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Are Pinball Machines Rigged?

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It is easy to see why some players may feel that pinball is more a game of chance than a game of skill. After pouring pocketfuls of quarters into pinball machines, some have gone as far as to say the pinball game itself is rigged.

Are pinball machines rigged? Pinball machines aren’t rigged. It may seem that way when you are just starting to play them but by practicing and learning important skills (like catching the ball with your flipper) you can improve and your score will get better and better.

Pinball machines were banned from many major American cities for decades on the grounds that they were a form of gambling and just glorified gambling machines, robbing schoolchildren of their lunch money. However, recent history suggests that pinball players can find consistent success just by learning some important skills.

All arcade games can seem to be rigged when you first begin playing them and since many arcade machines give out tickets and prizes many people assume that means that they are rigged. And although some arcade machines are rigged (like the claw machine and other prize redemption games) others are entirely skill-based.

Pinball machines are 100% skill-based and are not rigged. To win you have to apply some basic geometry (so you don’t accidentally send your ball down the side drain) and learn the ins and outs of each game (so you can get a higher score) but there is no rigging involved.

Pinball games are designed for your entertainment and for you to have fun and rigging them would have the opposite affect.

The pinball industry does make some games that are harder to beat than others and that means you will need to spend more time practicing (and spending your nickels, dimes, and quarters to beat them) but that doesn’t make them rigged. It just means they are harder to beat.

We will brief you on the history of pinball and why it became such a controversial game. Then we’ll introduce you to a variety of skills that expert pinball players correlate with high scores in the game. In the end, you’ll agree that pinball machines are most likely not rigged. They just take some practice to master.

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Is Pinball a Game of Chance?

There was a time when pinball was thought of as less a game of skill and more a game of chance. Pinball machines did not have the flippers that are used to bounce the ball from side to side until 1947.

Prior to the advent of the flipper, players of the game would be seen maneuvering the table in order to influence the direction of the ball, otherwise dictated by gravity alone.

The sentiment towards the pinball game being a game of chance led to the game of pinball being banned within most major American cities from the early 1940s to the mid-1970s.

Pinball machines were banned for a variety of reasons, including concerns that the game effectively introduced gambling to schoolchildren. The children would spend coins given to them by their parents as lunch money on pinball games rather than using them for their lunch as intended. 

Of course this upset parents and rather than taking the issue up with their children they instead went to the government and lobbied to have it banned. 

How Pinball Became a Staple of Arcades

Due to its outlawed status, playing pinball became a symbol of youth rebellion in Hollywood.

Eventually, lobbyists in the arcade amusements industry found a creative way to convince the New York City council that pinball was actually more a game of skill than a game of chance.

In 1976 the lobbyists reached out to a skilled pinball player by the name of Roger Sharpe, who proceeded to call his shot a la Babe Ruth in the 1932 World Series. Sharpe insisted that his skills would take the pinball through the middle lane of the playfield.

Sharpe was able to successfully direct the path of pinball, and more importantly, he was able to convince the New York City council to reverse its ban on pinball.

Soon other cities (like Los Angeles, California) would follow suit in overturning their bans on pinball machines.

For both pinball enthusiasts and those interested in learning more about the game’s surprisingly intriguing history, we recommend The Complete Pinball Book: Collecting the Game & its History.

How Can I Become a Better Pinball Player?

Further establishing pinball is a game of skill rather than chance are the plethora of techniques used by those who strive to be more successful at the game. Some expert pinball players have shared their secrets on a site called the Internet Pinball Database.

The pinball skills shared on the site are sorted by experience levels including:

  • Novice: teaching the inexperienced player skills such as aiming and double or single flapper hits
  • Intermediate: teaching pinball players skills involving ball control including traps, backhands, and more
  • Advanced: Pinball players who have been at it for a little longer and are looking to bring their game to the next level should look at learning upper flipper set-ups, controlling the ball by shaking or nudging, or performing the chill maneuver.
  • Wizard: pinball players looking to take their game to an unworldly level should look at learning skills such as death saves, bang-backs, and drop-stops, among other skills.

