Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Meet the thin multicolored line protecting visitors from unscrupulous carnival games

Photo: Roberto Machado Noa (Getty Images)

In the lawless wastes of the carnival, only one force exists to protect ordinary people. No, we’re not talking about the food inspectors who (hopefully) check that the cotton candy machines are below the acceptable dead ant threshold or the ride monitors who (hopefully) assess the inner workings of the gravitron to ensure vomit build-up hasn’t corroded its metal foundations—we’re talking about the brave few who patrol carnivals to see that their games can actually be won sometimes.

Jessica Leigh Hester has taken a thorough look into the history of these unsung heroes on Atlas Obscura, describing how carnival games have been viewed and (sort of) regulated since the 19th century. The entire piece is well worth reading, but what sticks out most is a pair of figures used to frame the article: an official and a vigilante carnival game investigator.

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The latter of these two is Richard Margittay, a retired cop who now patrols midways to document games designed to keep even the most skilled players from taking home the oversized, unofficial Tweety Bird plushy their heart desires. Hester hangs out with him at the Michigan State Fair, documenting a figure who seems to have climbed out of the pages of the world’s most bizarre crime novel. Margittay explores the midway, passing professional judgment on a ring toss set-up (“’That’s a bad game right there,’ [he] says.”), a bottle-knocking game (“’I know baseball,’ Margittay mutters as we wander off. ‘That’s no baseball.’”), and a shooting gallery (“’You can do it, I’ll do it,’ he says [to the operator]...’It’s all a bunch of baloney.’”).

Hester describes Margittay as “a crusader” whose “cause is to root out, expose, and rid the world of shifty carnival games.” Though he doesn’t really have the power to directly enact carny justice, he’s a striking figure, described as walking around with a T-shirt “[draped] over a digital camera case worn like a holster,” taking photos with a quickdraw method.

The second character from the story is Joseph Chessere, an investigator who works for a group within New Jersey’s Department Of Consumer Affairs who actually has a uniform and, wonderfully, a badge. Chessere is backed by state power and has studied how carnival games work. In practice, he does stuff like play a claw game for a long time to make sure it isn’t rigged. When Chessere discovers something’s up, he’s in charge of either seeing it gets corrected or shut down. He, like Margittay, stands between the hapless, corndog-filled masses and their potential exploitation by greedy game operators.

Check out the full article for more on these bulwarks of justice. If nothing else, we can all but guarantee it contains more information on the world of carnival games than you’re likely to find anywhere else today.

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About the author

Reid McCarter

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Reid's a writer and editor who has appeared at GQ, Playboy, and Paste. He also co-created and writes for videogame sites Bullet Points Monthly and Digital Love Child.