The trick is to remember the house always wins. This is good if you’re the house, bad if you’re not. Most of us are not.

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The gun was chained to the counter so I couldn’t run away with it, spraying the fair-going crowd with BBs. I wouldn’t have gotten far anyway, tethered as I was to the air compressor providing the oomph for the plastic AR-15 mockup in my hands. No, this gun was not designed for a mad rampage through the fairgrounds; it had only one purpose: to make you think you could win.

The target was a piece of paper placed about 10 yards away from the desk. On this piece of paper was a red star on a white field, a holdover from the ’80s when everything bearing the red star of communism was fair game. The mission: Shoot BBs at the target, obliterating all traces of the red star. If any remained after you’d fired all your BBs, you lost. The prize: a stuffed animal.

Few games are as simple, few carry such weight. The counter was crowded with men confident they’d be the one to best the system, win the prize and put his arm around the lady bearing the stuffed animal at the fair. It’s a heady feeling to buck the system, beat the house and win the prize. Viagra should be so good.

I paid the man and he loaded my gun, selecting an aluminum tube full of BBs from a rack near his elbow and upending it into the gun. He handed it to me; I assumed the position and took aim.

Aiming a gun is an exercise in applied physics. Most firearms are simply long tubes designed to contain the explosion of whatever propellant is in use and direct the projectile along as straight a course as possible. There is a sight at the end closest your eye and another at the end of the barrel. The trick is to align these two sights in your field of vision so that the “business end” of the weapon is pointed where you want to do damage. Yet as with all things, shooting a gun is fairly simple to learn, fairly difficult to master. I’ve been shooting since I was 8.

The carney man’s fake AR-15 had a bum sight; it skewed down. Compensating was as simple as aiming high. But that wasn’t the only fix he had in. The gun didn’t shoot straight no matter where you aimed it, and it fired in bursts. The best you could do was aim near the center of what you wanted to hit, hope the spray went where you wanted it to go and that you had enough BBs in the gun to finish the job.

I did OK on my first run. On my second, after I’d adjusted for the faulty sight, I did better. I watched someone else take a go then, noted which way the spray tended to go and decided the best course of action would be to just aim at the center of the star and let fly. I thought I’d figured out the game. I had a system. I wasn’t counting on the carney man.

I paid him again, and again he loaded the gun, selecting a tube of BBs from a different track this time, and that’s when I knew I wouldn’t ever win this game. He’d shorted me. I couldn’t tell from the weight of the gun, but I could tell by how long it took to empty it.

He looked genuinely sorry I hadn’t won, in spite of how much money I’d spent, and for that act he deserves a prize, but I’d given him my last dollar. I thanked him and went on my way. The house always wins.

I tried several more games. I fired a crossbow at another paper star. I tried to weave a metal hoop around a spinning coil without touching the two together. I played skee-ball. In each case I gave money to the man (or woman) and got little in return but the memory and a few minutes of fun. I didn’t feel cheated. It’s just the way these things go.

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I walked into the freak show tent fully expecting to get robbed. The pictures on the marquee looked compelling, and the suggestions of the man over the PA sounded incredible. He told me I’d be surprised, amazed and even frightened. My imagination ran away with me, and by the time the line wound around to the entrance, I was all too willing to hand over my money to be let inside, to see the chupacabra, the two-headed cow, the live sheep with four horns and the Mongolian Death Worm. Like with most videogames, the pre-release hype got the better of me, and I was distracted from the mediocre reality by the sensational advertisements.

Once inside, the gig being up, as it were, I realized I should have known better. The chupacabra was a fake, the two-headed cow looked like fiberglass, the sheep’s horns were glued on and the Mongolian Death Worm … well, it was in a jar, so who knows? But I was not very surprised, even less amazed and frightened? Not a chance. I left the tent laughing, having gotten exactly what I should have expected and more than what I deserved.

A few tents down, I decided to try another game. It was called “Stick the Dog.” It was a dart game. There were paper silhouettes of dogs on the wall (retrievers I think). The trick was to throw a dart and hit a dog. Simple, but not. The dog target was criminally small, about the size of a business card, and the house darts were like house equipment everywhere, shoddy and poorly suited to their task. Your chances of throwing one of their darts and hitting their small dog target were fairly slim.

And then there was the carney factor. No matter how many throws you purchased ($2 per throw, three for $5) they handed you only one dart at a time. I asked the carney, this time a lady, why this was so as she handed me my first dart. She explained it was to prevent some carnival-going madman from purchasing a handful of darts and running through the crowd, sticking people at random. She said it’d happened once. I didn’t believe her, but it didn’t matter. Before she’d finished her tale I’d stuck the dog and won the prize – a floppy, stuffed dog.

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The solid-sounding thunk of my dart hitting the board stopped the carney lady mid-sentence. She stared at the quivering dart, mouth agape, took a full three seconds to process what had just transpired and then thrust her hand into the air and screamed: “We have a winner right here, folks!” Because a winner, however rare, is good for business. The next guy may not be as lucky as I was, but if he thinks he will be, so much the better.

I’d like to say I’m just that good, but I’m not. I just got lucky. And as tempted as I might be to think I finally pulled one over on the house, bucked the system and come away a winner, I’d do well to remember exactly how much money I spent on a quest for that floppy dog. In the several hours I’d spent at the carnival before bagging the prize, I’d bought food, rode rides, played a half dozen games and, in general, distributed money like it was fertilizer on a spring lawn.

So if the house always wins, how do you get ahead? How do you get a fair shake when the game is rigged against you and the movers and shakers making the rules are the same guys trying to shake your pockets out? As Kirk would say, change the conditions of the test.

I’m not confused as to who actually won at the fair. At least in terms of money. It that’s your yardstick, the house definitely won, and won big. But that’s not necessarily the game I was playing. I fired the crossbow because I never had before. That experience was well worth $2. I played the ring and coil game just to say I had. And the game with the gun just happened to be the first game I passed, and it looked neat. I don’t remember how much I’d spent there, but in giving me a story to tell, it was worth twice what I paid to play it. As were the freak shows. If you haven’t paid $2 to see a chupacabra, you haven’t lived.

The carnies may be laughing all the way to the bank, but I’m laughing all the way home. I set out on Saturday with money in my pocket and a desire to spend it to have some good times, and that’s exactly what I got.

Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com.

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