carnies have learned[6] that if at least one person wins something in every round of game play, more people want to play.

The system is proven to “work” (even though a strict analysis would show the Shill faces virtually no risk and his outlays are the merest fraction of his income) , and they’ll play longer, so Game A is the clear choice.

The least profitable way?  The game of skill, because sooner or later the Marks begin to suspect it’s really not fair, that the odds have been rigged against them, and no matter how many pennies they pitch or rings they toss or evil clowns they shoot, they’re still not gonna get that great big prize on the top shelf.

So Game B is the hardest way to turn a dollar in a carny. So much for the idea of meritocracy.

But what about Game C, the blatant outright scam?

Ahhh, there’s where things get interesting. Game C, it turns out, is almost as profitable as Game A!

This would seem to be counter-intuitive but it’s not. For one thing, the Shill is turning pure profit:  There are no prize outlays to worry about.  If the Show is gonna be in town for a week or more, this might not be a good idea:  Sooner or later somebody compares notes, talks to the cops, trouble.

But if you’re just burning through in a single night, if you’re never gonna see these Marks again, why the hell not?

And the Marks keep playing because like every gambler, deep down inside they ignore the mathematical reality and know -- just know! -- that they are gonna win and not just win some measly lower tier prize no sir they’re gonna get wunna da great big gaudy ones from da top shelf!

What they get is bupkis.

With Game A the Marks see that at least somebody gets something to some small degree every time the game is played; they do not begrudge the Shill.  With Game B, however, they see a lot of effort rewarded rarely and never adequately.

In short, ya gotta work real, real hard to get something that always gets handed out with Game A…and the odds of a bigger payoff with Game A are better.

But Game C always dangles the big prize without ever really managing to hand anything out.  And the Marks keep layin’ their money down because they think they have a chance.

And the Shills play ‘em until there’s no money left for the rides or the corn dogs or the bearded lady.

Shills for Game C are not liked in the Show.  The other carnies know that sooner or later they will cause trouble for the Show, that if they had their way they’d spend the whole evening sucking dimes and quarters out of the Marks pockets and leave them with nothing to be spent on anything else.

The carny is a business. They’re there to make a profit.

But there are ways of making a profit that help others in the business, and don’t burn out the Marks so they won’t come to the Show when it blows through town the next year…

…or even worse, won’t let them set up at all.

I bring all this up to illustrate a point about American politics.[7]

We have one type of politician who shills Game A.  They are in politics for their own personal benefit, but they realize they need to nurture the electorate.  There has to be at least the appearance of people receiving value for what they put in, and making sure that at least if everybody can’t have a taste, somebody gets a taste on a regular basis is a smart move to keep the Marks electorate happy and playing the game.

Another type of politician shills Game B.  Maybe they really believe that crap their own hype, maybe they are thoroughly cynical, but they are willing to let the Marks have a taste if the Marks do things exactly the way the politician says they have to be done.

Genuine Game B politicians are rare; they tend to migrate back and forth between Game A and Game C.

Game C politicians are the parasites.[8]   Unlike Game A politicians who see the need to cultivate the electorate not just for their own benefit but for the benefit of the Show at large (because without the Show, the Shills don’t have a job), Game C politicians seen their Marks electorate as expendables to be consumed.[9]

You will notice I have been scrupulous to not mention any politician or party by name.




[1]  The specifics of the games vary; it’s the marketing strategy behind ‘em that we’re examining.  Indeed, the exact same game can often be played in any of the three modes described and some Shills will vary their strategy from town to town, night to night, even hour to hour depending on what they think they can get away with / be held accountable for.

[2]  Fast food restaurants will do this even one better:  The overwhelming bulk of their promotional contest prizes are coupons for a percentage off the next order or a free drink / side with the next purchase.  Since the coupon is never for more than the break even point for that item (and indeed, is often just a tiny sliver off the item’s true profitability), fast food chains can give away “free” food and drink all the time.

[3]  Because openly offering games of chance will get The Show shut down and the Shill thrown in jail.  You want to gamble on games of chance, go to Vegas.  Or an Indian reservation.  Or a 7-11.

[4]  At least from the Shill’s POV.

[5]  If the Shill thinks the Mark is going to bitch to the cops about losing several rounds in a row, he’ll ”bend the rules” and let the Mark select a consolation prize for having tried so long.  A prize from the bottom shelf.  Not one of the big ones from the top shelf.  And certainly not anything remotely approaching in value what the mark has shelled out.

[6]  The hard way...

[7]  Which doubtlessly applies to other countries as well, but hey, write about what ya know…

[8]  We’re using parasite in its strictest sense:  A predator that attaches itself to a host and they gets the host to alter its behavior to the host’s detriment so that the parasite may benefit.  They differ from symbiotes, which co-exist with their hosts and will often help the host in ways they benefit both partners.

[9]  Quite literally so in many cases.  Politicians who focus on a narrow shrinking demographic do so purely with their own short term benefit goals in mind, not the well being of the entire country.  They care only about exploiting their targets, not nurturing them in any sense.  “I got mine” is all they care about; everyone else can go fnck themselves.


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