The Pinball Wizard

Skill at pinball may not indicate a dissipated youth, after all.

August 1973By Comments

KA-CHINK! DON’T BOTHER THE MAN. Ka-chunk! Ka-chunk! He wouldn’t notice you anyway. He’s a serious pinball player, deep in a solitary world, perfectly protected from outside influences. Lost.

He is one of the thousands who have succumbed in the last 35 years to the lure of the magic flippers. His index fingers are among the strongest on earth. Other than that, pinball is nothing special to him. Like wine to an Italian, or dreams to an opium eater, it’s simply part of his life.

I could tell that he was that kind of player .His machine, next to mine, was alive. Lights blazed, bells clanged, and steel balls were happening all over the board. He was playing his first ball and already he had enough points for a free game. I looked at my score. I could learn something from this guy.

“I’m practicing for the pinball Olympics, could you give me some advice?”

“Well, there aren’t any yet, but when they do come about, I intend to win the Kewpie doll,” said Roger. He stepped back; that settled it-he wasn’t a functional part of the machine.

Roger agreed to help me. We moved directly to “Spanish Eyes,” his favorite machine, and waited while someone finished swearing and kicking at it. Roger took his place and dropped a quarter in the slot.

“Now that guy is just plain stupid. The machine doesn’t care about him one way or the other, and it doesn’t do to chance angering the pinball gods.

“It’s a glass covered little world. That guy came here to beat the machine. The machine can’t be beat, all you can do is cooperate with it. The guy who just left here hopes he never sees this machine again. But it doesn’t make any difference, the machine is still here and will be whenever he comes back.

“Over in Louisiana they just had another of those periodic pinball purges, busting up machines and what not. Makes a great picture, a bureaucrat bringing the sledgehammer blow of virtue down onto a poor machine. But that doesn’t make any difference, either. There’s too many of them now. You can’t inquisition them out of existence and even if you could there’ll always be some wild-eyed fanatic who’s building himself one in his garage from scratch.

“Pinball is bigger than man now. It’s here to stay. I just figure I’ve been permitted by some divine act of kindness to observe this little thing and I damn well better show the proper reverence-just in case, you know.”

We watched the steel ball for a silent moment. “Like take that shiny ball, there,” Roger said. “I envision it as some sort of transcendental eyeball that is always focused on me, watching what I’m doing up here, how I’m playing. And if I do something wrong—thlunk—it disappears…”

I learned a lot that evening, both about pinball and about Roger. By day, his hair tucked up under a wig, Roger is a probation officer for Travis County. Off duty, he is a pinball freak. And he knows how to win.

It takes practice, hard work. He wouldn’t enjoy it if it were too easy, if just anyone could walk in and be a master of the little steel balls. He’s been playing for the last seven years. At first, he played with friends for a coke or a pack of cigarettes. Then he got so good no one would compete with him. He learned the joys of competing against the machine. Soon, that too became a controllable factor. He knew the personality of the machines so well he could almost outguess them.

“A machine has a bad day sometimes. If those pinball gods aren’t with you it doesn’t matter what you do.” Lest the skeptic start to smile like I did, remember that a machine is made out of wood and rubber and no matter how treated, varnished, or painted, on humid Texas days wood and rubber retain water and, …Well, I didn’t believe that one either so Roger, a patient soul, tried this: “See, the flippers and thumper-bumpers work on solenoids which after a time start to fray in their circuits so the flippers get a bit sluggish.” He can go on like that for some time, but if he shows symptoms of pinball on the brain, then how come he plays all night on a quarter and I have to go to the bank first if I want to play all night?

Obviously there’s a difference between us other than his capacity to bull and my capacity to believe him. Years ago Roger passed the final hump-his flipper shots became predictable. He could call ’em and then put ’em right there. He’s good, one of the best. He now competes against himself.

But then why does he play? We were at a club in Austin. It was midnight, sort of quiet, some good rock on the radio and Roger’s well-muscled arms were doing their familiar work. “I like this place because of the carpets on the floor .That way I can lock my feet in a good stance in front of the machine. You can’t get set good when there’s beer on the floor.”

It’s not the money. “I don’t like to hustle. In fact, it’s more fun to keep the maximum free games on a machine and then when I get tired walk away and bequeath them to someone who’s been watching me faithfully.” It’s not the time he spends. “Keeps me off the streets, sure. My girlfriend is the long-suffering type and it doesn’t do much for my chess game, but I haven’t been bored in years.”

He refuses, except in jest, to get metaphysical about it, “Hell, it’s a game, for children. Anyone who had enough patience and skill to fingerpaint when they were a kid can play pinball.” Nor does he get moral. “It’s just something I do.” But why?

“It’s that good ‘clkk’ sound of a free game.” I insisted there must be something more to it.

“Well, it’s like this. I never look at the score. That’s not the point. The score is what happens when you’re done.

