Shockingly true tales from the world of pinball fanaticism 

Flipping Out

Most people don't know this, but pinball used to be illegal." That's Chris DiMattia. You may know him better by his nickname, Boston, and the bar he runs on Upper King, The Recovery Room. But what you may not know is that DiMattia is a pinball fanatic. He bought his first pinball machine as a teenager, back when it was possible to pick one up for only a few hundred bucks. (These days, you're looking at thousands.) Over time, he's acquired more machines and a solid grasp of pinball's history. The Rec Room itself sports three vintage machines at a time. Right now, it's Iron Man, South Park, and Family Guy. But that's today. Let's talk about pinball's past.

click to enlarge Chris Dimattia has been a pinball fanatic since he was a teen - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Chris Dimattia has been a pinball fanatic since he was a teen

From the early 1940s until the mid-1970s, the game was banned almost everywhere in this country; South Carolina law still forbids anyone under 18 from playing it. During the early part of pinball's history, it was viewed as a game of chance, rather than skill, mainly because early machines followed a design set out by the first pinball game Ballyhoo, built by Raymond Maloney in 1931. On that machine, players had no way to control the movement of the ball once it was launched into the playfield other than to nudge or tilt the machine and hope for the best. This element of randomness was deemed to make pinball a form of gambling, and it didn't help that some pinball machines even paid out, just like Vegas slots. In one widely publicized effort to eliminate them entirely, things got vicious.

In 1941, New York's Mayor Fiorello La Guardia set the city's cops on a pinball search-and-destroy mission. Like many lawmakers at the time, La Guardia suspected the machines were not just tools of the Mafia, but the machines themselves, by their nature, stole from the "pockets of schoolchildren in the form of nickels and dimes given them as lunch money." New York cops went after this menace with a vengeance, confiscated thousands of pinball machines, took sledgehammers to them, and dumped the remains in the East River. And so the pinball biz went underground, hidden from view, mostly in porn shops.

What could possibly save pinball from this early demise? Well, for a start, some way for players to control the game.

Charleston's The News and Courier ran an editorial in October 1948 that spelled out the issue and hinted a solution might be at hand. "Something new has been added to the pinball machine," they wrote, "and South Carolina courts will probably be asked to decide whether the addition removes the machines from the category of gambling devices."

The additions to the machines were known as "flippers." Pinball machine sponsors said that the addition of flippers means that the machines are no longer games of chance, but games of skill.

Today, flippers are on every machine now, but they didn't become standard until after David Gottlieb added them to his game Humpty Dumpty in 1947. Even that wasn't enough to completely overcome pinball's sketchy reputation and get the ban lifted. In New York at least, the ban was in place for another 30 years.

After World War II there were still 14 companies making pinball machines, most of them based in Chicago: Bally (Maloney's company, named after Ballyhoo), Gottlieb, and Williams among them. Because of the ban, most manufacturers had to survive on sales to the European market where this American invention was hugely popular. Tens of thousands of machines were manufactured during the pinball prohibition years.

Having sketched out these basics for me, DiMattia hands over two thick coffee table books and a couple DVD documentaries. He is smiling when he says, "Here's your homework."

A pinball noob, I smile back, say thank you just like my mother taught me, and head out, confused. Homework? This quest sucks! Did Jason and the Argonauts get homework when they went after the Golden Fleece? Did Frodo sit up nights boning up on the topography of Mordor? Nuh-uh!

My first instinct was to put the books and DVDs aside for a moment and instead find someone else willing to continue my education without assigning me homework.

Broadly speaking, there are three kinds of pinball enthusiasts: player/competitors, collectors, and the folks who "run routes" — the ones who place machines in bars and other commercial locations, just like they do pool tables and arcade games. There's a lot of cross-pollination among those three categories.

Many of the people running routes were once pinball machine collectors who simply ran out of space to keep them at home. One of those is Matt Gardner of Boardwalk Arcade Company in Charleston.

