I am feeling stupid right now, a condition not totally unfamiliar to me, but unsettling nonetheless.
"See how easy it is?" says the man running the Bank-a-Ball booth.
He flips a wiffleball against a backboard decorated with a Spider-Man decal. The ball lands lightly in the basket below. If I do the same thing, I'll win a stuffed animal.
The pressure is tremendous.
I plunk down three bucks for three balls. I toss each ball softly, with no spin, trying to deaden it against Spiderman's face. Each strikes the backboard and ricochets so far from the basket it's in another area code.
I slink off into the neon-lit night, my face burning.
"It really is easy!" I hear Mr. Bank-a-Ball cackle. "Step up, folks! Who wants to be a win-ah!"
It's a hot Saturday night in August, the high point of the fair season, and we've come to the Howard County Fair in West Friendship to see if we can't beat a few of the more popular midway games or, failing that, to see if we can endure the usual humiliation without exploding.
I do not go into this blindly, having consulted beforehand with a couple of experts.
One is Chris Aahz, a 37-year-old ex-carny worker in Morgan Hills, Calif., who traveled with Butler Amusements Inc., a major carnival operator on the West Coast, and published a two-part series, Carnival Midway Games Revealed, on his Web site, Philaahzophy.com.
The other is Brian Richardson, 38, a Houston man who teaches computer literacy in middle schools. He became fixated on midway games a few years ago and wrote a book, The Secrets of Amusement Park Games . . . Revealed!
That is a whole lot of revelation. Armed with tips from both, I sweep into the fair with confidence levels high and go to work:
Well, that didn't take long: three shots, three misses, confidence shattered.
In his book, Richardson calls Bank-a-Ball one of the most "ingenious" games ever made for fairs because it looks so ridiculously easy. The guy running the booth sinks four or five balls in a row as a come-on and looks like he's half asleep doing it.
Most people try to put spin on the ball.
"The trick is that you don't worry about the spin," said Aahz. "You need to hit the backboard with the ball moving in an upward direction. Toss it underhand."
Even with Aahz's tip, I fail miserably. Then I watch Larry Silvers of Columbia and his wife, Lisa, toss the ball from every angle possible, using every spin possible, and also fail miserably.
They drop $20 in a matter of minutes. And they probably would have blown more except that their toddler daughter, Samantha, has escaped her stroller and is now pushing it down the midway, scattering passers-by left and right.
"I tried to get on my knees to toss the ball, but [the man running the booth] wouldn't let me," Larry Silvers says, hustling after Samantha.
Richardson, in his book, actually suggests building a cheap backyard replica of the game to practice on beforehand.
But that sounds like too much work - not to mention borderline obsessive - to win a little stuffed animal that cost 25 cents to make in Hong Kong.
How hard can it be to pop a balloon with a dart? Especially if you're aiming at an entire wall covered with balloons?
Well, you don't have to be a darts champ to do it, says Aahz. But it's not a piece of cake, either.
"The balloons are under-inflated," said Aahz. "The darts are dull."
Any other uplifting things to think about?
"You don't need accuracy - there are balloons everywhere," Aahz said, adding that throwing the dart hard won't help, either.
"You want to lightly arc the dart in the air and have it come down at a 45-degree angle."
I plunk down $5 for three darts. Using Aahz's technique, I pop two balloons right away. On my third toss, the dart bounces off the balloon the way a bullet bounces off Superman's chest.
But the guy running the booth takes pity on me and gives me three more darts for free.
Finally, I pop a third balloon and win a little stuffed whale, but only because he recognized I'd be on a suicide watch if I came away empty-handed.
Next to me, Chris Majka, 22, and his girlfriend Jenna Hare, 17, both from Brooklyn Park, have no such problems.
When they're finished playing, Jenna is carrying a big pink Care Bears doll. "I thought it was pretty easy," Majka says. "I popped all three the first time."
Thanks, kid. Now get lost, will you?
The object, of course, is to get a tiny plastic ring to land on the neck of one of the hundreds of 2-liter bottles jammed together in a rectangular pattern.
How hard is the game? This hard: For five bucks, they give you a whole bucket of rings to toss. And the odds are still astronomical that you won't win.
"It's basically luck," said Aahz.
Richardson writes in his book that he's heard the odds of winning are 600-1 or greater.
Nevertheless, I watch Sue Ward of Pasadena, and her 12-year-old son, Kenny, buy a bucket of rings and toss all of them without coming close to winning.
When she's through, Sue Ward implies that they could have accomplished the same thing with their money by simply tossing it out the window.
"There's no technique to how we played," she says, shaking her head.
Aahz said one thing you can do to (slightly) increase your odds of winning is toss the ring with a sideways throwing motion, as if skimming a rock across a lake.
Richardson says try getting down low and throwing the ring the way you'd throw a Frisbee.
I say try praying.
At last, I emerge a win-ah!
Taking on Judy Dudek and her friend Linda Sedghi, both of Columbia, in the classic midway game where you shoot a stream of water into the clown's mouth, inflating a balloon atop his head until it pops, I destroy both women and win a big lion or tiger or whatever it is.
Aahz's tip is to observe some games beforehand to see which guns have better water flow than others, because carnival owners aren't known for maintaining their game equipment, and there could be noticeable differences.
But all I do is sit down, point the gun and keep shooting.
After my stupendous victory, I go up to both women in anticipation of doing a little trash-talking. Which is when Sedghi looks at me mournfully and says she was hoping to win a stuffed animal for her little grandson.
I feel bad for her and give her my stuffed lion or tiger or whatever it is for her grandson.
Then I walk off into the neon-lit night, convinced more than ever that playing midway games at the fair is like death by a thousand paper cuts.
Get Your Game On
You can practice midway games at these fairs:
Howard County Fair
2210 Fairground Road
Maryland State Fair
2200 York Road
Aug. 24-Sept. 3
Anne Arundel County Fair
1450 Generals Highway Crownsville
The Great Frederick Fair
797 E. Patrick St.
More tips from Chris Aahz and Brian Richardson on beating midway games at fairs:
Forget using the backboard. Shoot the ball with a high arc so it drops straight through the rim. - Aahz
Don't worry about being cool. Shoot underhand and have the ball trickle in. - Richardson
DIME/QUARTER TOSS INTO DISH
Add something sticky to coin, like saliva or cotton candy residue. - Aahz
BB GUN STAR SHOOTOUT
Trace a shooting pattern around the star. Begin at the top point of the star. - Richardson
Aim for the center bottom, where 80 percent of the weight is. - Aahz
PEACH BASKET SOFTBALL TOSS
Palm the ball and lob it lightly so it catches the outer edge of the lower rim. - Aahz