“But let’s say I discover a new machine. I figure it takes me ten, twenty dollars to learn it. That sounds like a lot, but it lasts a long time, like a tootsie roll.

“On a new machine, though, just by chance, I do a tricky shot. It snuck up on me but it was so beautiful I can’t forget it. It haunts me at night. Not consciously, it’s not like I think 37° angle six inches to a 23 ° angle. Can you imagine what it’s like to wake in the morning with your ears ringing from the bells you’ve been hearing all night?”

I couldn’t. “Well, once that pattern has happened it won’t leave me. All I know is that the machine can do it and if it’s done it once it can do it again. So I go back to that machine, every day. Then the pattern reappears. Soon it’s coming every once in a while and I begin to see what happens before the pattern starts. Then one day I plan it, I set up the shot, it starts, forms up, I hold my breath and then–ah, it comes. Just like I saw it all those lonely nights.

“It’s like the golfer who lives for the perfect drive, the sound of the club on the ball and he knows it’s good. The pleasure then is in watching it go. Or the chess player who sets up a mate 13 moves ahead and it works, just like he planned it.”

What about the rest of us, though? The weekend players, the social players, or the ego guys who want to beat their friends? Roger does have some pointers.

Roger kept on playing “Spanish Eyes” while he was talking. “There’s nothing artsy-craftsy about pinball. Not like with pool where you can impress your date with a 17-rail shot you learned at the Dairy Queen in Waxahatchie. But there is stuff you gotta know to playa good game.

“The first thing most people do wrong is let the tilt scare them.” I agreed. We’ve all been punished by that fearsome tilt for kicking, throwing about, or generally getting rough with an uncooperative machine. Then comes the mocking silence when all the lights go out and the flippers won’t work and you can just feel your friends’ grins.

Our whiz kid explains that the machines have three kinds of tilt devices. Owners have to keep them in good repair because players complain if they’re too sensitive and games last too long if they aren’t sensitive enough. The tilt mechanisms and the level of the table are, according to the manufacturers’ promo-hype, the only adjustable parts of a machine.

Lifting the lower end of the machine more than the few inches allowed by the adjustable legs rolls a ball down a track in the lower left hand corner in- side the machine, completes a circuit, and turns the machine off.

At three places inside the machine, a simple flexible strip will stop the machine if it receives hard knocks at those points. If you must get tough, use your right hand because that corner of the machine is the most free of tilt devices.

The real culprit, a metal plumb hung from a string and dangling in a circle, prevents jiggling from side to side.

These devices really worry only gross beginners and inebriates. A more advanced player knows that both the ball and the playing surface are very slick. A slight nudge with your right hand, well within the latitude allowed by the tilt devices, has the effect of sliding the ball to the right by moving the surface underneath it to the left. A nudge with your left hand shifts the ball to the left. A push forward with either or both hands curves the ball.

Another trick is to nudge the machine towards a ball approaching a bumper, thus increasing the impact. All this is in the interests of action, and in the interests of show. Even though he’s only nudging the machine, Roger’s whole body contorts to the accompaniment of small guttural noises from his throat. Is that it then? Is Roger the pinball wizard an exhibitionist? He just smiles and imitates, “Keep your eye on the bouncing ball, little boy, keep your eye on the bouncing ball. Some people swear there’s little Albanian gremlins that around under the board with magnets strapped to their helmets, but don’t you believe it, just don’t you believe it.”

On his next shot Roger points out the calibrations along the plunger. Many machines are planned so that the ball has the chance of racking up a good initial score right after it enters the top of the playing field. Using the calibrations controls and takes advantage of the force of the ball.

“That’s right on the edge of what I personally consider cheating, by the way. I know guys, real purists, who won’t even nudge the machine, but I’m not proud. To me cheating is taking advantage of a machine’s weaknesses.”

For example? We adjourned to ‘Klondike.’ Up at the top the ball can go down one of two slots. Both slots have a rollover.

“If you pull back the plunger just a tad, just enough to get the ball on the board, it will drift to the edge of that slot on the right. It’s a narrow slot and the rollover offers resistance. If you nudge the machine forward just as the ball gets to the rollover it will score your points and the ball will back off it. Then as it comes forward again you nudge the machine again and pretty soon you have this nice little rhythm going back and forth a hundred points a click.

“I got 150,000 on one ball doing that once but then I got tired so I let it drop on through. Made me feel bad, though. That’s what I call cheating.”

Why, because it’s too easy?

“No, because it made me feel bad. Discovering that trick was fun, but hell, it’s not the machine’s fault if somebody back at Santa’s workshop didn’t catch that. I felt like I was having a sword fight with a tree or something. It’s hard to lose that way.”

I’m not so proud. After half an hour of trying I started to get the hang of that little rocking motion. As I played out the balls, our friend pointed out something else.

