Carnival games seem easy. But anyone
who’s ever tried to win a prize at a dime
toss knows better. They’re maddeningly
hard to win. You might think the reason is because
carnival game equipment contains hidden gimmicks
like weights, levers, or magnets to thwart any honest
attempt to win, but that’s not usually the case. Most
of the time, the trick is right out in the open.
For instance, basketball toss games use smaller-than-regulation hoops. Unless you lob a perfect
shot, the over-pressurized ball will bounce off the
rim like a bullet ricocheting off an anvil at the OK
Corral. Next time you visit a cork gun booth, watch
the sly old carny load your weapon. He’ll set the
cork on the end of barrel at an aim-queering angle.
(If you want to get screamed at, go ahead and try
straightening the cork before shooting.)
But once in a while, you’ll come across a carnival
game with a secret gimmick that ensures the carny
won’t have to part with the cheap plush toys strung
across the back of his booth. The contraption shown C
here is one of these. It’s called a “scissor bucket”
and belongs to Marsee Henon, who works at O’Reilly
Media. She inherited it from her grandfather. The
object of the game is to throw three balls into the
basket without having them bounce out.
Henon was kind enough to allow us to take the
game apart to see what was inside. We discovered
a round, felt-covered piece of wood attached
to a lever (Figure A). The padded wood sphere
(Figure C) rests against the basket and tilts
away when a ball strikes the backboard at the
bottom of the basket.
“The third throw hits the bottom, and without
the damper bounces clear out of the bucket. It still
falls into the collection mechanism, knocking the
damper back against the bottom of the bucket in
preparation for the next sucker.”
In short, the scissor bucket is an ingenious, albeit
fraudulent, money-making machine. Henon told me
that “a good operator — or agent, as we call them
on the carnival — was so smooth and fast you never
had a chance to catch on, and he cleaned you out of
How Does It Work? 500 bucks or whatever he could.”
An acquaintance who goes by the moniker Card- Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how
house Robot saw the photos of the inner workings you look at it) the scissor bucket is no longer part of
of the scissor bucket, and explained the mechanism the carnival landscape, because state and county
to me: inspectors would seize one the instant they saw it in
“There is a damper hidden behind the bottom of the operation. Today, any scissor bucket that managed
bucket. This is attached to a seesaw mechanism that to escape being destroyed in a raid is now part of
runs clear down to the bottom of the game. Assuming a lucky collector’s private museum.
you have to make three successful throws that hit the
bottom and then drop through the hole (Figure B),
the first toss hits the dampered bottom; the damper
is pushed back; the ball falls through the hole and hits
the seesaw, which pushes the damper back into place.
“Same thing for the second throw, except when
the carny retrieves the ball for the third throw, he
raps the ball against the bottom of the bucket,
which kicks the damper away from the bottom.
Videos of the scissor bucket in action:
For more about how carny games work, get
a copy of Carnival Secrets by Matthew Gryczan.
Mark Frauenfelder ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor-in-chief of MAKE.