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Learning to Be a Pinball Wizard While Camping

Updated: Oct 1, 2020

When I was around 12 or 13 years of age, our family vacations involved camping somewhere in Wisconsin. Typically it was between 2 and 3 hours from home. With an older automobile and 9 or 10 in tow, my father’s mechanic recommended not going too far from home. Anyway, camping provided a nice respite from the dog days of summer but with fewer chores and plenty of free time to explore the camping area and the surrounding environment. When one was bored with fishing or exploring, the camping site offered a pinball arcade for those interested participants.

The campground arcade had about 8 different pinball machines so every summer I’d typically survey the options to determine which machine gave me the biggest bang for the buck. I wasn’t inclined to jump right in; I’d rather watch others succeed or not succeed. My first requirement for a viable pinball machine meant that the machine rarely tilted. Some machines rarely tilted (regardless of the amount of shaking back and forth) and others tilted if you hit the machine flappers too much or if you breathed too heavily on the glass surface.

In the early seventies, pinball was typically ten cents per play and three plays for a quarter. If you found a special machine that appealed to you and felt like you could play it twice for 20 cents, I'd typically figure just inserting a quarter meant one more play for an additional 5 cents.

If I watched a player continue to be penalized for tilting the machine, that pinball machine received a scarlet letter and would be ignored by astute observers. What pinball wizard or potential pinball wizard wanted to play on a machine that regularly penalized a player just by shaking the machine a bit?

Without any supervision in the arcade, there were several times we unplugged a few machines and lower the rear legs of a machine so the steel ball remained a little longer on the top of the playing surface which provided additional points. At one time, a resourceful boy brought a vice grip into the arcade to help ensure a more level playing surface (no pun intended).

I remember some young kids would hover around the machine and watch the action. The problem was, they'd sometimes touch the machine and cause it to tilt. Even if they didn't, it affected how I moved the machine back and worthwhile trying to maximize my points.

There were certain chutes or bonus areas on the playing surface where you could try to maximize the number of points. However, I learned the hard way that many of these machines were magnetized in such a way that the steel ball often could track right in the middle of the machine and often down the chute. However, having the ability to move the machine from side to side, that could increase your chances that the ball wouldn't always mysteriously find the middle of the machine so that gravity would take over. Once you learn more about the machine, you could try to use its design to your advantage.

One other thing about pinball machines, if someone starting doing well on a machine to the point that they receive extra plays, which was a machine to target. This may be wishful thinking and I have no scientific proof but a "hot" machine typically remained hot for some time. Again, many of those machines that some pinball players had success with were also the same machines that were less likely to tilt.

In summary, to assist a player to achieve a high score, there were a number of things to do. In other words, to become more of a pinball wizard, there were several things to consider besides a lot of flipper dexterity and control. First, if you could lower the rear legs (even 1 inch), you decreased gravity which meant the ball was in play longer which meant more points. Second, by selecting a machine with a low tilt probability, that too could help keep the ball in play longer. The last thing was scouting a machine that was "hot," chances were that you could jump on that machine and continue the stretch of more successful experience.


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