"Once you have one," Gardner laughs, "you can't stop at one." That's how he wound up with the starting inventory for his business. At one point, he's had over 100 machines. He speaks fondly of his favorite games — Addams Family, Twilight Zone — and how they've endured over time, becoming classics, collector's items even. Gardner notes that these two games in particular were ground-breaking machines in their time, and once you know the full set of their capabilities and modes of play, they are very deep games. He adds, "Prices for those are always high. They're hugely popular."

click to enlarge Matt Gardner of Boardwalk Arcade Company says buying pinball machines can be addictive - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Matt Gardner of Boardwalk Arcade Company says buying pinball machines can be addictive

But for commercial operators, even very popular games don't simply get installed somewhere forever.

On a route, Gardner explains, machines get rotated in and out. Maintenance is an ongoing priority. Luckily, one of the largest vendors of spare pinball parts is just up the road in Lexington, Marco Specialities.

The rotation is also important, as I learn later on, because a machine's earning power usually peaks around three months after it's been placed in a location.

So let's say I find a machine I really like at someone's bar, something I want to play at home, how would I buy a pinball machine? Estate sales? Craigslist?

Like most people in his business, Gardner sells machines too, but he says many purchases take place at auction these days. "There will be hundreds of machines. You don't know beforehand what might be there. You just have to show up and see what they've brought in the night before the auction," he says.

Out loud, I toy with the idea of attending an auction.

Gardner has only one word for me. "Don't."

Why not?

"Because you'll go home with one."

And that, I'm learning, is how you become one of those collectors on Johns Island or Mt. Pleasant or anyplace you care to name — guys, and it is mostly guys, with a dozen or more machines and an architect's phone number on speed dial because they just came back from an auction and they're suddenly looking to add on to the house. It happens all the time.

Just ask David Ford. He started out just buying a few machines. Sooner than he could have imagined, he had 48 machines at home. This created an opportunity for some marital negotiations. Because he and his wife live in an elevated house, they used to park their cars in the space underneath it, but once the household's machine population got too high, Ford hoped to put the machines down there.

David Ford's pinball obsession turned into a business over time - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • David Ford's pinball obsession turned into a business over time

"She told me I could close that space in as soon as I built a space for the cars." He built a three-car garage. Problem solved. But not for long.

As still more machines made their way home, Ford found himself "morphing into" commercial operations. Today, he's the owner of Charleston Gamerooms.

For years, Ford maintained a sales location in West Ashley with 40 or more machines on display. Over time, he's changed his business model and where he keeps his inventory. His new location out past Bees Ferry is much larger, crowded with pinball and arcade machines, and most often visited by appointment. But he tries to keep his machines out on routes, working for him.

"If somebody wants to buy one, I'll let them know where they can see it," Ford says. "If it sells, I'll pull it off a route and swap in a new machine in its place."

Before buying another machine, Ford prefers to wait and see how well that machine is received. If the machine's a bust on the market, that failure can knock a substantial amount off its value. He gives me the math on purchasing new machines.

"Something like Pirates of the Caribbean might cost you $5,000. That's a lot of plays at 50 cents each to make that money back," he says.

Before I meet with Zack Pulver, who I've been told is among the best pinball players in town, I decide to hit those books and watch those documentaries just in case there's a quiz.

  • Jonathan Boncek

Pulver started playing pinball as a teenager, fell out of it for years, and returned with a new appreciation of how the machines evolved over time to what they are today. I'm clearly impressing the crap out of him with the depth of my pinball knowledge. I ask, "How about that Medieval Madness reissue?"

Medieval Madness, first produced in 1997, is one of pinball's great success stories, often ranking among the top games, and until recently holding steady in resale value (think $8,000 and up). Jersey Jack, a relatively new manufacturer, is reissuing the machine. Pulver tells me a story about how the few remaining pinball companies go about their business these days.

