I just heard the worst thing, but before I tell it to you, I want you to know that it's not like I haven't seen BAD stuff in my life.

I'm not naive about how NASTY people can be. I've interviewed Ku Klux Klan members, spent time in Beirut, saw an old man get mugged one afternoon on Seventh Avenue.

I've even witnessed the ultimate example of man's inhumanity to man--the people who work at the Post Office.

But NEVER EVER have I heard something like this:

The game of "Fish Pond" is rigged.

Do you know what I'm talking about? The game at the State Fair where little kids get a bamboo fishing pole and a line with a magnet on the bottom of it, and they try to pick a toy fish out of the water as it floats by them? There's a variation of this carnival game, called "Duck Pond," where all you do is pick up a toy duck. It's made for children too small to hold a fishing pole. Now for the worse news:

"DUCK POND" IS RIGGED, TOO!

Can you imagine? Let me collect myself here for a minute.

A friend of mine used to work at a carnival. Here's the lowdown, as he told it to me:

"Fish Pond" is one of the carny games that has been around for years. Insiders call it a "hanky-pank" game. It's popular with carnies for two reasons:

1) It's cheap to operate. The main investment is the actual circulating-water-pond that keeps the fish floating in a fast stream past the players.

2) It attracts players in droves, because it attracts children. Kids like to fish, and kids are attracted by the motion of the toys moving on the water. Of course, it's Dad's money, but what Dad can resist his kid pointing at "Fish Pond"?

There are two ways to run the game, "straight" and "flatted." When you see dozens of kids crowding around the game, it's probably "straight," or honest. This means there are 100 fish in the pond, and each one has a number on the bottom identifying the prize you win. There are seven numbers for "big" prizes (stuffed teddy bears, etc.) and 93 numbers for "slum" prizes. "Slum" means stuff so cheap it costs the operator less than a penny for every 50-cent play.

Now here's the evil part. At any time, the operator can "flat" the game--meaning there's no way you can win a giant stuffed animal even if you spend $9,000. It gets worse. There is not one, not two, but THREE ways to do this (in case you get CAUGHT doing the first two):

"Fish Pond" Cheating Method #1: The seven "payoff" fish don't have magnets inside them.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking "What happens if somebody gets suspicious and demands that the operator prove that a winning number CAN be picked up?"

Easy. The operator picks up a fishing pole, sticks it in the water, and picks up a winning number. How does he do this? It has something to do with reversing magnetic fields, so that HIS fishing pole will ONLY pick up winning fish, but nobody ELSE's fishing pole will.

I know what you're thinking now, though. What about "Duck Pond," where there's no magnet to monkey around with? The kid just picks up the duck with his hand. This brings us to:

"Duck Pond" Cheating Method #2: On the bottom of each duck, the operator slides open a panel revealing the duck's number. The winning numbers are 1 through 9. So when he DEMONSTRATES a winning duck, he pulls the panel open almost all the way, but NOT QUITE, covering the edge of it with his thumb. So the number is actually "46," with a big space between the "4" and the "6." But when he shows it to you, it looks like "4." Then, if you actually pick that duck out of the water, he opens the slide all the way, and it becomes "46." You get a "slum" prize.

But that's not all. The most ingenious method can be used on either game.

"Fish Pond"/"Duck Pond" Cheating Method #3: The carny displays a chart of "winning numbers." It's always the same seven winning numbers. They are 9, 16, 18, 61, 66, 89 and 98. Anytime the carny wants to show you a winning number, he can pick out a duck or a fish with one of these seven numbers on it. But if YOU pick out the same duck or that same fish, you won't get a 9, 16, 18, 61, 66, 89 or 98. What you will get is a 6, 91, 81, 19, 99, 68 or 86. Why?

Because the winning numbers, when held upside down, become LOSING numbers.

Is this disgusting or WHAT?