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  • Writer's pictureNicholas J Johnson

The scientific secret behind carnival scams

If I had to list my top five things in the world it would look like this:

1. My wonderful daughter. 2. My other, slightly less wonderful daughter* 3. My amazing wife 4. Critical thinking 5. Scams

That’s why it was so exciting to rediscover numbers 4 & 5 show up in this classic educational video from YouTuber Mark Rober.

Rober is an engineer by trade and has spent serious time deconstructing the science behind why these games are so hard to beat.

From shooting galleries to ladder climbs to basketball games, he exposes them all.

Rober breaks them down into three types: Games of skill, games of chance, and scams.

Each type of game requires a different set of skills and knowledge to beat (or, at the very least, not lose money to).

Games of skill are beaten by knowledge of physics and the development of physical skills through practice. For example, throwing a basketball into a basketball ring.

Games of chance are beaten through an understanding of probability and knowing when to play. For example, being able to calculate the cost of playing the duck fishing game vs the value of the prizes and chances of winning.

Scams are never beaten. There is no set of skills that will lead to you coming out a winner. However, knowledge of how scams work and the ability to spot them will keep your money in your pocket.

But the one skill all three required is the ability to think critically.

For example, while tossing a basketball is a physical skill, you can't assume your years of playing b-ball outside of the school will help. Carnival basketball hoops are taller, further away and sometimes not even round. Your muscle memory will always be a little off. All your practice will actually work against you.

Just because you can calculate that a $5 duck fishing game will only give you an average $2 return on investment doesn't mean you shouldn't play. Is there any value in the fun of the game itself? Or the joy of winning?

And does knowing that a scam exists mean we won't be scammed? Can we spot scams we've never heard of? And what should we do if we do spot them?

Simply knowing the secrets and learning the skills isn't enough. We can't just outplay carnival swindlers, we have to outthink them.

For more on carnival scams, check out my interview with Glenn Hester, a magician and former cop who spent many years busting these games.

Nicholas J. Johnson is a Melbourne magician, author and collector of scams.

*I'm not telling you which daughter is which. They'll find out in my will.


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