For too long, I have tossed away logic and dollars for the sake of plush pink gorillas, lobbing fruitless darts and pointless softballs with my eyes on the Midway’s fattest prizes, acting the State Fair’s own fool.
Since roughly age 10, I have emptied my pockets at a thousand milk-can tosses and drained my allowance aiming countless clanging rings off countless bottles – cursed by the carny’s cruel odds.
But this year I came loaded for oversized bear, seeking three decades of State Fair revenge. In our age of YouTube tutorials, any rube can learn to fix a busted oven, change a dead car battery or – however improbable – climb the cursed rope ladder. With the help of the Internet, I found tricks for conquering the most challenging carnival games.
I share these tips now in hopes of avenging the generations of luckless gamblers playing a rigged game. A few of them actually work.
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Darts and Balloons
This game looks easier than blackjack with see-through cards. The dartboard is 20 feet wide and covered with balloons. Bust one balloon with one dart and pick a prize. It’s like throwing a porcupine at a soap bubble. You can’t miss.
But here’s the thing: The balloons are under-inflated and the darts are dull, so most of them bounce off on impact.
Josh’s tip: Don’t aim. Don’t even look. Stand in front of the densest section of balloons and throw the dart as hard as you can, baseball-style. Something is bound to explode.
Bottle Ring Toss
This game offers the most satisfying exercise in futility. For $5, you’re given a bucket of silver-dollar-sized rings to aim at a field of roughly 100 bottles the size and shape of a 12-ounce Bud Lite.
The chances of landing one of these tiny circles around the inch-wide lip of a bottle run, I figure, about 40 to 1. Bill McSorley, the carny who operates the ring toss, told me he sees roughly one winner per $200 collected.
Even if you don’t win, which I didn’t, you get to spend a good five minutes playing, which is an eternity by State Fair standards.
“Some guys just toss the whole bucket at once,” McSorley said.
Josh’s tip: Spin the ring like a Frisbee. It lands flatter.
If the State Fair were a video game, this monster would be the boss waiting at the end of the final level – 10 feet tall and swinging a flaming ax. Each end of this ladder is attached to a pivoting pulley, which makes climbing to the top feel like hanging onto a ceiling fan blade. It offers far deeper humiliation than any other game. Throw a brick at the basketball hoop and you’re handed another ball. Fall off the rope ladder and hundreds watch you drop onto an inflatable mat, arms flailing and glasses askew.
The prizes here are gigantic because they’re given out so seldomly. In half a day, I saw no one reach the top save for Charles Frame, the carny, who rang the bell with annoying ease. “Eighteen years of practice,” he explained. Luckily, this is well-covered trick territory among old hands of the Midway.
Josh’s tip: Grab the ropes, not the rungs. Place your feet as far apart as possible. Lean forward. When you move one arm, move the opposite leg. At least, that’s what the tip sheet said. I fell four times, so there might be more to it.
State Fair odds-beaters remind us that the basketball hoops aren’t regulation-sized, and the backboards are unnaturally bouncy, so a perfect swish is the only chance at winning. They also say to aim for the back of the milk can, and to hit the high striker square in the middle.
But I’ll add my own observation. If you must play for a carnival goldfish, remember that it’s an animal, not a trophy, and it requires more care than the average purple gorilla.
Today at the fair
Hours: Gates, 8 a.m.-11 p.m. Midway, 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Exhibit halls, 9 a.m. to 9:45 p.m.
Tickets: Adults (13-64), $10; children (6-12), $5; military with ID, $6; children 5 and younger and adults 65 and older, free.
Dorton Arena concert: Pirates of the Colombian Caribbean, 7:30 p.m.
Forecast: Sunny, low 80s.
Tuesday’s attendance last year: 69,687