Morgan has always been drawn to claw machines, but got really hooked in 2008: “Must be the dumb kid in me that spies an enormous box of stuffed toys,” she says. “A claw? It's almost something out of the Brothers Grimm … One time I clawed six animals in a row. There was a crowd around me! It was so silly.” Yamato’s obsession with claw games began in her adult life. “I only realized I was good at it because I kept winning stuff and I was keeping track of it on Instagram,” she says. “I’m a professional person most of the time, and it’s one of the only things that I will let myself be completely competitive about. … You get to bask in the glory of holding your bounty high above your head and saying, ‘Yes, I snatched this prize out of this machine! I beat it!’”
It might seem like fun and games—and, of course, it is. But there’s real skill involved, too. Here are the strategies Morgan and Yamato use to nab a prize.
1. CHECK OUT THE PRIZE PIT.
The first thing you should look at when thinking about playing a claw machine is the prize pit—specifically, how tightly the prizes are packed. “An easy tell is when all of the stuffed animals have been front faced and they’re packed in like sardines,” Yamato says. “That means nobody has jiggled anything loose yet, or maybe an employee has just stuffed them in super tight.” A tightly-packed prize pit will make your job a lot harder: “I’m not going to bother playing a machine that is clearly stuffed too tight,” Yamato says. “I won’t be able to reel anything in.”
Morgan agrees. “If the toys are stuffed so tightly that grabbing is impossible, don't waste your time,” she says. “I think it's better to find those weird lone claw machines in places that seem more abandoned—they don't get stuffed as much. Those are the only places you can win because there's more room to drag an animal.”
2. WATCH THE PERSON IN FRONT OF YOU.
“Don’t necessarily watch how they play, but watch how the machine reacts when they play—that information can help you whenever it comes to be your turn,” Yamato says. “I can see if the claw grip is too loose, or if it’s designed to let go or give a jiggle after it grasps something, then I won’t play because I know the odds are definitely against me … unless it’s a really, really sweet toy that I want. Then I’ll spend a little extra time.”
3. PICK YOUR TARGET CAREFULLY.
Yamato and Morgan go after the prize that looks the most attainable. “Sometimes, the most desirable prizes are the hardest ones to get,” Yamato says. “Being realistic about what you can win in any given machine will help you win a lot more.”
“If the pretty pony in the far end, stuffed tightly next to the cute teddy bear, is an impossible option, you're going to have to settle with the ugly duck/monster thing with red shoes and a cape or whatever the hell it is and live with it,” Morgan says. The ideal prize is “sticking out a little bit, isn’t being blocked or obstructed by any other prizes, and isn’t too close to the side,” Yamato says. (If a prize is leaning against the glass, the claw track won’t allow the claw to get close enough to nab it.) Morgan also advises sticking to prizes that are close to the chute: “Don't drag something from the very end of the machine,” she says. “That rarely works.”
Yamato also avoids round or rotund objects. “Those are hard because a lot of the time there’s nothing to grab onto,” she says. Instead, aim for a prize that has some kind of appendage—a head, or an arm or a leg—sticking out: “Something you can get one of the claw prongs under is your best bet, if the angle’s right.”
4. PLAY ONCE TO GET A FEEL FOR THE CLAW.
After Yamato has picked her prize, she’ll play once, “to test the tensile grip of the claw to see how easily it will hold after it closes,” she says. “A lot of them will jiggle open right after they close, so even if you’ve caught something, it’ll screw you over by opening up the claws a little bit.” If that happens, Yamato says she won’t play again ... “probably.”
In general, it’s easier to play machines that have a three-pronged claw rather than a two-pronged claw: “It’s all about the grip—if the claw has a weak grip, forget it,” Morgan says. “The two-pronged claws seem weaker to me.”
5. … AND MAYBE MANEUVER YOUR PRIZE INTO A BETTER POSITION.
“One strategy is bumping another animal out of the way to grab another,” Morgan says. She also advises grabbing and dragging a prize closer to the chute to make it easier to grab on your second try.
6. USE MOST OF YOUR TIME GETTING THE CLAW INTO POSITION.
Most claw machines drop and grab with one push of a button; some need two pushes—one to drop the claw, another to close it—but that’s rare. Either way, “Most machines give you enough time to position your claw, and most of them will let you move it forward and backward and then sideways,” Yamato says. “I usually try to spend most of the time of the clock running down to make sure that I’m exactly above where I want the claw to drop.” Once you’re in the absolute best position, drop it.
7. KNOW WHEN TO STOP.
Most machines cost 50 cents to play, so Yamato will put in a dollar. “Maybe half the time I get a prize on my first dollar,” she says. “I’ll usually play a couple of dollars at most before I realize that I should walk away. It’s like gambling—for no monetary gain!”
Morgan says grabbing a prize usually takes her a few tries “on good machines,” she says. “On bad machines—and they seem worse now—it takes me about five or ten times or never. I will not go past ten. That makes me feel like a junkie.”
8. DON’T ASSUME EVERY CLAW MACHINE IS RIGGED.
A few weeks ago, Vox posted an article that explained how claw machine owners can rig them—but Yamato doesn’t think that’s true for every game. “People might play less because they think every claw machine is rigged to screw them over, but not all claw machines are rigged,” she says. “I always believe that every claw is winnable—it’s just a matter of how much I want to stand there and keep playing if I already know that this particular machine is sort of stuck.” But people should avoid the machines that have money wrapped around the prizes: “In my experience,” Yamato says, “those are usually the ones that are rigged.”
Morgan, on the other hand, does believe that many of the machines are rigged—which is why she prefers to play machines in places off the beaten path, like in California’s Yucca Valley. “Are they less rigged in the desert? I think so,” she says. “I have incredible luck out there. I always play in the desert.”