Pingames and Gambling
Russ Jensen

ebay auction
Mills Horsehead Bonus - 1939
Almost from the beginning of pinball in the early 1930s (there were a few pinball-like games before that, but we'll leave those to Dick Bueschel) a recurring problem encountered by the "pinball industry" has been anti-gambling forces. This was partly due to the fact that a major product of the coin machine industry in the Thirties was the "bell slot machine", which was certainly a gambling machine, and many people opposed to gambling were suspicious of all coin operated devices.

As a result, for many years to come, pinballs had to be defended as being "amusement" and not "gambling" devices. But, as we shall see, many pingames were made to be used for gambling, others made so they could be used for gambling, if desired, and some made to minimize, as much as possible, their potential gambling uses.

Before we look at the characteristics of various types of pingames, and their relation to gambling, lets consider what is meant by the term "gambling" and its connection to "games" in general. My dictionary defines a "game" as "an amusement or pastime", and also as "a contest for amusement in the form of a trial of chance, skill, or endurance, according to set rules." Pingames certainly fit these definitions because they are used for amusement, have both the elements of chance and skill, and are played to a "set of rules". Gambling is defined as "playing a game of chance for stakes" or as "to stake or risk money, or anything of value, on the outcome of something involving chance".

As you can see from these definitions, "chance" is a key element of gambling and can also be present in many games, and this was the connection used in most anti-pinball legal hassles. In many legal cases the fate of pinball in a particular jurisdiction was determined by how a court ruled on the degree of "chance" (usually versus "skill") which was present in pingames.

As a sidelight to this discussion of pingames and gambling, there was an "editorial" on the subject appearing in the July 4, 1936 issue of BILLBOARD magazine which presented some interesting comparisons between pinball "awards" and "skill awards" connected with other popular recreations. The column was titled "Pinball Perils", with the byline of "Silver Sam" (this was obviously a pseudonym, but that name appeared frequently in the coin machine section of BILLBOARD).

This article was written in the form of a conversation between the writer (Sam) and a lawyer friend of his (a pinball "fan") supposidly precipitated by an article appearing in a local newspaper about a "crusader" trying to outlaw pinball games as gambling devices. The lawyer defended pinball "awards" by comparing them with "skill awards" given in everyday games such as golf (for making a "hole in one"), and bowling (for a "perfect game"). He said that in these games, which were certainly not considered gambling games, as well as pinball, the player paid a "fixed fee" to participate in the game and that the special "awards" were given for extremely skillful play which he likened to "high score awards" provided by some pingames.

He went on to say that the only difference between the golf or bowling "awards" and pinball "awards" was that the former are quite difficult to obtain, while the latter are quite a bit easier for a skillful pinball player. He stated "any judge who rules against games is saying in effect 'it is illegal to play pingames because the skill awards can be won too often'". This lawyer even compared receiving a "skill award" for pinball to a lawyer taking a lawsuit on a "contingency basis" and being paid ("awarded") a percentage of the court award if he was "skillful" enough to win a judgement.

I thought that article had some interesting points when it came to the anti-pinball gambling furor prevalent, especially in the 1930s. One thing that he failed to mention, in connection with games such as golf and bowling, was that "side bets" often occur in games such as these which is also another type of gambling that can, and sometimes does, occur in connection with pinball. But, I guess that was a "negative" connection in the context of the article.

automatic world magazine
Shamrock countertop pingame
In the early Thirties, when mechanical, mostly counter-top, pingames began to appear they were probably not often used for gambling. Side bets might have occurred between players, and in a few instances, I suppose, establishments having these games may have given "awards" of merchandise or cash for high scores. Right off hand, however, I do not know of any early mechanical pingames which had a form of direct payout mechanism, although there may have been a few.