How the "scissor bucket" (a rigged carny game) works


Every once in a while I get an angry email from someone who stumbles across this old Boing Boing post about the scissor bucket carny game. The emailer tells me that carny games aren't rigged and that the games are purely skill-based. When I reply with photos from MAKE that show the fraudulent gimmick inside the scissor bucket, they sometimes write back again with a foul-mouthed diatribe about how I ought to be ashamed of myself for revealing the secrets of carnivals. (The emails died down somewhat after I updated my post with photos of the hidden gimmick).

Here's the article, from MAKE Vol. 13 (our magic tricks issue) which was published a couple of years ago. You can still buy a copy from

(I was reminded of this when Matthew Gryczan, author of a cool book called Carnival Secrets, got in touch with me about an how-to for Make he is writing. It's not a carnival game, but it is something really nifty involving a gyroscope.)

Scissor bucket carnival game exposed in MAKE


  1. Oh, for the love of all things intert00bz, please post said emails [when privacy etiquette dictates it is appropriate]

  2. Austin Powers: Only two things scare me and one of them is nuclear war.
    Basil Exposition: What’s the other?
    Austin Powers: Excuse me?
    Basil Exposition: What’s the other thing that scares you?
    Austin Powers: Carnies. Circus folk. Nomads, you know. Smell like cabbage. Small hands.

  3. With the weird cropped shots, the video which is (I think sideways) and reference to a “wooden sphere” which appears nowhere in the images, I find it impossible to understand how this works.

    1. Yeah, that’s incorrect. It’s a disk, and it acts as a damper. The videos help not at all.

      From reading the article I THINK it works like this: the back of the basket is very “bouncy.” With the damper against the back of it, balls will stay in (so you believe you can make three after making two). Without the damper, any ball that touches the wall will bounce out immediately.

      The carnie bounces the damper away after two successful shots, thus ensuring that the third ball won’t stay in.

      By letting the first two stay in, the marks are persuaded that they can make three, and keep trying.

  4. Remember the carnival game of knocking metal milk bottles off of a table with a 10-inch softball? I worked the game briefly for a carny while I was a lad trying to earn a buck or two.

    Three bottles were stacked on a table; two on the bottom and one on top. One of the bottles placed on the bottom row had a heavy lead weight in it which made it damn near impossible to knock it off the table. I was fired from the job after the carny found out I was putting the weighted bottle on the top row.

  5. I had the honor of working this game at the Newton somethingorother traveling carnival somewhere in Brooklyn (normally I worked rockin’ roll-a-ball and yelled at everyone through a microphone)

    I didn’t rtfa, but with ours, there was an additional rule about hitting the rim of the basket. Basically you had to have a certain arc on your throw or it didn’t count. I had the distinct honor of having to tell a 10 year old boy that his seemingly winning throw was actually not. It is a moment I will have with me forever.

    I was later framed for stealing from roll-a-ball by the crooked manager and fired.

  6. “There’s a sucker born every minute.” (attributed to Barnum). And, its corollary: “Never Give a Sucker and Even Break” from WC Fields.

    Need one say any more?

  7. I wonder how many of the angry emailers honestly believe that carny games aren’t rigged, and how many are consciously perpetuating the con. Statistically, there’s got to be some honest carnies, right?

  8. I agree it wasn’t that clear from the article how it worked, I figured it out:
    You’re supposed to land 3 balls to win a prize. Initially, there’s a damper (the felt-covered disc) against the back, which helps you land the first two shots. Before the last short, the carny raps the bottom of the basket, which makes the damper disengage, and the ball bounces out.

    But the ball still ends up at the bottom of the collection bin under the basket, and when the ball falls down there, it pushes the damper back into place, ready for the next mark.

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