Dear Chuck,

While I appreciate help from you and other world renowned experts, I cannot help but wonder if you are any better than that magic 8-Ball?

The Guy Behind the Eight Ball
Del Ray Beach, Florida



Dear The Guy Behind the 8 Ball,

Many people believe that the Magic 8-Ball ® contains some kind of actual mystical power, with proponents claiming it is an orbital conduit between the afterlife and your own, how shall we say, now-life. At a time when few of us want to assume much responsibility for anything, including our own wellbeing, some people are happy to proxy important decisions to others or, when others are inaccessible or do not seem to care, to mechanical devices.

Countless number of the indecisive have turned the Magic 8-Ball ® upside down to read its Divinely inspired advice the through the sphere’s nether window.

Unless you have been in a coma since the early 1950s, you have no doubt seen one of these psychic balls.

Some may call it a plaything. Others may call it an oracle-seer. Some may pooh-pooh its brusque predictions, while others will be awestruck by its sagacity and eerie otherworldly powers.

Round, black and shiny, the plastic toy is designed to look just like a number 8 pool ball, though its capacity to roll true will be interrupted by the flattened window on its bottom. It is about 3 times the size of a standard billiard ball, and perhaps best compared to the size grapefruit you would mean if you talked about someone with “a tumor the size of a small grapefruit.”

Where the bottom of the sphere is lopped off, in its place, an inch or so flattened window doubles as a convenient stand when the ball is not on duty and keeps the otherwise round object from repeatedly rolling off the desktop. The transparent pane also provides a tiny peek up its all-knowing innards.

Inside is a mysterious, inky ooze, an opaque, viscous, primordial oracle-fluid that swirls and eddies inside the globe and obscures the view of anything that is not leaning directly up against the little window. A 20-sided plastic die, with a different response etched into each face, floats weightlessly in this murk, until the ball is flipped upward, when one of the answers rises up through the darkness, in seeming defiance of gravity, to reveal the ball’s prophesies through the 8-Ball’s under-peephole. The text message is set in a no-nonsense, sans serif, small cap font, identical to that found on Valentine heart candies, which incidentally, many the lovelorn have turned to for encouraging words in times of romantic crises.

Ask the Magic 8-Ball®  a question, and it will always return a terse, plain-spoken reply, sometimes positive  (“Yes,” “Definitely,”  “It is Decidedly So” ), sometimes negative (“My Reply is No,” “Don’t Count on It,” Very Doubtful”) , but often with a hedgy ambiguity (“Ask Again Later,” “Better Not Tell You Now.”). A few answers are so unearthly prophetic that they send a chill up the spine, as in the case when I one day asked, “Is Microsoft’s email and contact address software worth buying?” and it answered with its very popular and eerily accurate answer, “Outlook Not So Good.”

Hope in the unseen notwithstanding, the black seer-sphere is sadly nothing more than a toy plastic ball that empirical study has time and again concluded to be statistically no more reliable than expensive experts or your friends. However, that being said, it might also be not a whole lot less reliable than these more traditional advice givers either, while beneficially costing much less, and unlike friends, will not blab to others about your hardships.

Certainly, the Magic 8-Ball ® is not without its tradeoffs. Some may see it as dispassionate, detached, and uncaring, treating all decisions with equal gravity, whether choosing the right color undergarments you buy at Penney’s or whether you should sell your parent’s home out from under them and put them, against their wishes, in some kind of nursing home.

Further, the responses given to life-in-the-balance questions do not offer much explanation, and you are left with the impression that the ball is simply saying, “Just trust me on this. ”

Yet, while the world is not always a yes-or-no place and brevity may exclude certain important caveats, on the whole, the Magic 8-Ball ® offers some benefits that you do not get by asking someone else for advice. 

The 8 ball has no agenda and no desire to one-up you. It does not gloat and will not lecture. Of its 20 of so all-inclusive responses, not one is an “I Told You So.” It will not offer you advice it might  follow itself, but wants to see how you make out before trying it itself. Unlike professionals, it will not one day raise its fees without warning, go on vacation for the entire month of August, or lose its license as a consequence of sleeping with one its patients.

But perhaps its greatest advantage is that you can continue to ask the Magic 8-Ball ® the same question until you eventually get the answer you want to hear. The Magic 8-Ball ® has no short term memory and neither knows nor cares that your inquiry is the same one you asked 10 seconds earlier. It is resistant to the dizzying effects of you flipping it over and over and the only damage you will do in the process is to the carpal nerve in your wrist. 

While the most popular of all soothsayer playthings, the Magic 8-Ball ®  is not the only one we are likely to turn to in time of crises. The Ouija ® Board, a toy that puts channeling the dead within reach of both adults and children, portends the future with not just a snappish yes or no, but with detailed warnings and dark forecasts of unstoppable events. 

And of course, we have all at one time or another turned to the “Enchanted Wastebasket,” usually our own wastebasket, to which we have imbued the powers to extend or extinguish life based on whether we can accurately toss a wadded piece of paper into its opening from 10 feet away. More than one of us has wagered, “If I do not make this shot, the plane I am traveling on tomorrow will crash somewhere in rural Delaware.”

So far, there is no evidence to support claims of any predictive powers whatsoever in a Slinky ® or Lincoln Logs ®.

The waffling, the unsettled, those on-the-fence and seeking counsel can either talk with friends, teachers, therapists or clergy to get some rambling answer, or can turn to the Magic 8-Ball ® for its unruffled brevity. Where I had to take well over 1200 words to provide the answer to the question whether you should use the plastic know-it-all globe over me, the Magic 8-Ball ®  would have simply responded, “Yes.”©

I should point out that the Magic 8 Ball ® is a registered trademark of the Tyco Corporation ®, and any written mention of either without the registration mark, whose circle with an R inside bears uncanny resemblance to the 8 Ball itself, is discouraged, and the responses the ball offers, some as common as “Yes-Definitely”© and “Ask Again Later”© are likewise copyrighted, so if you ever answer a friend’s question with one of these or 18 other protected replies, you are in violation of the 1976 Copyright Act and technically owe Tyco some money.

I hope this helps.