Pinball Wizardry? Not Quite
More jiggery-pokery than flipper finesse
In the town where I live, there is a patch of grass where there once stood a wine bar that mysteriously caught fire one night, and burned down. When I was a child, that building had been a furniture showroom, but by the time I entered my teens it had transformed into a brightly-lit amusement arcade called The Leisure Centre — and I became an eager habitué.
The centre comprised a prize bingo at the rear, a snack bar in the centre, and at the front a collection of coin-operated amusements, some of which wouldn’t look out of place on Antiques Roadshow. A cassette tape of Elvis Presley’s early hits played almost constantly, and the centre was a great attraction for local skinheads, which made it a great attraction for me. There were one-armed bandits, a huge table football game with a glass lid, and a wall-mounted electronic penalty-kick game. Best of all though, there was a row of pinball machines along one of the walls.
A Lucky Bop
These were Gottlieb tables that were two pence a shot. Over time, my friends and I got to grips with the finer points of these machines; how to trigger the specials and rack up a replay or two. If we couldn’t earn a replay via a high score, there was always a random number match at the end that might throw up what we called a lucky bop (bop being the sound the machine made when a free game was awarded).
None of us had much money, and we had soon put most of what we did have into the pinball machines. As our resources dwindled, we took to sharing games, taking a flipper each and then arguing over whose fault it was that the ball was lost. More often than not, our bus fares would follow our spending money into the slots; an act we’d soon regret as we set off on the mile long walk home in the cold.
Then one day everything changed. A new kid on the block had arrived in the form of a Williams Straight Flush machine. This monster was five pence a game, but it was such an advancement on its predecessors there was no shortage of players eager to try it out.
No Sweeter Feeling
The flippers on this new table were longer than the stubby ones we were used to, which made for a much sweeter strike. There were five lights above slots along the top of the table, at which to aim the ball — Ten, Jack, Queen, King and Ace — and if these lights were all put out, the special would be in play. On the upper left side of the table was a staircase with a spinner at the top. When the red arrow at the base was lit, flipping the ball up those stairs brought an extra ball.
There was no sweeter feeling than to hold the ball on the right flipper, release it and then, as the ball rolled down, hit it at just the right time to watch it soar up the staircase to earn a free ball. An even better show of mastery though was to send the ball up the staircase on the back flip, i.e., via the left side flipper. A successful ascent of the staircase was usually hailed with the cry, get up them stairs.
One night, my friend and I went into the arcade to find three youths gathered around the Straight Flush machine, and we were surprised to see there were seven replays chalked up. We soon learned that these free games had less to do with pinball wizardry than with underhand jiggery-pokery.
There was a crack in the glass on the lower right corner of the machine. Someone had figured out that if the two sides of the crack were pulled apart, it was possible to poke a flattened and folded paper drinking straw through the gap and rack up lots of points by repeatedly pressing the trigger on the exit lane.
The prime objective of the game immediately shifted to getting the ball down the ten slot, as this would light the right side exit lane, and 5,000 points would be awarded every time it was depressed. Whenever the attendant was otherwise engaged, someone would set about poking up more high scores to earn buckshee replays. We would then take turns playing these games off. At one point, there were thirteen replays available.
I’m not sure if the management was aware of our freebie flipper fests, but after a week or so the glass on the table was replaced. So it was back to paying for our games, and sharing flippers, and walking home.
A sign of a mis-spent youth? Possibly, but it was fun while it lasted.
(Originally published in Medium)