Reporter's Notebook: Bigger animals, worse odds

COSTA MESA — Like the flashing lights of Las Vegas, those bright booths with giant stuffed animals, basketball jerseys and various other pointless prizes at the Orange County Fair have a way of luring people in to gamble.

That's what it essentially breaks down to in some of those carnival games. How else to explain spending $5, $10, or even $20 to repeatedly trying to toss a ring over a Coke bottle neck, or a ping pong ball into a moving glass bowl four feet away?

It feels like on the most difficult games, it's not about technique or skill as much about luck. Or maybe my ego is just bruised because it took about 30 tries for me to get a ping pong ball into the floating bowl while it took an elementary school-aged girl maybe 10 tries.

No matter how many tickets it costs, if you win though, it can seem to make the whole effort worth it. Especially if you're winning it for a wife, girlfriend or son or daughter. Sure, your wallet's a little lighter. But how cool is that human-sized stuffed monkey!

"Just look at the size of the prize to see how difficult the game is," recommended Steve Charleston, concessions director for Ray Cammack Shows, which runs all the booth games at the fair. "At some games you spend $3 and you win a $45 toy."

Charleston showed me to some of the fair's most popular games, including the ring and ball toss games, the BB machine gun game where have to shoot out the red star and the ball-in-the-basket toss.

My success, or lack thereof, was humbling.

"It's easy, just don't hit the back," carnival worker Tirzo Rochin Franco told me, as he tossed a softball into the back of a tilted plastic bucket, where it stayed.

"Sure," I thought skeptically, my competitive nature coming out after three misses. "You're a foot closer and have a better angle on it."

There is a trick to tossing the ball into that pesky bucket or basket without it bouncing right back out, Franco showed me. Get a little bit low, toss the ball slowly with a high arc so it just catches the front, bottom lip of it and bounces around without coming out. Backspin helps, he said.

On a scale of 1 to 10 in difficulty, I'd have to give it an 8. You can win a medium-sized prize there, but it took me several tries.

Not so with the easiest game in the fair, the balloon popping game with the darts. The prizes there illustrate how easy the game is. I'd give it a 1.

With the BB machine gun, first make sure the sights are on target. My BBs went down and left. Once you got your aim, shoot in short bursts, blasting out the outside of the star. You get between 100 and 105 BBs, Charleston told me. I'd rate that a 7 on the difficulty scale, but this one seems to be more about fun. Kids will love it and the prizes, which include bikes, aren't bad either.

If you want a lesson in futility, try knocking down the two milk bottles with one resting on top of them. It's definitely one of the most difficult games, but always lets you feel like you're so close to winning that you'll fork over more tickets. Good luck winning those giant stuffed animals. It gets a 9 for difficulty.

Finally, there's the ring around the bottle toss. I had 20 rings, and some of them seemed close. I even tried shooting like the Lakers' Derek Fisher, high, rainbow arcs.

No luck.

I didn't see anyone win in the few minutes I was playing there either. Charleston said by the end of the weekend that game will have cleared out its giant prizes because of all the winners. We'll see. This game, he said, is the most difficult. It gets a 10.

So if you head to the fair before it closes in a couple of weeks, maybe give some of the games a try. If you're competitive like me, it's pretty fun to beat the house, or the fair in this case, every now and then. But just like Las Vegas, the bigger the payoff or stuffed animal, the worse the odds.

Place your bets.

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