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When Pinball Was Illegal (And Today’s Standard)

When you think of pinball, your mind might jump to playing in bars or restaurants, or perhaps you enjoy the digital versions of the classic game. But regardless of what comes to mind, you probably don’t immediately jump to when pinball was illegal.

Pinball was made illegal in the early 1940s, as a result of then NYC mayor Fiorella La Guardia’s desire to outlaw what was seen to be gambling. It was then legalized in 1976 after a court ruling that it involved more skill than luck.

Pinball’s history is a very varied one, and this has led it to take on various forms over the years. However, in order to get a real appreciation for the game, it is worth going through this history, in order to find out more about when it was made illegal, and when it was then legalized.

Why Was Pinball Illegal?

Pinball was made illegal as it was seen as a form of gambling. While prizes for pinball games could win you a free game or some jewelry, there were no flippers to control, and so there was no skill involved. This led to people betting against each other on where the ball would end up.

Baffle Ball had introduced this game to the public with the first mass produced coin operated machine in 1931. By today’s standards compared to video games, pinball seems very G-Rated. But the playing grounds of pinball arcades essentially became another betting service for the public.

Pinball In Chicago

Chicago became a mecca for pinball companies, producing most pinball machines in the United States. It didn’t help the industry’s image with it being a popular game in a state so commonly associated with its gang activity. An estimated 1,300 gangs were present in Chicago by the mid-1920s.

Parents started to fear this news of gambling in arcades as it spread throughout the United States. The fear of gambling entering the arcades rose within parents’ minds. They saw the local arcade now as another casino entering their neighborhoods and local communities.

Parents had lost trust in arcades as they worried about their kids wasting money gambling. Some had feared that crimes would be committed due to the involvement of money, which was common with the casinos of the time.

The Wrong Image

Most kids relied on their parents’ money to play, and some would use their lunch money to play instead of eating. Kid’s going hungry to play a machine at an arcade was not a good image for these games.

Another concern from parents was that their kids would skip school to try to make some money. This is why some states still have laws that a kid can’t play during school hours, essentially making pinball illegal at certain times for kids.

If the scrutiny of gambling with these machines wasn’t enough to rally people against these games, World War 2 added fuel to the fire. In 1941 Pearl Harbor was attacked and America was sucked into the fight that had been raging since 1939. This added hatred towards pinball machines as it was seen as a waste of time.

A Waste

To make things worse for the industry, people argued that the materials the tables were made from would instead be put to more use if they were helping the war effort. Not only was pinball now seen as a waste of time, but it was also seen as a waste of materials.

Starting in New York, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, had outlawed the game making pinball machines illegal. This policy led to over 2,000 machines being confiscated that same day in 1942. Raids and seizures of pinball machines throughout major cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Milwaukee and New Orleans had taken place after NY’s policy.

You Could Still Play

But that didn’t stop the progress of pinball machines, nor did it prevent the personal use of a game in someone’s own home. Replacing the “free game” option with “free ball” was one company’s attempt to remove some of the negative connotations surrounding the game. They also focused more attention on the art and design of their machines to draw more people into the game.

Controllable flippers were soon added to machines as well, which meant, while luck definitely still seemed to remain a part of the fun, more skill was involved. This helped steer away cries of gambling in the arcades.

But the pinball scene had become a rebellious act by this point. Finding machines wasn’t as easy as going to the bowling alleys, arcades, or candy stores right down the street. Instead, they migrated to the back corners of bars and arcades that wanted to protest the bans.

When Was Pinball Legalized?

Pinball was legalized in 1976 as a result of a court ruling that the game now involved more skill than luck. The modern tables had fancy designs to draw players in, but they also used controllable flippers that required the player to time their shots in order to do well in the game.

Signs Of Change

Nearly thirty years later, the resurfacing and acceptance of pinball became more popular throughout communities across the country. In 1974, the California Supreme Court stated the game was now more about skill than luck. This allowed movie theaters, hotels, and amusement parks the right to host pinball machines.

Skepticism about the games was still relevant, especially in New York while Mayor Fiorello La Guardia was still around. He had warned the councilman of Queens that “On the surface, it appears to be an innocent sort of device, but it will bring rampant vice and gambling back to the city”.

A Court Ruling

It took a brave pinball wizard named Roger Sharpe to enter a courtroom in 1976 with a pinball machine in front of City Council in New York to show why the ban should be overturned. He argued it to be a skill game based on reflexes. Doubt filled the council members, until he started playing, showing how the game worked, explaining the movements and how he could aim the ball for certain targets.

While most were on board after watching, one was not buying it. Mr. Sharpe decided to risk it all on his own skills by calling his next shot, that the ball would go through the middle lane on the next play. He did exactly as he said he would, convincing the room of his argument. The ban was soon overturned, and the game got its reputation back after more than 30 years of being vilified.

Current Laws

To this day there are a few places that still have the ban in place, but it is rarely acted on. There are places that do have age restrictions, such as you can’t play if you are under 16. A lot of states and cities do have regulations on pinball machines, such as the owner must have a permit per machine or per vicinity. But nowadays that is the case for most places of business anyway.

Final Thoughts

While early pinball machines might not have looked malicious on the surface, many used them as a way to gamble with others, which led to the machines being outlawed in the early 1940s. Over time, the companies decided to change their image, and try to promote the machines as skill-based rather than relying on luck, which led to the flipper-based pinball machines of today.