Mind Over Midway

The carnival midway is the last great American bastion of, oh, we'll call it, "chivalry." Sure, women are allowed to drop $2 a ball at any booth they choose, but it's men -- from middle school to middle age -- who are goaded to "win something for the little lady."

Thus, it's men that former gumball-machine entrepreneur Brian Richardson addresses in his new self-published book, The Secrets of Amusement Park Games ... Revealed! Richardson plans to help you "be 'the man' " with a "system that stops a slither [sic] short of guaranteeing your success at amusement park/state fair games around the country!" Feminine testimonials on the book include such gems as: "I have always wanted a big pink panther, and now I'm confident that my husband can win it for me!" My hero, sigh.

But in fact Richardson's secrets require men to be a little unmanly on the midway. How do you start? Warm up, stretch, do a few knee bends. How do you win at basketball free-throw games? Shoot granny-style. The softball toss? Throw slow, soft and backhanded. The BB Gun Star Shoot-Out? No Rambo action allowed; release controlled, conservative bursts around the star, so it will fall out on its own. And there are some games, such as the enticing "test of strength," that you just have to walk on by, no matter what that old sunburned carny calls you.

There's no question that these techniques -- and maybe Richardson's degree in mechanical engineering -- have helped the recent Houston transplant score lots of stuffed animals. His wife's reactions to wins are now along the lines of: "This is nice, honey, but we're running out of room." And on a recent Saturday at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the Star Shoot-Out carnies recognized Richardson from the night before when he had taken them for a mountain bike.

Sadly, this particular day's midway mojo left much to be desired. Richardson and I bricked our basketballs and mis-sloshed our water guns. We were a little slow on the roll-and-race, and we ran out of BBs before the star could fall in the shoot-out. One pathetic softball toss prompted a smart-ass carny to say, "One key thing I've learned is if you don't hit the basket, it's not likely to stay in."

Granted, this poor display by the gaming expert may be due to the fact that I, being a typical, absent-minded woman, accidentally locked Richardson's keys in his car, and we spent the hour before the carnival watching five policemen try to jimmy his door. Still, it makes you wonder just how close a "slither" is to a guarantee.

We'd spent $60 chasing the stuffed dragon and were walking away empty-handed. Richardson, the old hand, seemed to have some perspective on the sad state of affairs, but I was depressed. Of course, I didn't need a silly stuffed animal, but after an hour and a half of alternately trying to win one and hoping Richardson would win one for me, I really wanted one.

On the way back to the gate, I spotted one last dart game that looked promising -- $5 for three shots at an array of smallish stars. Call it a woman's intuition, call it beginner's luck, call it a will to win, but my third dart landed just on the inside edge of a star. And I'm now the proud owner of a Tweety Bird. I am "the man."

-- Lauren Kern

The Secrets of Amusement Park Games ... Revealed!, by Brian Richardson, is currently available for $3.95 at www.amazon.com and should be in nonvirtual bookstores by mid March. The rodeo carnival is open through March 7.


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