The ability of pinball players to develop expert skills that have a high payoff gives credence to the claim that pinball is a game of skill and not one that is rigged.

Trapping the Pinball

This skill involves trapping the ball by raising one of the two flippers at the bottom of the playfield. A pinball can become trapped after traveling down an insane and arriving at the flipper or by bouncing off other obstacles on the playing field, such as slingshot rubbers.

The player quickly engages the flipper so that the ball is stuck in place at the bottom of the flipper. Trapping the ball is a way for pinball players to buy themselves time before their next move. The player can think about how they want to approach their next move or rest their hands.

Catching the Pinball

The difference between catching a pinball and trapping a pinball is the length of time the player has the pinball held against one of the flippers. When catching the pinball, players have to react quickly to take advantage of the pinball’s location against the flipper.

One “catching” technique in pinball is the drop catch maneuver. This pinball maneuver is considered to be moderately difficult to learn. Specific skill steps may be found on a dedicated pinball skills site or you can look up some skills on Youtube as well. 

A helpful video on the drop catch technique can be found below:

Passing the Pinball

One maneuver commonly employed by pinball players involves passing the ball from one flipper to the flipper on the other side of the playfield.

Players may need to learn such a move in order to maximize their scoring opportunities during play. Getting these techniques down is what is going to make a difference in your scoring and length of play vs the ball just doing what it wants while on the playing field. 

There are three different variations of pinball passes:

  • Bounce Pass- this involves simply letting the pinball bounce from one flipper to the flipper on the other side. This maneuver does involve a small bit of luck since the ball has to be traveling at a high enough speed and hit the flipper at an angle that allows it to bounce to the other flipper
  • Shot Pass- this maneuver relies more on skill than the bounce pass, which is largely a result of the ball being at the right place at the right time. In a shot pass, players aim to shoot the ball up a ramp that brings the pinball to a kick out or loop that brings the ball back to the opposite flipper
  • Post Pass- the most complex way to get the pinball from one flipper to the opposite flipper is the post pass. You are trying to get the pinball to follow a path that will take practice to execute:
  • Begin with the pinball trapped along the uppermost portion of a flipper
  • Then drop the flipper a small amount before raising it back up again just enough to get the pinball to bounce off the bottom post of the slingshot
  • The pinball bounces back onto the raised flipper and is redirected over the gap onto the opposite flipper.

A helpful video on how to execute the post-pass can be viewed below

Practice, Practice, Practice

While you certainly can’t account for the ethics of every pinball machine owner, the odds a pinball machine is rigged are pretty low. The more likely answer to why your quarters keep disappearing is that these are games of chance and skill. The more you play, the more you get to learn and feel the game.

There are many different methods to get better at the game to allow you to keep each ball alive longer which will in turn help you spend less money to play.  Some of those techniques will not only allow you to keep your game going for longer but will also allow you to rack up larger amounts of points quickly. 

The more you play a specific pinball table the better you will get at it as well. My favorite table is currently Medieval Madness which has a castle in the middle of the playfield as well as ways to get extra balls nearby. When I first started playing it I was pretty horrible at hitting the castle to get the extra points but with practice, I have been able to get better at hitting the ball at the exact spot on the flipper so it goes where I want it to. 

If you are having difficulty with a specific table, rather than thinking it might be rigged move on to a different table. You can also google some gameplay for that table and see if there are any tricks to help you keep the ball alive longer on it. 

Some games have a tendency for the ball to go down the middle more often while other games have them go down the outlane (the lanes on the side where the ball goes into the drain). Playing a game often will allow you to predict where a ball is headed so you can give the table a little bump to move it off course so it doesn’t go down the drain as often. Ultimately, practicing on one table often will allow you to master that table much more quickly than if you move from table to table after every game.