I Thought I Was the Bally Table King(pin)

It's a few months old, but last August Popular Mechanics ran a wonderful article on mid-century pinball prohibition in America. It features all the usual accoutrements of prohibition, including pinball raids (that's NYC Police Commish Willam O'Brien at right, showing off "flippers on the table" for the press), underground pinball "speakeasies," and in a nod to the current debate over poker, the story of the successful effort to overturn New York City's ban on the game by proving pinball is game of skill, not chance.

The coin-operated amusement lobby (which represented the pinball industry) eventually succeeded in earning a City Council hearing to re-examine the long-standing ban. Their strategy: Prove that pinball was a game of skill, not chance, and thus should be legal. To do this, they decided to call in the best player they could find in order to demonstrate his pinball wizardry—a 26-year-old magazine editor named Roger Sharpe. Fearful that this hearing might be their only shot at overturning the ban, the industry brought in two machines, one to serve as a backup in case any problems arose with the primary machine. Suspicious that the pinballers had rigged the primary machine, one particularly antagonistic councilman told them that he wanted them to use the backup. This presented a problem: While Sharpe was intimately familiar with the first-choice game, he had never played the backup. As he played the game, surrounded by a huddle of journalists, cameras, and councilmen, he did little to impress City Council's anti-pinball coalition. So he made a final Hail Mary move that, to this day, he compares to Babe Ruth's famous called shot in center field. He pulled back the plunger to launch a new ball, pointed at the middle lane at the top of the playing field, and boldly stated that, based only on his skill, he would get the ball to land through that middle lane. He let go of the plunger and it did what he said. Almost on the spot, the City Council voted to overturn the ban.

I recently asked Sharpe what he thought would have happened if he had missed the shot. After thinking about it for a few hours, he got back to me: "I'm not sure pinball would be legal today."

Internet Pinball Database here. Also obligatory:

(Via Walter Olson's Twitter feed.)

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  • ||

    Without pinball, how were def dumb and blind kids supposed to make it in the world?

  • Ska||

    Cool post. The Indiana Jones one is still my favorite pinball game of all time.

  • The Gobbler||

    I really miss the mid-20th century pinball machines. The machines today just don't feel right.

  • ||

    I agree. The old mechanical ones were amazing machines. I would love to own one.

  • ||

    They are still available. Prices range $2K-10K depending on age, popularity, and degree of restoration.

  • BakedPenguin||

    If I ever get the room and the money, I want to pick up Nags. My friends father had one when I was 12-13. Great game.

  • EJM||

    Also obligatory:

    "Obligatory" for me would be "The Magnificent Marble Machine".

  • ||

    The video game distributor in town has a Hercules, the largest pinball machine ever made. It uses a cue ball.

    They also have a Baby Pac-Man.

  • ||

    Let me make three links in a post, O Lords of Reason!

    My OCD and I beg you!

  • Abdul||

    How is it gambling if pinball machines can only take your money?

    I mean, I realize in the long run, casinos are the same, but ostensibly, there's a chance to win short term.

  • JD||

    I think it was because you could win free games. Yeah, don't ask me how that meaningfully counts as "gambling" either, but there you are. Like most things, it has a lot more to do with the social phobias of the government than anything else. The more I read about Fiorello LaGuardia, the more I dislike him: his answer to just about everything was to ban something, the little fascist fuck. About the only good thing he had going for him was that he hated Hitler before it was fashionable.

    Interestingly enough, the same kind of skill vs. chance thing came up with darts, too, in England, and was also supposedly resolved with a test of skill.

  • Sam Grove||

    About the only good thing he had going for him was that he hated Hitler before it was fashionable.

    Lot's of people hate competition.

  • ||

    My recollection is that you can win free games in New York by beating score targets, but the "match" feature is disabled in New York. (I.e., the machine shows a random two digit number ending in 0 -- 00, 10, 20, etc. -- at the end of your game, and if it matches the last two digits of your score, you get a free game.)

  • BakedPenguin||

    You used to not only be able to win free games, you used to be able to cash them in. That's a long time ago, though.

  • ||

    I assumed it was because people would bet on games, though I could be wrong.

  • ||

    pinball is not a game of skill.

  • ||

    Stupid out the butt much?

  • Ska||

    It might not be a skill you appreciate or a skill anyone values highly, but it's still a skill. It is possible to learn and develop proficiency, and to repeatedly perform better than anyone else. That is not chance.

    There is a reason the top scores in many different games are held by the same few people. And it's not because they're the luckiest 10 bastards in the world.

  • ||

    Is trolling a skill?

  • ||

  • ||

    Yes, but one rarely seen performed at a high level of skill.

  • Warty||

    Elton John had some good taste in glasses.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Boots, too.

  • ||

    But not in men.

  • ¢||

    I'm not a pinball dork—I'm not even sure I've ever touched a pinball machine with anything but the bottom of a beer—but the thing about "Pinball 2000" in that article has to be some kind of totally wrong in a dork-enraging way.

