A REGULATION PINBALL weighs 80 grams, about half as heavy as a baseball. Hold four of them in your hand, and it’s the weight of a human heart. A standard pinball machine contains between a quarter-mile and a half-mile of wire, the nervous system for around 3,500 parts — springs, diodes, solenoids, capacitors, switches — all wrapped in a wood rectangle and covered by a sheet of tempered glass so tough it can absorb the impact of a full pint glass of beer dropped from above.
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Brian Headley, a longtime pinball collector and mechanic, has seen it happen.
He’s also seen an explosion in Seattle pinball over the past 10 years, bringing a game many thought was dead — pummeled long ago by gangsterism and racketeering scandals, then drowned in the wake of video games — back to vibrant, flashing, noisy life.
“Back in the day, you could get a ‘broken’ machine for 50 bucks,” Headley says one quiet morning at Jupiter, Belltown’s newest arcade, where he’d opened up one of his games (Embryon, from 1981) to inspect its guts. By “back in the day,” he means the late 1990s. “Sometimes, it’d only take 10 minutes and $15 worth of parts to get it going again. But then who’d want it?”
Now people are selling those machines for thousands of dollars. So many leagues and tournaments have popped up, a person could play competitive pinball every night of the week — keeping Headley busy. Like other pinball operators, he repairs and maintains his machines (20 at Jupiter, plus a few others sprinkled around town) and splits the customers’ quarters with the owner of whatever establishment they’re occupying. Games are usually 50 to 75 cents per play.
A strong women’s pinball renaissance has emerged as well, partly thanks to the Babes in Pinland league and the wryly named Powderpuff tournament, born at Shorty’s — a venerable Belltown arcade/bar that carried the torch for Seattle pinball during the dark years — back in 1998.
According to pinballmap.com (a crowdsourced but industry-standard database), Seattle has 484 pinball machines out for public play. That’s a pinball-to-person ratio of 1:1,835, making Seattle the No. 2 pinball city in the country, which pretty much means the world. Portland is in first place, with a ratio of 1:1,141, while other cities trail far behind: Chicago, 1:14,524; New Orleans, 1:20,700; New York, 1:28,743.
That’s all mildly interesting, but the city’s deeper history with pinball is oddly grim and seedy. Decades-old newspaper clippings and city documents stashed in archives around town tell the story of pinball as an economic dynamo for organized crime and police corruption that went all the way to the top.
By 1960, a string of pinball-related bombings — including car bombs — startled the city so much, Mayor Gordon S. Clinton called for a total ban on the game. The Seattle City Council balked. People grumbled they were on the take, too. Eleven years and a few dead bodies later, a grand jury indicted the city council president, the police chief, the former King County sheriff, and cops up and down the chain of command on charges related to bribery, extortion, blackmail, sex work — and pinball.
One of those bodies belonged to “pinball king” Ben Cichy, who controlled Seattle pinball licenses — and was a close friend of King County Prosecutor Charles O. Carroll. On May 31, 1969, Cichy was found dead in 5 feet of water near his yacht on Yarrow Point. In an unusual move, his autopsy was delayed until the chief medical examiner (Carroll’s brother-in-law) got back to town, and then conducted without any law-enforcement witnesses — against protocol for such a sudden and high-profile demise. The death was ruled an accident.
“The whole Cichy thing remained a mystery,” says Christopher Bayley, the prosecutor who succeeded Carroll. “But the amount of money in pinball was enormous.”
“It’s an ugly, ugly story in Seattle history,” says Tim Burgess, a former city council member (2007-17), as well as retired journalist; police officer; and, for 71 days in 2017, Seattle mayor. “Corruption, bribery, shakedowns — all in competition over who was going to control pinball.”
BUT 30-YEAR-OLD Timothy Hilgard isn’t thinking about any of this as he takes a swig of Red Bull; pushes up the sleeves of his black leather jacket; and approaches Scared Stiff, an Elvira-themed pinball machine from 1996.
