Pinball Drama in New York: The Chaotic Game that Put an End to Over 30 Years of Prohibition in the City That Never Sleeps.

We have all walked through an arcade at some point. A space that already belongs to the past, but that amazed us with the number of arcade machines that were in every corner. The latest video games appeared before us so that we would leave all the money in our pockets playing, but there was a game that was always present: the pinball.

An amusement that dates back to the 18th century in France where it was called Bagatelle. The operation was very similar to the current one, with a horizontal board that rewarded the place where the ball stopped with different scores. There were wooden stops that became metallic in the 19th century in the United States, where they began to reap unusual popularity. Such was the number of pinball games in the country that a mayor said enough was enough and banned them for 30 long years.

A succulent business

Year 1930. The Great Depression has meant the biggest economic setback in the entire history of the North American country and the monetary possibilities to spend on leisure are scarce. For this reason, the carpenter Arthur Paulin decides to create a kind of Bagatelle with a crystal to give to his daughter, but that was only the beginning of a future of earnings. The neighborhood kids crowded around the device to play, so Paulin made the decision to start charging per item.

With the help of several people from the town, he builds the whiffle, a small system that allows the collection of coins and the return of the ball to be able to play again. Thus, the fame of that machine began to spread and in all parts of the United States one could be found to play. A juicy business for many establishments, but that did not satisfy Fiorello LaGuardia in any way.

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the then mayor of new york began an intense campaign to associate pinball with gambling, ensuring that we were talking about mafia profits. His position was based on really incendiary statements. This was expressed in a letter issued to the Supreme Court on the matter:

“Pinball is a scam dominated by interests heavily tainted with crime. It steals from the pockets of schoolchildren in the form of nickels and dimes given to them as lunch money”

And it is necessary to take into account that the flippers, the blades to hit the ball, had not been invented until then. They would not see the light of day until 1947, so everything was reduced to a matter of chance regarding the result as soon as the player threw the ball. The skill factor did not come into play, which accentuated that betting character that surrounded pinball at the time.

pure gambling

As if that were not enough, the association with organized crime seemed more than evident. Prohibition in the United States prohibited the sale of alcohol, so the mafia found a easiest way to enter capital without prying eyes through pinball. It also didn’t help that the nation’s leading pinball maker was in Chicago, a city widely known for its bosses. On the other hand, a model called pinball called Rocket rewarded the players who reached the highest scores and this function could be activated with a button depending on the state in which the machine was found.

Religious institutions, anti-gaming organizations and different establishments began to reject pinball even more. In addition, many establishments lowered the price to play from five cents to as little as one cent. The problem is that they modified their rates during the hours in which children and young people left or entered schools. Laguardia feared that they would start skipping school to simply go play.

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The fight continued until shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when the gambling ban went into effect in New York. On January 21, 1942, pinball games were banned in the region., so the police raid against the devices was total. In the midst of World War II, it became clear to LaGuardia that it was “infinitely preferable that the metal from these evil contraptions be made into weapons and bullets that can be used to destroy our foreign enemies.”

3,000 machines were confiscated – a fifth of those estimated for the entire city – which were destroyed to obtain a ton of metal that would be used as a war resource. To demonstrate his power in the face of such terrifying instruments, Laguardia bathed in press photos of him smashing pinballs with a huge sledgehammer. Thus, there was no choice but the clandestine market between pornography shops in neighborhoods like the East Village and Harlem.

play of all time

Los Angeles, Chicago, Milwaukee and New Orleans decided to follow in the footsteps of New York, while in Washington DC its use was only prohibited during school hours. The years passed and nothing changed at the legislative level, but there was a fundamental modification to this story: the flippers.

Indeed, the rebounding paddles appeared in 1947 and it was the Roger Sharpe’s main argument to lift the ban. A young magazine editor managed to prove to US government officials that, thanks to pinball machines, pinball could no longer be considered a game of chance. However, it was not easy for him to do so.

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Sharpe had prepared his demonstration at the New York City Hall with the El Dorado machine. The obstacle came with the change that one of the members of the court introduced, which changed to another machine called Bankshot. Sharpe steeled himself and assured that this last minute modification was not an impediment to demonstrate his vision. He assured that the ball would make a movement, thanks to his intervention, that would end with the ball in the center lane of the pinball. Be it luck or skill, the truth is that the ball ended up at that exact point.

Therefore, skill came to prevail to play and the AMOA (Association of Entertainment and Music Operators) expressed in 1976 that pinball was a game of skill. “You could call it skill or divine intervention, but the ball went down that lane, and that was it,” Sharpe said that day. A single shot from him brought down a 34-year ban in the Big Apple.

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