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For Amusement Only: Strange Pinball Laws in Oakland

December 5, 2010

Here are some illegal things to do in Oakland:

Well, okay, maybe.

From the Oakland City Code:

9.24.090 – Pinball machines.

A.

It is unlawful for any person to keep or use in any public place any pinball machine equipped with any device which cancels and records the cancellation of free games won without the actual playing of said free games by the player.

B.

It is unlawful for any person to keep or use in any public place any pinball machine game which permits the insertion of more than one coin per game.

Ever wonder why pinball games say “For Amusement Only” on them?

The very first pinball machines were gambling games.  They had no flippers so the skill elements were limited to the plunge, nudging and an understanding of the rules.  That’s how it was for around the first fifteen years (from the early 1930s to 1947).  Even after flippers came along they began making Bingo pinballs, which were for gambling.

This distinction is so important that in some parts of the world (Europe, mainly), modern pinball is called “Flipper”.  For example, this web site in Belgium is called Flippers.be, and they have an excellent introduction to the differences between “Flipper” and Bingos.

Given pinball’s gambling associations many cities placed tough restrictions on pinball games or banned them outright, Oakland included.  Others permitted them but tried to “tax them out of town”.

"Spokane's slot and pinball machines were vigorously attacked today by a world-famed church leader, Dr. Daniel A. Poling of New York and Philadelphia. Taking note of the city's controversy, Dr. Poling delivered a stinging blast at "that type of gambling." "This gambling mania is even worse than liquor as a spectacle of complete waste." -Spokane Daily, Feb. 15, 1949. Image: Time.com

And I’m not talking about an occasional lawsuit or a town meeting here and there, but literally thousands of such efforts to ban the silver ball over the decades.  Billboard Magazine used to run a coin-op industry section and the archives are now available via Google Books. At least 50% of the content of every issue covered the attempts to ban pinball around the country.

Just recently, two Bingo machines were confiscated as part of a raid on gambling machines.  Bingos in the US are mostly underground, but still out there.  There are even manufacturers of new Bingos in Belgium and China.

Two nefarious characters engaging in potentially illegal activity

So back to Oakland, the law makes sense once you understand how Bingos work.

A.

It is unlawful for any person to keep or use in any public place any pinball machine equipped with any device which cancels and records the cancellation of free games won without the actual playing of said free games by the player.

Most Bingo and pre-flipper games didn’t have payout mechanisms like a slot machine.  Players who won credits would “sell” or trade them in to the retail establishment for cash, cigarettes, gum, or whatever.  Everyone knew what was going on but it was an effort to keep things just a teeny bit discreet.  As a result, the winning credits needed to be “cleared” from the machine after the payout and the games had a switch, called a knock-off button, that does that.  So in essence the law attempts to thwart the practicality of running the machines as gambling devices by making it a huge pain in the ass to clear the credits.

This is also why even today you can shut off a pinball game and it will still have your credits when you turn it back on.  They’re stored in a battery-backed memory which holds the number of credits, game settings and high scores.  In other words, operating a pinball game in Oakland without a working battery is technically against the law (but pretty darn unlikely anyone would ever be nailed for it).

And here’s a sneaky bastard tip: After you win a replay or two, the replay score goes way up, right?  Just power-cycle the machine, which keeps your credits, but very often will reset the replay score back down.

As for part “B” of the law,

B.

It is unlawful for any person to keep or use in any public place any pinball machine game which permits the insertion of more than one coin per game.

Bingos allow one to gamble more than one coin per game, similar to how one can insert multiple coins in a slot machine before you pull the handle.  The more coins the greater your chances for winning and the higher the payouts.  You can even add coins to buy extra balls but that’s also based on chance: there might be a 50% chance of buying your first extra ball, your second might be 25%, and so on.  This was how the game encouraged you to empty your wallet for just “one more try” (likely when you are just a shot away from a nice payout).

Thus, this law, which went on the books when regular, skill-based pinball was still a one-coin-per-credit affair (nickel, dime, quarter) was also an attempt to make it impractical or impossible to operate a Bingo.  However, the unplanned effect is that the letter of the law makes modern pinball games, which are usually 50 cents or more (2 coins+), possibly illegal in Oakland!

So the next time you’re in a bar playing some pinball you can now play up your bad-boy image to score some phone numbers from the ladies.

Speaking of interesting laws, did you know you have to be at least 21 years old to play pinball in Salinas, CA?  I wonder what John Steinbeck had to say about that.

Salinas, CA:

Sec. 6-1. – Minors prohibited from playing pinball machines.

A.

No person, either as owner or lessee, agent, employee, or otherwise, shall suffer, permit, or allow any person under the age of twenty-one years to operate, manipulate, or play any marble game, pin game, or pinball game, the use, operation, or playing of which is controlled, permitted or made available by placing therein any coin, plug, disc, key or token, or which is let for use, operation or play upon the payment or delivery of anything of value therefor, or upon the making of any purchase, in any place of business or in any place of public resort in the city.

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