Enter the Arizona State Fair midway, a sprawling maze where brightly colored striped tents share space with rides that twist, dip, and spin.
Few families with small children or couples on a night out can make their way out of this place without being tempted by the overstuffed plush Care Bears and Scooby Doos, framed photos of Hillary Duff or extra large basketballs hanging closely within reach.
All fairgoers have to do to claim a prize is throw a quarter onto a plate or put a basketball through a hoop.
And anyone can do that, right? But appearances aren’t always what they seem with midway games.
“Some are difficult to win, especially for children,” said Edith Gazo of Cave Creek. “And some are impossible.”
Just like at a casino, the odds are stacked against patrons at the state fair who plop down as much as $5 for one chance to win.
The hoops for basketball games may be shaped into ovals to give the appearance that the rims are larger than they really are.
Milk bottles may be weighted.
And dart tips may be dull.
“On average, someone will win about 20 to 25 percent of the time,” said Tony Fiori, marketing director for Ray Cammack Shows, which provides the games and rides at the fair. “The bigger a prize is, the more difficult the prize is to win.”
Persistence was the game plan for some fair visitors Friday night. Mesa resident Charlene Goudeau said she had already spent about $350 in taking her grandchildren to the fair Friday.
“Oh, it’s expensive, but we are here to have fun, and the kids love to play the games,” she said, holding several plush toys in her arms. “A few of the games might be hard for the children to win, but the carnival workers have been very nice, and some will just give prizes out to the kids just for playing.”
Barbara Hillman of Tempe agreed. She said several of the games were difficult but others were easier, providing a fair mix.
“We spent $15 on this one game and didn’t win anything, not a thing,” she said. “The basketball hoop games are the hardest. Even the grown men couldn’t make those baskets.”
Hillman recommended playing either the water shooting games or the game where contestants throw a football through a tire.
“Everyone won those,” she said. “And the prizes you won were a nice size.”
Albert and Nickie Chavarin of Phoenix brought their family but didn’t come away as huge winners.
“They gave us softballs to knock over milk bottles that looked like they were filled with concrete,” Nickie Chavarin said. “Sometimes the barkers will get us to play by telling the kids that they will win something every time. But they end up not winning anything. They really know how to target the kids.”
To keep the contests fair, the Secretary of State’s Office maintains guidelines for the state fair in the Arizona Administrative Code. The official guidelines specify that a “State Fair Games Inspector” must exist to monitor the games.
But such a person might not exist.
Kristi Walsh, marketing director for the state fair, said Ray Cammack Shows was responsible for the fairness of the games. Ray Cammack Shows representatives said no one oversees its handling of the games.
“There’s no such thing as a ‘games inspector’ as you call it,” Fiori said. “Our company does have a games manager, whose duty it is to make sure the games are properly maintained and to handle any complaints.”
Deputy secretary of state Kevin Tyne also did not know if a games inspector existed and referred questions to the Arizona Exposition and State Fair Board.
But a call to the executive members of the board was not returned.
Still, most fairgoers on Friday said the handling of the games met their expectations — even if the games were expensive.
Eric Miller of Scottsdale had spent $150 at the fair for his crew of seven family members and friends.
“It’s a fair,” Miller said. “You only do it once per year.”