Knowing that they are mostly catering to a select group of enthusiasts, as well as speculators, these tiny companies often don't even begin working on a new pinball machine until that production is fully funded. What this means for buyers is that manufacturers crowd-source the funding on new machines. Often, pre-orders are paid in full, sight unseen, for machines that buyers may only have the sketchiest information about beforehand. Perhaps, Pulver says, all the buyer gets is a theme: a sports theme or a movie tie-in or whatever the companies think they can sell out — and very little beyond that. Production runs are limited, usually only 1,000 machines at a time. Even with fully funded production runs, however, technical or other glitches can crop up and delivery schedules may slip. When that happens, some early customers sell their spots in the production queue, finding others who are eager to buy in and tie up $7,000-$8,000 indefinitely until the machines ship.

click to enlarge The King abides - JON SANTIAGO
  • Jon Santiago
  • The King abides

In the end, it's that solidly enthusiastic market driving demand. "That's how manufacturers can make these things happen at all," Pulver says.

After all this educational and theoretical chatter, Pulver and I agree that it's time in my quest to engage the machine. Turns out, there's an app for that. According to Pinball Map, there are about 31 pinball machines in the Charleston area. The app tells you where and what those machines are. Pulver mentions that The Sparrow up in Park Circle is sort of on his way home. And, he says, they've got Elvis there.

We head over.

Pulver steps up to the Elvis machine and has a run at it. But I'm distracting him with my questions, and after a little while he says, "Why don't you give it a try?"

Here's what I discover: every time I do something right, the machine rewards me with some blink-y light show or a cool sound effect. Every time I screw up, the machine seems to pull back into itself. I realize that this is an example of what I've heard about pinball. It's not you against the machine. It's you learning to become one with the machine. In that sense, winning is also about achieving a Zen-like state. In any case, Elvis merely swats away my puny attempts to become one with him. Game over. I notice Zack is too kind to laugh at me.

Defeat by the King of Rock 'n' Roll notwithstanding, I realize I like pinball. It has a structure, but within that structure it can be chaotic and unpredictable, not to mention all those lights and sound effects bent on distracting you.

In mythology, there's a cautionary tale about hubris that this reminds me of. See, a guy named Sisyphus felt sure he could pull one over on the gods and by trickery, he does. If myth teaches us nothing else, it's that the gods, like Mafia bosses, get pissy when their inferiors contrive to get the better of them. Once they figured out that they'd been played, the gods dragged smart-ass Sisyphus before them for punishment. When they offer what appears to be a reduced sentence, you can imagine Sisyphus, still full of himself, thinking, "See? Even the gods get how clever I've been and they respect that." All he has to do is roll this big stone up to the top of that hill, and he's off the hook. All is forgiven. Go and sin no more. Deal? Once again, Sisyphus' hubris gets the better of him. "I've got this," he says. You know the rest. Sisyphus never quite makes it all the way up the hill with that stone. On the brink of success, it just rolls back down, day after day, the same story, forever. The gods played him, and that's his real punishment.

Pinball is subject to those same basic rules, although it's infinitely more enjoyable. Roll the ball up the playfield, keep it there as long as you can, don't let it "drain" (roll downhill, lost in the machine), or you have to start over. Of course, while the ball is on the playfield, you, unlike Sisyphus, are racking up points. You can earn a high score and win the game, even when you lose the ball. And each time you step up to the machine, it's a new, unpredictable game.

The Sparrow in Park Circle sports a handful of pinball machines - JON SANTIAGO
  • Jon Santiago
  • The Sparrow in Park Circle sports a handful of pinball machines

The 1976 New York City court case that finally got the ban lifted on pinball is legendary, mostly because in that case unpredictably worked out perfectly. Roger Sharpe, a writer and pinball champ, brought two machines into the city council hearing room and did a demo for the legislators. In fact, in order to prove beyond question that anyone could control the game, he pulled a page from Babe Ruth's playbook and called where the ball would go. It went exactly there. No further testimony. All present voted in favor of lifting the ban. Case closed. The rest of the country eventually went along with the decision to lift the ban. Years later, Sharpe, one of the nation's best pinball players, admitted the truth. It had been a lucky shot.

The elusive pleasure of pinball is also the biggest difference between it and video games.

DiMattia put it this way: "With a video game, once you know how to win, you can do that any time you want. But you can't beat the [pinball] machine. In the end, the machine always wins. You can't win. You can just get better."

Hear that, Elvis?

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