How to Game Plinko

The brief, definitive guide to winning the best competition the world has ever known
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Plinko, like many of humanity's boldest innovations, has not been without its controversies. This summer, in honor of the all-Plinko gamed that aired today on "The Price Is Right," NPR's Linda Holmes described the show's beloved, be-boarded game like so:

The chips slide down and bounce around, and Drew Carey engages in anti-intellectualism and magical thinking by cheering for the chip to move in a certain direction, which it cannot do because it is not sentient nor is it obedient nor does it speak English.

In the end, you drop some pieces of plastic on some numbers and that's how you win money. 

Another way to read this assessment, however, is that Plinko is basically a metaphor for life. It is preparation and luck, joy and pain, love and loss, wrapped into a board that is comically large, oddly pasteled, and covered, for practical purposes, in plexiglass. We walk up to it, step by step, praying it will give us the rewards we seek. Plinko, in other words, is Pandora's Box. It is Joe's VolcanoIt is the Oracle of Delphi CBS Television City. It knows all the we are, all that we hope, all that we desire. It gives. And it takes away.

But say, if you ever find yourself so lucky as to be playing a game of Plinko, that you don't want to leave Plinko's power to Plinko alone. Say you don't want to let Plinko's chips fall, as it were, where they may. Say you want to game Plinko's plinkily intricate system.

There are basically three ways to do this. The first is to use math. Plinko, like blackjack, like poker, like tic-tac-toe, is a favorite of nerdy cheaters and cheating nerds everywhere. Because the slot you drop your chips into matters, probabilistically. And so you can play the odds, basically, like this, via the Journal of the American Statistical Association

Yes. Which is also to say, as you probably already figured, that Plinko "illustrates the binomial distribution, expectations of linear combinations of random variables, and conditional expectations." And this can, if you care about conditional expectations, work to your advantage.

So that's Plinko-gaming-strategy No. 1: Basically, if you're in it to win $10,000, stick to the middle slots. Simple enough. 

And here's the second strategy. You can also rig a Plinko board to remove the "random variables" in the equation. [NB: Use this method only for fun. The Atlantic does not condone the actual rigging of TV game shows, particularly when those shows are beloved and culturally defining and happy to reward their contestants with Winnebagos.]  This method, should you undertake it, will require fishing line or some other transparent, thin, and bendable material. 

First, you remove the plexiglass from the Plinko board. (This will require more than one Plinko-gamer -- the Plinko board, again, being comically large.)

Then you weave the fishing line among the Plinko pegs, wrapping the transparent wire around the pegs and creating a path that will lead a chip down to the slot you prefer. [NB: If you use this method and do not rig the peg to fall into the $10,000 slot, you probably shouldn't be in the business of Plinko-rigging in the first place. Perhaps a rigging of Cliff Hangers is more suited to your talents.]

Got that done? Good. Then repeat the weaving pattern one peg over, all the way down, to line the path of the chip. 

Trim the ends of both wires.

Replace the plexiglass.

Await your riches. 

This method can go wrong—or, depending on your perspective, it can go wonderfully right. The Plinko board is often carted around for commercials and promotions outside the CBS studio, during which the fishing-line rigging method is often employed to ensure that chips will land in the $10,000 slot. In 2008, after taping one of these ads, producers forgot to remove the wires from the board. The redditor pacifictime told the story of his friend "N," allegedly the first "Price Is Right" contestant to be called to the board after it was rigged. 

Pacifictime describes what happened next:

N ascends the staircase, and drops her first token on the board. It bounces down, around, and holy shit hits the 10,000 in the center! We already can't believe it, we're going nuts. The crowd is on their feet cheering. N drops her second token, and it bounces down a distinctly different random path, but at the last minute makes a beeline for... the 10,000 slot again!! Everybody goes apeshit. Even Drew is showing some genuine excitement. She drops in her third token, it bounces down and hits the 10,000 again, and all hell breaks loose. Everybody's screaming, Drew is literally jumping up and down. She drops her 4th token...

And then the math—the "binomial distribution," the "expectations of linear combinations of random variables," the "conditional expectations"—kicked in. N's three—three!—$10,000 drops were very far removed from the realm of possibility. Producers did not need equations or variable charts to realize this. They interrupted the game. They discovered the wire. They reshot the segment. 

They also let "N," however, keep her money—the $30,000 she'd Plinko'ed, plus the few thousand she won from her subsequent, aired-on-TV chip drops.

Which is, by the way, the third way to game Plinko: Be very, very lucky.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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