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Are Pinball Machines Rigged? (The Dark Side of Pinball Machines)

Like many arcade games, there’s always the feeling that when you lose, you’ve been cheated! In the past (and still to this day) many arcade or fairground games were rigged and while this is obviously illegal activity and theft, it’s something most people know to be true. 

What you might not be aware of though, is that in the past the innocent pinball machine – which seems very simple in design and nature – was also the target of claims against rigging. Surely this can’t be true, how would you even rig a pinball machine?

Well, in this article, we’ll cover the question of “are pinball machines rigged” and look into the murky past which involves mafia involvement, illegal activity, and even the banning of pinball machines for a number of decades!

Pinball Machines Rigging: Past vs. Present

While the pinball machines of today aren’t rigged, there may have been a time that they were. This thing about rigging pinball machines harkens back to America’s golden age of the mafia.

Why People Claim Rigging

Some people insist rigging occurs, but this is usually because of how they pour in coins by the bucket load only to fail without any return on investment by way of a victory. It’s just not the case in today’s world, the one pinball manufacturer left, Stern of Chicago has nothing to gain by rigging them.

There is nothing scandalous about the design of pinball machines. As history suggests, players will succeed by learning a couple of poignant skills. However, earlier pinball machines had a different culture around them than they do today.

The Story of Pinball Machines in America

The pinball machines of yesteryear didn’t have the flippers you see on modern ones. Those didn’t appear until 1947. Prior to that, players had to maneuver the table with bumping and tilting to influence the ball’s direction. This means gravity dictated the game and what led people to believe it was more about chance than skill.

However, the idea behind the rigging of pinball machines has a long, forgotten history in the United States. At one time, many major cities banned these across America from the early 1940s to the mid-1970s.

Reason for the Ban

The main reason for the ban claimed it robbed children of their lunch money, thereby being nothing more than glorified gambling machines. Because of the belief that pinball was about chance, parents also thought it was the gateway into the deep, dark underworld of gambling.

So, outraged parents lobbied the government. Well, that’s the accepted narrative anyway.

Mayor Fiorella La Guardia

There are some suggestions that Mayor Fiorella La Guardia of NYC had an issue with the local mob, which made a lot of money off the production and sale of pinball machines. It’s no secret he was after mob gambling grifts, including their slot machines.

Anything he could drum up to nail the mafia down, La Guardia would do it. So, it’s entirely possible that La Guardia dreamed up this psyop, used the media to rile up parents, and get a great portion of the country on his side.

While there’s no proof of this specific to pinball machines, he did do it in regards to the slot machines. So, it’s not a farfetched or hyperbolic possibility. The evidence for this suspicion comes from America’s history and mafia monetary operations.

Mafia Involvement

There are many examples throughout the 40s and 60s showing how the mafia would devise innovative and creative ways to launder and transport loads of money under the radar.

One such method was in how they would rig slot machines and use vending machines for money laundering operations. With their interest in pinball machines, it’s not an improbability.

A Symbol of Youth; Rebellion

However, during their 30-years outlaw stint, pop culture glorified pinball machines as a symbol of youthful rebellion. The mafia connection gave the stereotype an element of danger. So, when you see any movies or old TV shows between the 50s and early 70s featuring a pinball machine, it’s a symbol for the inconstant and classic rebel.

There are many popular examples. For instance, the Fonz in the TV series “Happy Days” always played a pinball machine, which took place during the 50s, at the height of the ban. The Fonz was the quintessential model of the leather-clad bad boy greaser. He is and always will be a symbol of the classic 1950s rebel.

Also, the British band The Who wrote the song, “Pinball Wizard” and featured it on their 1969 album cover, which is smack dab during these times of pinball prohibition. And that’s not being hyperbolic either. The New York Police Department would perform prohibition-style raids on places that had the machines, dumping them into the East River.

Bans Lifted by the Mid 1970s

But, in the mid-1970s, bans against pinball machines lifted and became a staple of arcades throughout the country. In 1976, the arcade amusements industry was able to convince the city council of New York that it was actually a game of skill.

A pro pinball player by the name of Roger Sharpe was able to demonstrate the intentional direction of the pinball path. As a result, New York City permanently lifted its ban on pinball machines. Oakland, California was the last major city to lift its pinball ban.

Pinball Machines Today

While not all cities banned pinball machines, they are still somewhat illegal in certain ways sparsely. Ocean City, New Jersey forbids children from playing pinball on Sundays, and only recently did Nashville, Tennessee lift its Sunday ban, for example. 

Are Pinball Machines Rigged

Despite the allegations, pinball machines are not rigged. While there was suspicion of rigging and money laundering in the past, modern pinball machine manufacturers and sellers do not benefit financially from rigging pinball machines.

These days, pinball machines are either collectible items for games rooms or a novelty machine purely used for enjoyment in arcade machines. Most pinball machines are now based on a high-score, competitive model so prize money is no longer an option. 

Final Thoughts

The idea that pinball machines are rigged and at the center of illegal activity is certainly an interesting one! 

What seems like an innocent and fun arcade machine has (in the past) been subject to bans for rigging and money laundering by the Mafia. This was at a time though when slot machines and other forms of gambling were at the peak of illegal activity and pinball machines, unfortunately, fell within the same category. 

Present-day pinball machines are no longer rigged though – if they ever were that is – and pinball is now a fun game of skill and chance that is used for high-score competition rather than gambling or for financial gain.

Therefore, if you think a pinball machine is rigged, chances are you just need to practice more!