He’s thinking about winning.
The atmosphere at Add-a-Ball, a pleasantly scruffy, subterranean arcade/bar in Fremont, is a little rowdy on any given night — at least by pinball standards. It’s a convivial place where regulars yell hello when a familiar face drifts through the door and down a ramp toward the bar, lighting up for hugs and high-fives along the way.
Tonight, it’s in full-on party mode: 23 machines bleeping and clanging; people yowling in triumph or cursing in frustration; a lusty, retro-rock ‘n’ roll playlist blaring (Iggy Pop, Bruce Springsteen, Guns N’ Roses).
The cozy little warren is packed with 52 contenders, plus friends and onlookers, for Pinfall 2019, a raucous variation on traditional pinball tournaments — with extra antics inspired by professional wrestling. One round requires competitors to play one-handed. Another encourages trash talking. There are costumes.
The lady dressed like a heavy-metal diva by the 1995 Attack from Mars machine? That’s Sarah Hager, a bartender and yoga instructor who leads Sunday-afternoon classes for yoga-curious pinballers upstairs. (Instead of closing with the traditional “Namaste,” pinball yogis one recent Sunday flashed heavy-metal devil horns and grinned: “Namaslay.”)
Christopher Kimbrough, also known as Big Bubba Biscuit, is several machines down, playing 8 Ball Deluxe (1981). With his beard, vest, cattleman’s hat and Alabama accent, he could’ve sauntered out of the pool-hall tableaux painted on the game’s backglass. He moved away from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, six years ago (“Let’s just say I didn’t get along with people’s political mindset”) and got into the game when he arrived in pinball-happy Seattle.
The intensely focused, heavily tattooed woman playing Iron Maiden (2018) in the other room is Steph Hanlon, an artist and tattooist who, like many pinballers, says she likes the inclusive, eclectic community where all kinds of people (white collar, blue collar, no collar) commune over high scores and skill shots. “Nerdy weirdoes!” she shouts through the din. “Wonderful people!”
In the middle of this happy carnival, Hilgard needs to focus. He’s new to tournaments, and his opponent is Hannah Hatch, currently ranked by the International Flipper Pinball Association as the world’s No. 1 women’s player. (Seattle is home to six of the women’s top 20; the currently ranked best pinball player in the world, Raymond Davidson, lives in Everett.)
Unnervingly, Hatch is dressed like a mime — and totally, smilingly silent.
Hilgard grimaces in concentration, then grips the machine like it’s throwing a current through his body: legs kicking out, shoulders twisting violently left and right. Eventually, his ball — like every ball in the history of the game — drains. (“Pinball,” an onlooker shrugs in commiseration.)
The mime takes over.
Hatch is also energetic, but more contained. She studiously “cradles” the pinball (letting it settle in the arm-crook of a flipper), pauses before taking shots, then bounces gently on the balls of her feet while it zips up and around the playfield. Occasionally, she rockets her torso forward when slapping the flipper buttons, as if the velocity of her body could propel the little steel ball.
Not that it needs her help. Pinballs have been clocked traveling 10 to 12 miles per hour — which doesn’t sound like much, but that’s around 15 feet per second, which feels pretty fast in a little, target-crammed box only 4.6 feet long by 2.25 feet wide.
To his surprise, Hilgard wins the bout. Until recently, he’d just been a dabbler who — like Kimbrough — found the game after moving to Seattle. That was three years ago. It started as a way to meet people, but Hilgard grew increasingly enamored with the machines.
“They’re big, beautiful relics of a forgotten age — a combination of art and engineering,” he says, adding that he’s only been playing competitively for a few months and is not a careful, trap-and-shoot player like Hatch. “I just like to fire away!”
Hilgard fires his way to losses in the next couple rounds, getting knocked out of Pinfall, while Hatch wends her way through the bracket. Some bouts last half an hour; others are over in just three minutes.
