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Best of Mark Pilarski

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Rip-off on the midway?

11 February 2000

Dear Mark,
Your column "Do two-year-olds gamble? You bet they do!" was terrific. But 25¢ at the local supermarket for an egg with a cheap toy inside is nothing compared to the amount I spend on my grandchildren on the midway. Last summer I must have spent more than $40 at one carnival trying to knock down two coke bottles with a softball. I got nothing, I mean nothing. Talk about games being rigged. Harold C.

Not all games, Harold, are rigged, or all carnival workers crooked; but all "honest" games are designed to favor the game operator. Like the casino, that's how they make their money. Just because you lost doesn't mean you were swindled.

There are three basic types of games that can be found on the midway. A skill game, a flat game and a game of chance. Two of the three are illegal. Only a game of skill, in which you have the ability through human proficiency to control the final outcome, is legal at a carnival.

A flat is a game where you have no chance of winning no matter how dexterous you are. Harold, you could have been a past singles champion on the PBA tour and you still couldn't knock those bottles over. The game is surreptitiously controlled by the game operator-which may have occurred at the carnival you attended.

Chance games involve no control over the final outcome. A chance game is also illegal because it's gambling, which, without a gaming license, is prohibited in all states. Remember the gambling formula, Harold? Courts have found that every gambling apparatus must consist of three components: consideration, chance and prize. You pay something of value (consideration) to play; you receive something of value (prize), usually more than the amount bet; and the outcome depends on chance. Because leveling coke bottles should be based solely on skill, not chance, this is what separates it from a gambling device.

Coke Roll, the game you mentioned in your question, consists of two coke bottles set up on a platform five feet away. The object is to roll the ball down the platform and knock both standing coke bottles over with one ball. Note, Harold, that the ball you were given is not a regulation softball but one that is much lighter in weight. Without defying the law of physics, the only way you could have won is to hit both bottles directly in the center at the same time.

Because there is no easy way for an unsuspecting mark to detect if the game was rigged, my best guess is that you were playing a flat game and the operator gaffed the challenge. Gaffing is to fix, cheat or rig a game by using misdirection, sleight of hand or any secret cheating device.

Coke Roll can be gaffed by a deceptive carny simply by off-setting one of the coke bottles. This moves the center of the bottles off to one side, making the second bottle impossible to hit with an underweight softball. By hitting only one bottle, that bottle will absorb most of the ball's energy, leaving nothing left to knock down bottle two. Consequently, bye-bye $40.

A dear friend of mine, blessed with genetics that make her look 20 years younger than she truly is, loves to beat the midway cadre out of prizes because they can never guess her age. But does she truly win? She gives the barker a dollar and he tries to guess her birth date. If he wins he keeps her dollar; and if he loses, he keeps her dollar and gives her a prize worth 25¢. Honest? Yes! Highway robbery? Yes!

Recent Articles
Best of Mark Pilarski
Mark Pilarski

As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.
Mark Pilarski
As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.