Pinball Wizardry

Posted on in On Our Radar by Larry Zartarian

A Lifelong Love Affair


Over the last 30 years, pinball has been a large part of my life. There is no greater pleasure than finding, restoring, and playing electro-mechanical pinball machines—especially those made from the 1940s to the late 60s.

My love affair with pinball began when I was 5, growing up in Fresno, where summers were swelteringly hot. To escape the heat Mom loaded up our Chevy Belair and drove my brother, grandmother, our dog, and me to Santa Cruz, where we’d vacation for a week at the Terrace Court Motel near the fisherman’s wharf.

Every morning on our holiday Grandma gave my brother Mark and me two quarters, which was big money in those days. She would say “Okay, this fifty cents has to last the entire day. Spend it wisely.” Right after breakfast we would scurry down the hill to be first in line at the Coconut Grove arcade. In those days the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk contained all the sights, sounds, and aromas of a world-class amusement park, including cotton candy, popcorn, and salt air rising from the waves mingling with candied wafts from the saltwater taffy-pulling stalls.

From 8am to noon we rejoiced in shooting moving targets at the shooting gallery, or rolling big 4-inch bowling balls at real pins on the big ball bowlers, or relishing other sundry coin-operated delights. But invariably pinball was our favorite. At noon we’d go swimming and eat lunch for a few hours before beating a path back to the arcades for more pinball glee!

The games were only 5 cents then but to make our daily allowance endure we learned to win as many replays as possible. By nightfall we were sometimes successful enough to sell our unused replays to other kids when it was time for “unlimited rides” on the Giant Dipper roller coaster and other attractions like Autorama, Wild Mouse, or the bumper cars. Then the following morning we’d wake up early to start all over again!

game attributes

In my early teens and throughout high school in Fresno I would often play pinball with my buddies while hanging out at various grocery markets, laundromats, drugstores, and the local Blackstone Bowl. It’s possible that pinball had a dicey reputation in those days but we certainly didn’t care. The machines were everywhere and we got pretty good.

Though we could never have verbalized the attraction at the time, in looking back there was something compulsively challenging about “man over machine.” From the instant of resetting the game to releasing the first plunger that launches the steel ball into the playfield filled with obstacles and noisy thumping bumpers, flashing lights, lanes, hidden chambers, and illusions, pinball was a primary relationship. Each machine with its alluring back glass art translated into a microcosm of engineering, math, probability with unique (sometimes weird) rules, and secret tricks. Though otherwise differentiated, every pinball machine has two common denominators, the slanted table and gravity—our adversaries.

Pinball is a full-body game of skill combining quick reflexes, finesse, and hand-eye coordination. By manipulating the flippers and concurrently pushing and nudging the table to advantage (but not too hard, for fear of triggering the dreaded “tilt” and “game over” messages), we carried out our only job as players—to defy the ball’s gravitational mission, which is to sink below our control and out of play.

Whether or not pinball aficionados channel Tommy from the The Who’s “Pinball Wizard,” every good player can relate to the lyric “becomes part of the machine.” Akin to the flow state, this near ecstatic out-of-body sensation comes from being in sync with the ball’s movements. A pleasant state of semi-control amid the world’s chaos. When you combine the stimulation, strategy, sound effects, and colors with the required practice to achieve pinball mastery, is it any wonder that by the mid-1930s pinball was making more money than the motion picture industry and would continue to do so for 30 years?

During college and the first ten years of my business career, my pinball activities died down until years later in the early 1990s, after I bought my first home and had enough money and space to own my own machines. To this day pinball helps me stay optimistic. The games are often reminders to never give up no matter how perilously close I may be to losing. For example, on a normal 5-ball game, just because I may have flubbed on balls 1 to 3, I’ve learned that I can get creative and still outfox the machine. Dare to aim some opportunistic flipper shots that earn double or triple points and extra balls. Defy the ball’s gravity long enough and the next thing you know you’re in contention to win a replay with balls 4 and 5.

Whether for nostalgia or just plain escapism and fun, I swear by pinball as a great solution to many of life’s stressful situations. One moral of the pinball challenge—never give up and you can achieve newfound confidence, not to mention peals of jubilation that for me harken back to my wonder years on the Santa Cruz boardwalk.

Larry Zartarian graduated from Fresno’s Bullard High School and parlayed his pinball mastery into a portfolio management career. d’Arci Bruno is a visual artist in SF. Both are officers at the nonprofit Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda, a must-see destination for wizards and wannabes with more than 90 playable machines from the 1940s up to the present day.

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