The Pinball Wizard

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

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

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