Week 26: Win at Carnival Games

Can we take a break from the regularly scheduled programming to discuss how great of a movie Big is?  I usually hate getting asked for my favorite movie because the answer changes every week but I think I can start saying Big without any hesitation.  I love Big so much that I once found it on TV in French with no subtitles and still I watched it to the end.  Most movies we enjoy as children have no resonance with us as adults (here’s looking at you, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Secret of the Ooze), but Big has spoken to me in a different but still satisfying way every stage of my life.  The younger me was enamored with the thought of skipping past the intolerability of being a small child, the college-age me wanted to work for a toy company, and the now me understands the nostalgia for youth.  For the record, all three of us wanted a trampoline in our apartment.

My infatuation with Big began in an early scene, where the young version of Tom Hanks feels the sting of rejection from a carnival worker and his crush because he is decidedly not big.  I don’t think it was an accident that the filmmakers set this scene at a carnival.  I submit that a carnival is as good of a litmus test for manliness as any sports field or construction site.  Only the truly testosterone-laden could survive the onslaught of carnival barkers, hammer games, and fried foods.  And what paints the image of masculinity more than winning a giant stuffed teddy bear for your gal?


With this in mind, I thought it prudent to test a half-year’s worth of manly mettle on games meant to amuse children.  Q and I have been to Coney Island a couple times since moving to New York, but I had always avoided the games.  I don’t do well with people shouting at me to give them money, even in the guise of a Whack-A-Mole game.  I vaguely knew the games were fixed and always thought the rides and food were better returns on investments, but this is far too rational a thought for the manly man.  So on Labor Day weekend, the unofficial end to summer, we decide to venture out to Coney Island with the sole intention of winning Q a big, stinking teddy bear.

I don’t want to face the carnies completely ignorant, so I sought out a MANtor who had emerged victorious in carnival games.  I found one better.  A former carnival worker with several years on the job was willing to share some insider information on the condition that he remain anonymous, so we’ll call him Carl.  I sent the list of carnival games at Coney Island to my carny Deep Throat and waited for his reply.

waiting in line

Carl confirms that most of the games at Coney Island are “complete LOSERS,” in that they “are set up in such a way that the player automatically loses when they play.”  Of course, these games have the most incredible prizes because there’s no chance they won’t return to the truck at the end of the night.  Though it might feel insanely manly to beat the carny at his own game, I think a real man knows he can’t cheat the laws of physics, so I plan on avoiding the games that will result in nothing but lost cash.

Fortunately, one game at Coney Island presents no house advantage: Break-A-Plate.  Carl explains that this game is predicated on the fact that the player, in an attempt to impress whatever lady accompanies him, will throw the ball as hard as he can at the row of plates.  But the inevitable showboating won’t pay off because “wild flailing virtually guarantees failure.”  Instead, “a savvy consumer should simply take a deep breath and consider the target as if one is in a bar throwing darts.  Short, calm backstroke followed by an exhaled lunge toward the desired target. . . .  Having a speed and target controlled toss offers the best chance for a win.”

Though it wasn’t the carnival game cheat code I was hoping for, Carl’s advice is sound, so when we arrive at the park (after the requisite Nathan’s hot dogs, natch), we head directly for Break-A-Plate, which is currently populated by three burly men in tank tops and backwards caps, hoping to impress their lady friends with displays of brute strength.

break a plate

True to Carl’s prediction, the first burly man reels back and launches a wild fastball with no concern for accuracy.  It ricochets off the metal shelf that holds the plates and flies into a different part of the booth.  His other two balls follow suit.  His other two friends don’t even attempt the game, and the first man can only hope to retain his masculinity by not screaming on the Tilt-A-Whirl.

Next up is a youngster who couldn’t have been more than seven years old.  He can barely see over the table where the carny sets down his three balls.  At least let him stand on the table to throw, I thought, but the carny proves to be the unfeeling capitalist I assumed he was and doesn’t make it any easier on the young boy.  Surely if a great hulk of a man couldn’t even nick a plate, a prepubescent boy hardly stands a chance.

