Vice Squad
Monday, January 21, 2008

Today's trip back to cold Chicago on Southwest Airlines provided an opportunity to read up on the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas in Southwest's Spirit Magazine. The fine linked article mentions that pinball machines were illegal in New York City well into the 1970s, until a live demonstration by a pinball maestro in an NYC courtroom led to the recognition of pinball as a game of skill, and hence, legalization. Pinball machine production peaked in the early 1990s, with some 100,000 machines being produced per year. Now the sole remaining producer makes about 10,000 machines annually, and many of those go to private residences, as public locations have turned away from pinball towards video games.

Beyond the hint in the information about the New York City ban, the article explicitly notes that early pinball machines often involved gambling. Indeed, the relationship between pinball and gambling profoundly affected the design of pinball machines. (Here's an article with lots of apposite info that I draw upon below.) Pinball machines have come in many flavours over the years, including some that were mainly for gambling purposes, some that could easily be adapted for gambling, and others that did not directly facilitate gambling, but could be used for that purpose via side bets by competing players or high score monetary bonuses from the till of the host establishment. The institution of free games for high scores was motivated in part to reward pinball players without violating anti-gambling statutes that rendered cash payouts illegal. Possibilities to win extra balls were developed to avoid anti-gambling laws that extended to the provision of free games. And flippers, virtually a defining feature of pinball machines for more than 50 years, were helpful in promoting the idea that pinball is a game of skill, not chance, and hence exempt from anti-gambling laws.

Of course, pinball has an addictive quality that might surface even without monetary stakes. The author of the Spirit Magazine article notes that after his girlfriend dumped him, he had a fling with a pinball machine -- one that was obsessive, but does not seem to be entirely negative: "I tragically played that machine for hours and hours, week after week, mourning my loss and perfecting my skill. I becameā€¦not to brag or anything, but I became truly great."

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