    There were pinball-emulating video games around before that one (though not shaped like pinball machines, I guess?), and Baby Pac-Man was an actual "Pinball Video-Game Hybrid" in 1982.

    I've been looking for a Baby Pac-Man machine buy, just because it's a horrible '80s thing, and they're seriously overpriced. A lot of people know they exist.

  • ||

    I actually liked that game. Not my favorite, but I liked it better than regular Pac-Man.

  • Slut Bunwalla||

    There is a reason the top scores in many different games are held by the same few people. And it's not because they're the luckiest 10 bastards in the world.

    It's because everyone likes to put their initials in as "ASS".

  • ||

    You mean Dick Assman isn't really the greatest pinball and videogame player who ever lived?

  • Michael||

    Ah, the time honored clarion call...

    The machines robbed the "pockets of school children in the form of nickels and dimes given them as lunch money," New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia wrote in a Supreme Court affidavit.

  • bubba||

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P.....d_gambling

  • highnumber||

    Thanks for introducing me to the IPDB.

    A few of my favorites for various reasons over the years:
    - The Machine, Bride of Pin Bot
    - Fun House
    - Attack from Mars
    - KISS

  • bubba||

    wiki/Pinball#Pinball_and_gambling

  • ed||

    Jungle King was my favorite. The counter had only 5 digits, and "turning it over" was the goal. It had the Add-A-Ball "Wow" feature, enabling a player to earn up to 5 free balls for each regular ball or 25 total per 5-ball play. Best game ever: 164,000. And yes, it took some skill.

  • Robert||

    During the period of widespread pinball bans, such as here in NYC, other amusement games were made by the same mfrs. to skirt the definition of pinball. One type would pitch a rolled ball at a bat that acted like a flipper, and if you connected with the bat, play would continue on a field indistinguishable from that of pinball. But apparently because a plunger did not put the ball in play, that was legal in NYC at least. There were also 3-dimensional versions of such games using a rubber ball that would be batted towards a vertical field of targets, and play would continue by gravity's leading the ball down chutes from the target holes onto a slanted mostly horizontal field; actuators could then project the ball from that field back into the air for more 3-D play.

    Also skirting the ban were amusement games that had small pinball games within them to provide bonus play for scores in the main game. The ball would be automatically pneumatically ejected onto the field, with no flippers, making it truly a game of chance.

    However, the earliest pinball games were Pachinko-like gambling devices made by children and others, simply consisting of a tilted box with holes in the bottom and nails protecting the holes like hazards on a golf course. The player (against the house) would put a marble in play by dropping it from above the field of nails and holes. The house could turn the game into a scam by surreptitiously bending one of the key pins/nails; my father told me he did that with a pinball of his own making.

  • Robert||

    I forgot to mention another way the rubber ball was put in play in the 3-D ones: via a pneumatic gun aimed by the player.

  • Jeff P||

    Haunted House was a three level beast.
    I had high score on three different machines.

  • ||

    In Asbury Park, NJ (a little bit north of "the Situation" and friends) there's a fantastic pinball "museum". For a small fee, you can play all you want.
    http://silverballmuseum.com/

  • ||

    pinball "museum". fuckin brilliant. too bad its in NJ.

  • ||

    Back in the 50s and early 60s, my dad used to make quite a living beating the old Beach pinball machines. The establishments would pay a nickle for every game won. He would make a very good living playing them for hours on end. After a few thousand dollars won, the men behind the gambling came to him and told him if he continued to beat their machines, something bad might happen to him. They even told him the locations of other similar machines that belonged to other outfits. I think of him every time I hear that song.

  • ||

    The "King of Kong" guys are shaking in their boots. Speaking of which, there's a possible Donkey Kong kill screen coming up in the next room guys, if you want to check it out.

    Also, +1 for the "flippers on the table" bit.

  • dmoynihan||

    Back in the 50s and early 60s, my dad used to make quite a living beating the old Beach pinball machines. The establishments would pay a nickle for every game won. He would make a very good living playing them for hours on end. After a few thousand dollars won, the men behind the gambling came to him and told him if he continued to beat their machines, something bad might happen to him. They even told him the locations of other similar machines that belonged to other outfits. I think of him every time I hear that song.

    Yeah, like the article, but I've met a number of players in the DC-Baltimore area who mention that there was serious mob stuff going on behind the scenes. Hardly a surprise that Williams got into slots.

    /I rulz Monster Bash.
    //Some of the Sterne cabinets are OK, but the only place you can play 'em is Elkridge, MD, or Ocean City--or some place in Fairfax I've never been to.
    ///No Fear!

  • Beth (Pin Chick)||

    Well thank God for Mr. Sharpe! I can't imagine life without pinball. I've been slowly collecting old articles that talk about the "pinball raids" and the "gambling devices". You can check 'em out by clicking on my name above.

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