May 5, 2013

A lesson in luck


---- — So, you think carnivals and county fairs are all fun and games? Not everyone would agree.

Last week, a 30-year-old New Hampshire father suffered the third-worst thing that can happen to you at a carnival. (First, someone forgot to tighten the bolts on the Tilt-a-Whirl. Second, your teenage daughter runs away with “The Astounding Half Man-Half Crocodile!”)

That is, of course, he lost his entire life savings playing one of those impossible-to-win carnival games.

The tragic episode should serve to provide the rest of us with important lessons about life, and carnivals.

The poor victim, Henry Gribbohm, went to a Manchester, N.H., carnival with $300 in his pocket and a dream of using his mad ball-tossing skills to win his kids an Xbox Kinect. His game of choice was “Tubs of Fun,” which requires the contestant to toss two balls into a slanted bucket, without either bouncing out.

A couple of practice throws showed that the game was in fact a cinch to win, so Gribbohm handed over his $5.

It is here that I offer a real-life secret of the carnival industry. When you get a practice throw with one ball, the second ball is already sitting in the bucket. That ball blunts the momentum of the thrown ball, making it very easy to keep it from bouncing out. With no balls in the bucket, however, it’s virtually impossible to keep one from coming out.

Gribbohm lost and lost again. The game operator apparently offered him double or nothing — all his money back, plus the prize, and in no time, the $300 was gone. Who among us hasn’t lost $300 the same way?

Undaunted, and showing the admirable never-surrender American spirit, Gribbohm left the carnival, drove to the closest mall and purchased an Xbox Kinect anyway. Oh, wait, that’s wrong.

He actually gathered up the rest of his life savings — $2,300 — and headed back to the carnival. Double or nothing? You bet. And in no time, the rest of his money was gone. Nothing left for fried dough or giant turkey legs or diapers for the baby in Gribbohm’s stroller.

Gribbohm figured that the only way he possibly could have lost at the game is if it was rigged, so he went back to complain. According to him, they gave back $600 and a giant stuffed Rastafarian banana as consolation. 

Where to start.

Most of us realize that carnival rides can kill us instantly, but if it only costs us four tickets, heck, it’s worth the risk. We also know that carnival food can kill us even more certainly, albeit in a slower, more artery-clogging manner.

I thought it was also self-evident that all carnival games are rigged in some way, but apparently there are those who were not aware.

Those basketball rims are bent, the balls are over-inflated, and the baskets themselves are 11½ feet tall.

Those rings are almost exactly the same size as the bottles you’re trying to throw them on. The sights are askew on those BB guns. Also, those balloons are made of military-grade Kevlar and wouldn’t pop if hit repeatedly by a machete, let alone by a dulled dart.

Here’s another real secret: When you have to knock down three bottles with just one throw, inevitably one of those bottles will be weighted. When they show you how easy it is, the weighted one will be on top, ready to topple. When you pay, the weighted one is on the bottom, impervious to the force of a softball.

Also, the bearded woman is actually a man. The world’s smallest horse is actually a cleverly shaved gerbil. The haunted house is not “the scariest ride of your life,” but you won’t be able to prove it in a court of law.

Technically, you just shouldn’t play these games. The prizes are virtually worthless. Sure, those giant stuffed animals look cool, but they’re filled with salvaged asbestos and stitched together by 5-year-old factory workers. Costs the carnival about 87 cents. Offer the carny $20, and he might give you one without the frustration of playing the game.

Still, it can be fun, like roulette or lottery tickets, to try to beat the odds. If you have to play, play smart.

Put some of your life savings into an IRA or a 401K plan at work. It will then be harder to get if you have a burning need to try the rope ladder just one more time.

Realize that your average smiling carny is not as friendly and generous as you might think. If he says double or nothing, he means nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Maybe a stuffed banana, if you’re lucky.

If you do run out of money, do not bet your oldest child in a desperate gambit to get it all back. It is illegal in 47 states to wager human beings.

Personally, I wouldn’t take any chances. It’s both safer and cheaper to stay home and play on your Xbox.

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