Like Prices, the hemline, and the St. Louis Browns, pinball ain't what it used to be. The science of the gentle nudge and superb timing has become the sport of flashing lights, clanging bells, and Lady Luck.
Gone is the talented all day player immortalized in Saroyan's "Time of Your Life", and in his place now stands the casual sportsman standing by clattering machine, munching a hamburger, and running up a million, but still a losing point score.
With the pinball vacationist has departed the simple, wide open hundred dollar machine; the New Look in pinball apparatus is a $400, 50 magnet, hundred relay contraption that can take a lusty belt in the back. In the old days there were scarcely more than ten bumpers on the whole playboard, perhaps one or two runways, and no bonuses. Total score and tripping every bumper were the only ways to rack up free games; but the new devices coming out of Chicago, the pinball capital of the world, contain never fewer than a dozen bumpers, a horde of runways and dropslots, and various moving parts. Harry Saxe, pinball pioneer and proprietor of Harry's Arcade Spa sighs, "Luck is so important in new machines that anyone can run up a creditable score."
Though the new apparatus coughs up one game easily, even the experienced professional can garner but half a dozen games per nickel.
As the personnel and equipment have changed, so have pinball habits and morals. The old master of the rolling sphere stood calm and upright by his machine, priming with but a gentle nudge at an opportune moment, playing a cautious, skillful, and fairly conservative game. In contrast to the suave, sure fingered pre-war man, the postwar pinball virtuoso crouches hungrily over his mechanical Christmas tree hammering it viciously and helping out with body English. Others stand aloofly at a distance so as better to see the lights flash.
Different are the manners of the kibitzers, for pinball is predominantly a spectator sport. In the good old days a band of silent observers surrounded the quivering machine but restrained their comments until the end of each game. Modern pinster's are greeted with a horde of noisy sideline philosophers drinking frappes, shouting conflicting directions, and inadvertently bumping the machine in their enthusiasm. Pinball purist Harry Saxe doesn't allow "any of that horse play" in his Bow Street parlor.
By far the greatest inroads have been made upon the integrity of the players; for the present generation anything goes. Pinball is now but one part skill and two parts subterfuge. Three notorious methods of foul play are the Chicago system, the Toledo jam, and the Oklahoma ride.
Made famous on machines produced by the Chicago Coin Co., the Windy City scheme has the player furtively place the two front legs of the device on his toes, reducing the angle of incline on the playing board, and enabling the uncoordinated to reap the fruits of timely flicks.
More sinister is the Toledo jam. After each nickel the player inserts, he jams the coin plunger in as hard as possible. Eventually the spring returning the plunger in as hard as possible. Eventually the spring returning the plunger weakens, fails to work, and the swindler enjoys some ill-gotten games.
Perhaps the least spurious and most difficult maneuver is the Oklahoma ride. After the game is over the player rocks the machine skillfully, just strongly enough to jar any loose buttons on the playing surface and weakly enough to keep the tilt from hitting. Result, free games. Of course there are other methods of outwitting pinball machines, but proprietors haven't discovered them yet.
"We have to watch our customers," smiled the genial director of George's Cottage Grille. "We don't have any of these boys in here," cried Saxe.
Looking back on his pre-war all-day clientele. Cambridge pinball initiator Saxe seemed to have discovered the cause of the transformation of the tilting pastime. "I guess the customer wants something new. More action, more high scores."
Pinball has become more of a casual sport and less of an all-day occupation. "Of course," continued Harry, "there are some good players around now. On these machines, they're probably as good as the pre-war champs."
For the bored undergraduate. Wishing to wile away a few minutes, the easiest machines to win on, according to repair man Tom White, are in the Cottage Grille. For the semi-pre, Harry's Arcade Spa contains the best selection, ranging from the latest bombastic bellringers to the vintage '89 skill trials. In my case, all agree; stay away from Boston's monster arcade nickel gobblers everyone.