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Silver Balls

photos by Sarah Barry

Pocketeer Billiards hosts final 2014 summer pinball tournament Saturday

Stepping into Nick Lane’s Buffalo home is like passing through a magical portal that transports you back in time a few decades—to a place where the garish flashing lights, ringing bells, and mysterious clicks and thunks of eight pinball machines fills the air. He has several friends over, and they’re all enjoying a few beers and conversation in between breaking off to test their skill on some of the various games.

Lane and his friend Kevin Manne are two unabashed pinball boosters who’d like to see the pastime continue to regain popularity in Buffalo, as it is now in other parts of the country. How did two guys who would’ve been in their early teens when pinball’s popularity tanked in the early 1990s—when home video games took over—ever come to embrace an arcade attraction that experienced its golden age in the 1970s?

We’ll get to that, but first let’s have a bit of history for readers who didn’t live through the heyday of the game. Modern pinball is generally traced back to 1869, when a Cincinnati company began manufacturing a smaller version of the European table game known as bagatelle. These games featured a spring launcher used to shoot a marble up the slanted table, at which point gravity took effect and the marble would roll back down, bouncing off metal pins this way and that, landing by chance in various holes with different point values to give the player a score.

It was not until the Great Depression that manufacturers began making coin operated machines, where for a penny people could while away some time sitting at a bar or drugstore countertop watching the ball descend the board. Soon, electrified boards began popping up featuring bonus holes, active bumpers, bells and lights—all geared to attract players and make for a more exciting game.

Pinball remained largely a game of chance dictated by the luck of the bounce until after World War II, when, in 1947, the Humpty Dumpty machine became the first to feature electrical flippers. The advent of the flipper was a game changer. With it, players could influence the path of the ball while in play. But by this time pinball itself had been banned in some of America’s biggest cities including Chicago, LA, and New York—where Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia wrote in a Supreme court affidavit: “Pinball is a racket dominated by interests heavily tainted with criminality. It robs the pockets of schoolchildren in the form of nickels and dimes given them as lunch money.” Machines were confiscated and smashed like casks of whiskey hauled out of speakeasies in the 1920s.

Despite its prohibition, pinball made more money than the entire American movie industry between 1955 and 1970. Machines were still popular in Europe, and the Chicago-based manufacturers like Bally, Gottlieb, and Williams did a brisk business there. Pinball was a hip American export like jazz, the blues, and rock and roll. In the US, games were still purchased for home use, and coin operated machines were still tucked away in dark corners of truck stops, honky tonks and bars. It wasn’t until 1976 when a pinball ace and magazine editor named Roger Sharpe made a demonstration before the New York City Council. Sharpe predicted—Babe Ruth style—that he could launch the ball and make it roll down the center lane. He did just that, proving pinball to be a game of skill, not purely chance. The thirty-year ban was immediately rescinded.

As the pinball ban fell in other cities, arcades flourished. The film version of the Who’s Tommy was released in 1975, telling the story of the deaf dumb and blind kid who sure played mean pinball. To be a pinball wizard was becoming something akin to being a rock star. Game rooms sprang up in towns across the country, where teenagers—often boys—would line up to test their skill on machines with themes pulled from hot rods, sports, sci-fi, westerns, superheroes, rock bands and so on. Another ubiquitous theme in the artwork of the flashy machines were the depictions of gorgeous women in sexy poses, flashing a seductive stare. With practice, a skilled player could put his fingers on the buttons and rack up points until the games exploded in a frenzy of loud knocks, flashing lights, ringing bells, screaming sirens and extra balls.

But just as pinball was reaching its climax in America, video games entered the scene. Finally, as home video games gained in popularity, arcades began to lose their allure. Kids stayed home and played with their joysticks. The social aspect of meeting friends in a sketchy place to fritter away time and money while gaining a skill with little practical value was lost. This sort of recreation became something you did in private, or not at all. By 1999, all but one of the major pinball manufacturers had gone out of business.

“If you had asked me four years ago if I would have all these pinball machines and be going to tournaments I would have said you were crazy,” Lane says over the din of a player across the room working on a really hot ball. “But one day I was playing a pinball game on the X-Box, and I realized at one point that there are rules and objectives to real pinball machines. I used to think you just sort of hit it around.”

When he moved to Buffalo, he wanted to try it out on a real machine but he couldn’t find one in any bars or game rooms where they once had been fixtures.

“This was December, 2010,” he continues, “so I bought my first machine—which is the Iron Man over there—just because there was no place to play pinball. One thing led to another and I started getting more machines, which is how I met Kevin.”

“For me, unlike Nick, I grew up with it,” says Manne, “My Dad was into it, so when we’d go to the arcade we’d play a game or two. But I never really realized until much later, playing the pinball arcade on the X-Box that there are certain moves and objectives and strategies that you can apply to the real game. You start doing that and it gives you more to shoot for than just keeping the ball from going down the drain all the time.”

Manne also points out how you can play video games on your computer, TV, and phone—but it’s not the same as the physical aspect of actual pinball, where the player needs to control the ball and work the table by pushing it or bumping it—without going so far as to TILT the machine, which causes the flippers to lock and the score to freeze.

Lane and Manne recommend the documentary Special When Lit, which lovingly reveals the story of pinball through interviews with many of the top players, game designers, collectors, and other aficionados. They also point to how pinball is making a comeback in other places.

“In Portland, Oregon they have over 400 machines in various venues around the city,” says Lane. “Kevin and I were just at a tournament in Pittsburgh. They have a league of over 100 people and they host the World Championships in a facility with 450 machines.”

The Professional & Amateur Pinball Association (PAPA) is one organizing body within the sport, while the International Flipper Pinball Association (IFPA) does the ranking system for all the tournament players. In 2006, IFPA membership was at 500. Today, there are over 23,000 members and growing.

Jay Fairbrother is one of the guys hanging out at Lane’s house. He got into it when Lane bought the Iron Man game. “He said, hey, I got this pinball machine. He let me play it. I played it for like three hours that day. It was so much more than how I’d remembered it as a kid.”

That thing happens a lot, according to Lane. When he explains some of the strategies of play to people, they start looking at pinball as something more than a kitschy novelty. PAPA’s website features instructional videos for players wishing to improve their skills. With high definition video of the play field, there is growing interest in making pinball tournament play a legitimate television event—which is no stranger than televised poker. Top players can win tens of thousands of dollars at big tournaments.

On Saturday (8/23), Pocketeer Billiards (2444 Clinton Street) is hosting its final 2014 summer series tournament. The tournament is open to all, with an entrance fee of $10. Registration begins at 12:30pm with play starting at 1:30pm. All of the money collected will be paid out to the winners.

Lane adds another incentive to anyone who might be intrigued by the event or drawn to it by a sense of pure nostalgia: “If you enter our tournament on Saturday, you’re going to be a world-ranked pinball player, which is kind of cool.”

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