Rigged carny game: The Scissor Bucket

Picture 11-4 This weekend I looked at a ball toss carnival game from the 1930s. It belongs to a woman who works at O'Reilly (publishers of Make). She got it from her grandfather who used it in carnivals in the 1930s and 1940s.

It's a rigged game, because there is some kind of mechanism in it that the operator can secretly activate, which all but ensures the ball will bounce out of the bucket when the mark tosses it in. We were going to take the thing apart to see if we could discover the mechanism, but this was during O'Reilly's annual Foo Camp and so there were so many other exciting things happening that we forgot to disassemble it.

Carnys call these "alibi games," because the operator uses a long litany of excuses to keep the mark from giving up in disgust, and encouraging him to dig more money out of his wallet and try "just one more time" to win a stuffed animal that his girlfriend doesn't even really want.

Does anyone know how this game works? I'm wondering if there might not even be a mechanism -- maybe the carny just secretly switched between different balls: a soft one that thudded against the backboard and dropped through the win hole, and a hard one that bounced off the backboard.

UPDATE: SECRET REVEALED! We took the machine apart and took photos and a video of the mechanism. I also wrote about it in Make magazine. Email me if you know the answer and I'll post it here. Link

Reader comments:

Marvin says:
Please - don't destroy that wonderful artifact of carnival culture.

The secret of the game is this; the carny demonstrates by tossing a ball from his postion, behind the counter. Since he's much closer, he doesn't have to throw with as much force as the 'mark'. The ball doesn't have enough velocity to create a strong bounce.The carny then hands the same ball to the 'mark', who must propel it 15 feet instead of 3 feet. And the ball bounces out of the basket every time.

So there's probably no mechanism to be found. I heard of this being done with straw baskets, which have a lot of 'bounce' in their bottoms.

It could probably also be gimmicked by tilting the basket.

Dan found this 1934 article about rigged carny games from a 1934 issue of Modern Mechanix.

R says:

Your assumptions about “Alibi” joint is on the money. One of the main ones used is that you were leaning over a line or your hand passed some imaginary boundary. You would be surprised how well these work. If the excuses get too thick just threaten to go to the carnival office (all of them have one somewhere on the lot) and they will usually give up the prize to avoid a beef. Also, try bringing back a security person to watch you play again … the alibis will stop … trust me.

As for the game being “rigged” this is probably not the case. It’s too easy for a vice/gaming inspector to pick this up. They come through carnivals, at least in California, and check everything out before you’re allowed to open, most of the time.

The reason it’s so difficult is basic physics. You’re kept a certain distance from the basket which makes sure the ball carries a minimum velocity, you are also kept directly in front of the basket, the angle of the basket is usually never above 15 or 20 degrees, the surfaces are always smooth (sometimes coated with Armor All® or Pledge®), the back of the basket is made to be “springy” by bowing it out, and lastly the balls are very light. This combination makes it very difficult and there is nothing rigged or illegal. It’s just hard to do and there really isn’t reason to alibi someone.

The alibi method is also just basic greed. You can make plenty of money even giving away a prize when the person misses entirely. A typical method would be to let the person have three balls for $5.00 and when they miss all three give them a prize anyway. You can even let them build up to large prizes at this rate. The smallest prizes cost $.90 a piece and you get $5.00 for one of them. This makes your stock percentage below 20% which is very low. The second prize up has a cost of $2.10 so now that they have missed six throws and you have $10.00 dollars your stock percentage is still 21%. If by some chance they do get one in just let them win … they are bound to play more once they see they can get one in … this goes directly to a person’s gambling instinct. It’s amazing how cheap stuffed animals are when you buy them by the truck load! ;)

The reason is looks so easy when the agent makes it in is that he has all the time in the world to practice … for free.

Most of the players tend to be little kids who put no thought into how to make the ball actually stay in … they just run up and throw.

You have to put the ball high up into the air, put a good amount of back spin on it, and aim for the very lip of the basket. This is the only way to keep it from hitting that back which will always expel the ball back out. The sweet spot at the lip (which does vary from basket to basket) is about the size of a quarter. Please let me know if you have any other questions … I’ve worked in this particular game long enough for me to consider myself very good at it.

Kyle says:

If that game is like many other versions of the same game that I'm aware of, it depends not on a hidden mechanism, but the angle from which you throw the ball. A carny will stand to the side and throw the ball in, but a visitor has to throw from straight in front of it. Because of the construction, the ball will stay in if thrown from nearer and to the side, and will bounce out if thrown from too far away (read: from behind the line) and straight in front of it. There's a discussion about beating carny games (and the basket game is included) here.

Franks says:

I found this here:
A popular midway game that may or may not be rigged is the peach basket toss in which a basketball is tossed into an old-fashioned bushel basket. There are two basic ways to rig this game. The basket is usually on a sort of A-frame support that holds it at an angle to the ground and the player. By adjusting the angle of the A-frame, the basket’s angle changes. A basketball will rebound at the same angle it approached the basket. It’s the law of physics that says the angle of incidence equals the angle of refraction. By changing the position of the basket, the operator can make the tossed ball bounce out on every play. A second way to rig the game is to have a second ball in the receiving basket. This second ball can deaden the first ball and change its angle of refraction.

If you want to play the peach basket toss, make sure the support holding the basket can’t be moved, and check to see if there’s a second ball in the basket.

I've always heard that with the basket toss, the way to throw the ball is so that is catches the upper edge of the basket. That way it bounces to the bottom edge of the basket before hitting the back, breaking the forward motion of the ball enough so that it doesn't immediately rebound out. The carny trick is to place the basket at just the correct angle so that it is nearly impossible to hit the upper edge from the customer throw line.

The carny is standing a few feet closer to the basket, and it is much easier to hit that upper edge. So he can demonstrate a successful toss.