“Hey, hey, hey. Albert’s on his way. Quarter to win, quarter to play. Walk on in.”
Brian LaRew most likely doesn’t need to call upon passers-by to enter his booth on the carnival midway at the State Fair of West Virginia.
Fat Albert has been a staple since the now retired Robert Dombroski started the game in 1970.
“It’s easy,” LaRew says of the game. “You put a quarter on a color and if the rat lands on your color you win.”
Though his explanation is simplistic, it sums the game up rather well.
Players of all ages line three sides of the 12-by-18-foot tent and place quarters on one or more of 21 different color tiles.
LaRew calls out, “Hey, hey hey,” rings a bell overhead and releases a small albino rat from a cup. The rat scrambles onto a spinning color wheel and drops down a hole on the color of his choice.
And as easy as that, anyone who picked the right color is a winner as LaRue’s son Brandon swaps tokens for wins, prizes for tokens and makes change for the next game.
Raleigh County resident Cindy Parker came prepared with her own change when she visited Monday afternoon.
“The state fair always falls during my birthday week,” Parker says, explaining the trip to Fairlea, including stops at Fat Albert’s and Ben Ellen Donuts in the grandstand area, is a family tradition.
“The doughnuts are my birthday cake and I have to come to Fat Albert’s every year,” she continued, holding a roll of quarters — a present from her sister — in her hand. “She stopped at the bank this morning to get this.”
LaRew said he sees a lot of familiar faces year after year.
In fact, returning as a customer was how the Youngstown, Ohio, resident got his start.
“I played his (Dombroski’s) game all the time,” he says. “He played a little church around the corner from my house and his help quit on him and he asked if I would help tear down. Then he asked if I would help set back up.”
When Dombroski’s driver quit, LaRew helped with that for a year. Then he began traveling.
That was 25 or 26 years ago.
Dombroski retired to his home in Lauderhill, Fla., eight years ago and now LaRew travels with Brandon and his daughter Brianna, who helps behind the scenes before the booth opens, straightening money and prizes.
Colorful stuffed animals of all shapes and sizes hang from every corner of the booth and are available for just one token or up to 10 tokens.
“You name it,” LaRew says of the most popular item. “One day it might be the raccoon and the next day it might be a little dog.”
This year, though, he says llamas are popular.
And some people save their tokens from one day to the next or even next year.
“If they don’t see something they like this year, they can come back next year,” he says, adding there are probably 10,000 to 20,000 tokens floating around. “I’ve got one lady in Vermont who’s got a gallon-sized bag with 300 or 400 tokens in it.
“She’ll come and win three or four tokens, put them in the bag and leave.”
LaRew says stories like that are part of what makes the job enjoyable.
“I like going around and meeting different people and seeing different people every year,” he says. “And you get to watch a lot of young ones growing up. Sometimes it’s three or four generations at a time. The whole counter is full of one family. You remember them sitting on the counter playing and now they’re coming back with their kids.”
He says he believes it’s because it’s an easy, fun game.
“It’s gambling without gambling,” Parker says, laughing.
“It’s fair and honest and you get a nice prize,” LaRew says.
Despite what some might think, there are no tricks to the game. No shortcuts to winning, he says.
“No color is hotter than the other,” LaRew says of the color tiles. “The rat just spins around and goes. Everybody thinks it’s the rings of the bell that tell them where to go. (But) The rat’s colorblind. He don’t know where to go.”
It’s a game of chance.
LaRew usually travels with 15 rats — they’re Albert, by the way — but has 30 right now as some are getting too big and will retire after this week.
“There’s an animal shelter in North Carolina that takes them every year,” he explains. “They put them on their Facebook page and adopt them out.”
He uses albino rats because he says they don’t seem to put people off the way another rat might.
He says the show has the same broad appeal everywhere it goes and though he thinks the word is probably out by now, he says those who haven’t stopped by should give it a go before the fair ends Saturday night.
“Everybody knows the game,” he says. “If they don’t, they can stop by and figure it out. It’s a simple game. Put a quarter on a color and if the rat goes to the color, they win.”