How One Legendary Player Saved the Game of Pinball

It's hard to imagine politicians storming bars just to smash up the pinball machines, but that's what happened in New York City in the 1940s. On the heels of Prohibition came a squeeze on anything deemed immoral, including gambling. Though today's pinball isn't a game of chance, the machines of the early '40s definitely were: because flippers weren't introduced until 1947, players simply shot the ball and, apart from tilting the machine, watched the ball fall where it may. In 1976, the Music and Amusement Association, or MAA, lobbied the city council to overturn their decades-long ban on pinball. Seeking to prove that it was a game of skill, not chance, they hired Roger Sharpe, widely considered the nation's best pinball player, to play a game before the court. In a pinball game that would go down in history, Sharpe borrowed a technique from billiards and "called his shot": he announced that the ball would travel down the middle lane. He then pulled back the plunger, watched the ball roll toward a flipper, and took his shot. The ball hurtled down the middle lane, and the MAA's case was made.

Key Facts In This Video

  1. With the US's prohibition of alcohol came an attack on gambling as well. New York City banned pinball in 1942, and many other cities soon followed suit. 00:57

  2. In 1976, Roger Sharpe, considered the best pinball player in the US, was hired as the MAA's star witness in their quest to overturn New York City's pinball ban. The MAA wanted to prove that pinball was a game of skill, not chance, and asked Sharpe to demonstrate this by playing a game for the court. 02:38

  3. Afraid that Sharpe's main machine had been tampered with, a council member asked Sharpe to switch machines. Sharpe wasn't as familiar with this machine, and the council member wasn't impressed. To prove his skill once and for all, Sharpe called his shot -- through the middle lane -- and succeeded in a move that would become a pinball legend. 03:52

Written by Curiosity Staff May 10, 2016

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