And yet, my fears are completely unfounded.  On his very first throw, the youngster sends a bullet directly at the center of a plate and completely crushes it.  He didn’t even need his other two balls – clearly this kid was a shark.  As the crowd behinds him cheers his great success, my confidence drops as the applause grows louder – if I get shown up by this kid, who is clearly some kind of prodigy or con artist, not only will I be subject to Q’s pity, I might have to quash this entire project due to a complete dearth of morale.

bad throw

I give three bucks to the carny for the privilege of embarrassing myself, which all things considered, is still a pretty good deal.  The three baseballs have a similar weight to any other baseball, so it appears Carl did lead me to a game without a fix.  I just saw a seven-year-old win, so unless he was a plant (which I begin to think is TOTALLY plausible), winning is at least possible.  I remember Carl’s advice to err on the side of precision over strength and fling my first ball towards the plates.

WHIFF!  The ball flies straight into the back wall, not even close to a plate or metal bar.  In the pursuit of total precision, I momentarily forget all throwing technique, which to onlookers, must seem like this is my first time throwing a baseball.  It’s not, thank you very much.  Just as Carl predicted, my desire to look strong and avoid embarrassment overwhelms me, and I fling the second ball with as much force as I can muster.  PING!  It flies off the center pole and ricochets right back at me.  On the final throw, I try to find a happy medium between the last two balls.  I take a deep breath before flinging the ball like an arrow.  It feels good immediately, headed for a plate in the top row, and CONNECTS . . . chipping off the corner of the plate and nothing more.  I fail in the most spectacular fashion.  I didn’t even throw hard enough to break a plate.


I couldn’t leave it at that.  Oddly enough, I feel like I’m experiencing the inverse of the carnival scene in Big: I have just been utterly shown up by someone half my size.  I plunk down three more dollars without even looking at Q because I know that if she sees my face, she’ll see a guy willing to spend whatever it takes to win a plush toy that probably comes two to a pack at the Dollar Store.

With the bitter taste of failure still in my mouth, I resolve to actually learn something from my first attempt.  Clearly, brute strength will get me nowhere, although my last throw proves I still need some force to break the plate.  As Carl suggested, I think of dart throwing as I line up my shot, reel back, and throw.

CRASH!  A plate crumbles to the ground after a direct hit.  Immediately, the thought of being forever shamed disintegrates and I start grinning ear to ear.  I look over at Q with the childlike glee of a boy who just completed his first handstand.  “Did you see me?  Did you see what I did?”  I throw two more balls with the confidence of a Yankee pitching to Little Leaguers.  The first misses, but the second connects again, smashing another plate to smithereens.  At this point, with the fear of losing behind me, I can simply enjoy the wonderful feeling of controlled destruction.

good throw

It’s immensely satisfying to hand Q the Angry Bird stuffed animal I won with my own bare hands, even though she doesn’t need the toy and we’re just going to give it away to a child at the end of the night.  I can see why these carnival games have lasted so long, even in the wake of progressing technology and huge theme parks.  In that moment of life or death (i.e., prize or no prize), it’s easy to give in to the archetypes at play.  I have to break this plate so I can provide for my family.  And what my family needs to survive is a red Angry Bird dressed like Luke Skywalker.

Since we have a few bucks left on our prepaid game cards (the one piece of technology Coney Island seems to have adopted), we visit Bazooka Blast, a game in which you shoot down a pyramid of cans with a ball launched out of an air-powered bazooka.  Q and I take sit down at our guns, well aware that the cans are probably glued to the table or the ball isn’t heavy enough to knock anything over.  Still, when the carny gives us the okay to shoot, we line up our shots like an Navy Seal sniper.  When I notice the crosshairs on my bazooka are woefully miscalibrated, I decide to fire blindly and am happy to knock over three of six cans.  I turn to Q to comfort her inevitable failure, until I actually look at her station.  Six cans had stood there, but now six cans lay scattered on the floor.  Winner winner chicken dinner.

winning prizes

Am I offended that Q won me a prize on one shot when it took me six balls to do the same?  I think the picture to the left shows that my desire for stuff far outweighs my masculine pride.  Though perhaps my ego is bruised in some small way because I feel the need to prove my strength at the hammer game on the way out of the park.  I quickly find out that although there may be no fix for this particular game, the hammer is still freaking heavy and I don’t make it past the “crybaby” rung on the tower.  But I ignore my failings with the hammer and focus on my earlier success, treating myself to a funnel cake that will always taste delicious, win or lose.  God, I love the carnival.


I have always ignored the barks of the carnies not because I knew the games were fixed; rather, they intimidated me.  Confronting the carnies head on and emerging victorious on the other side felt unequivocally manly.  Better luck next time, guys – this time, you’ll have to settle for your 600% profit margin on that plush toy.  2.45.