“You don’t know the board. Half these guys coming in here trying to impress their dates would do much better if they scouted the board in advance.”

I thought that perhaps such thoroughness would take some of the mystery and glamour out of the game.

“Hell, no,” Roger laughed. “Remember once upon a time when you didn’t know anything about sex except that you wanted to find out about it? Well, when you found out, did that take the mystery and glamour out of it?”

Perhaps not, but it had made sex a lot more complicated.

Such thoughts about my loss of innocence led me to reflect that instead of knowing a machine like the back of his hand, perhaps for Roger it was more a case of knowing the game like a junkie knows his veins and the contours of his first rush. I have this suspicion, perhaps a lingering prejudice from the fustian days of pinball machines in arcades with fat greasy proprietors, that the game is like a narcotic. Something associated with evil weeds and tobacco. Roger laughed and waved his hand. “Look at this place.”

He’s right. We were in a sedate, expensively furnished club, with red pile carpets, panelling on the walls, and a beer garden with folk singers out back.

The image is changing. Much to the profit of the manufacturers, pinball is undergoing a renaissance, especially in the new cities and big college towns of the Middle West and South. “It’s not an addiction. It’s just a closed little world of its own, with its own laws and rules, with orgasmic patterns and people playing games. That’s an old, old pastime, really.”

We wandered back to “Spanish Eyes” as Roger explained another, to me dubious, tactic. “Talk to that little round mother. Keep your eyes on it, make friends. Order it, cajole, plead.” In this age of science we know of course that the ball can’t actually hear us, but it is true that our minds control our bodies. They can, and will, respond better at a mechanical skill if we take our minds off the process. In the words of our guide, “Ignore your hands. Do a mind thing with the ball and your hands will take care of themselves.”

In my eagerness to understand the pinball mystique, I jumped on this remark. “Ah, ha! It’s a way to lose yourself, forget your worries, get lost in—” “—a false and artificial world, right?” Roger interrupted me, cocking his head and looking at me from under his eyebrows. This guy is sensitive, I realized. It just doesn’t do to intellectualize on a pinball freak.

“Spanish Eyes” has a hoop affair right in the center of the board. As I watched Roger, I learned that he ran that hoop whenever he chose to.

Compared to the way I often frantically flail at the buttons, his control of the flippers astounded me. Like in baseball, timing is everything.

The flippers are controlled by solenoids. Their introduction to the machines in 1947 was the last major change in the game, though some fanatics would make a case for the dervish disc in “Fireball.” The solenoid keeps the flipper extended as long as the button is depressed. On many machines you can thus stop the ball, cradling it at the pivot end of the flipper.

Hold it there and look around. Any “specials” lit? Bonus lights? Big scores? Suddenly release the button. The flipper will fall back and the ball will start to gently roll down it. Learn the proper moment, zap the button, and send that ball where you want it to go.

That’s what Roger was doing and it went around that hoop whenever he wanted it to.

Then Roger did something I’d never seen before. He actually passed the ball from flipper to flipper.

Pretty impressive. “Artsy-craftsy,” he said. Roger had one final tip. Often that sinking feeling comes when the ball is racing directly for that hateful space right between the flippers, that trough of despair where no flipper alive can touch it. Before you shoot a ball sometime, though, push and hold both buttons. That trough is not as big as it looks when the flippers are at rest. A seemingly dead ball can be at least slightly deflected by one of the flippers if it is off center slightly. When this happens, if you’ve panicked and slammed both buttons at once, the deflected ball will still be dead-and pointlessly so. Instead, hit the buttons in succession, first the one controlling the flipper closest to the ball, then the other. A deflected ball can often be saved by the slightly delayed second flipper and you’re back in business.

What about the name “pinball”? The ball part is easy. The ‘pin’ in the word comes from an early version of the machine, without flippers or electricity, similar to the games some of us played as children where a marble was shot onto a plastic playing board and fell into a slot. In the early Thirties this was a popular gambling game of chance.

We’ve come a long way since then. The progeny of that nail have been bent and twisted into what we all know and love as rollovers, kickbacks, and thumper-bumpers.

A nail, or pin, obstructed the slots. Thus the name “pin-and-ball.”

“Pin-and-ball,” a game of chance that struck fear into the hearts of thousands of Baptist mothers and wives throughout the South, is now a consummate game of skill and determination that entertains and tortures tens of thousands of sons and daughters everywhere. Many, of course, after a hard night at the machines, can be heard muttering and grumbling phrases but today’s addicts or freaks or whatever will soon be back, clutching another bag of hopefully hot quarters, fire in their eyes.

If you’re among them or would care to join, Roger wishes you good luck.

As for the man himself, he’s not obviously a saint, but it is certain that someone is on his side. So, if you hap- pen to run into him under the sign of the Transcendental Eyeball at that Final Pinball Machine in the sky, be prepared to wait in line. He’ll be there a long time.

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