“That’s what I love about pinball,” James Frost-Winn, one of Pinfall’s organizers, says, gently smacking the glass top of a Medieval Madness machine (1997) for emphasis. “It’s like sports — the best player might lose to the mediocre player. It all depends on the machine and the night. No matter how good you think you are, the game sometimes tells you another goddamned thing!”
WITHOUT REALIZING IT, Frost-Winn’s paean to pinball — that tension between luck and skill — pinpoints exactly what made it so attractive to grifters and gangsters, and so frustrating for law-and-order types, half a century ago.
“Pinball is popular again?” David Boerner, a professor emeritus at the Seattle University School of Law, asks a few days after Pinfall. He sounds incredulous. As a young assistant attorney general in 1969, Boerner — along with his boss, then-Attorney General Slade Gorton — sued the local pinball heavies out of existence.
“Our argument was that these are, in fact, gambling devices and not games of skill,” he says. “We won. And they went out of business.” (More on that in a bit.)
“But you say people are playing again — in tournaments? Just for fun? Well. I’m very surprised.”
Nobody knows exactly when the first pinball machine arrived in Seattle — but by the mid 1930s, the game was already making trouble.
The first use of the word “pinball” in Seattle comes from a 1935 Daily Times article reporting a burglary at Tom’s Hamburger Shop in Interbay. The crooks made off with “$6 in nickels, and $10 worth of cigarettes, three quarts of wine and six quarts of beer.” The first instance of “pinball” in Seattle Municipal Archives pops up in a 1937 letter from a pinball operator protesting an annual license hike from $15 to $120. (He must’ve either misunderstood or gotten his way — a 1939 ordinance lists the fee as $15. Today, they’re $50 to $200 per game, depending on how much each costs to play.)
Gambling pinball was already here, or not far behind: A 1940 classified ad lists an “automatic payout” pinball machine for sale or trade — preferably, it specified, for a model train set.
Payout games didn’t play like today’s pinball, and often were one-ball-per-coin machines. “The fun of batting a ball around took a back seat to, ‘I’m putting a nickel in this thing to see if I can win five nickels,’ ” collector and mechanic Tim Meighan explains. “The games were rudimentary and difficult to win — obviously, so the operator got most of the money.” A few years ago, Meighan was working on a 1936 machine from Chicago (which was, and remains, the pinball manufacturing center of the world), and found a surprise. “That looked like an old pinball,” he says. “but when I opened it up, it literally had a slot-machine mechanism inside the cabinet. You couldn’t get more blatant than that.”
For-fun pinball was legal and gambling pinball wasn’t, but the lines got real blurry real fast. “Local municipalities got sick of trying to tell the difference,” Meighan says. “So a lot of them outlawed all games with plungers and flippers.”
Pinball’s legal wars had begun.
THROUGHOUT THE ’40s and ’50s, people kept talking about banning pinball, but elected officials never quite got there. Headlines chart the story. 1943: “Ban on Pinball Games to Be Asked.” 1947: “Pinball Operators Ask Delay in Ban.” 1951: “Pinball Bills Vetoed.”
License and tax money was involved — but so were gambling, tax evasion and bribery. One telling headline from 1955: “Pinball Operators Seek to Keep Industry Clean.”
Obviously, things were getting dirty.
Then, at 12:39 a.m. on Oct. 10, 1957, Seattle got its first pinball bomb. Somebody threw dynamite into Century Distributors, a coin-machine business on Queen Anne. The explosion blew a hole in a wall, revealing 24 illegal slot machines, which were immediately confiscated. Detective Chief Frank Ramos complained that the owner, Orville Cohen, was “reticent concerning certain matters” that might help solve the crime. Cohen quickly quit the coin-machine business to run a construction company.
The bombings continued: an explosion at a card, dice and gambling-chip company; a car bomb at the home of Fred Galeno, secretary-treasurer of the Amusement Association of Seattle (and also in the horse-racing business); a similar car bomb for mayoral candidate Gordon Newell; and two sticks of dynamite tossed through the window at an interstate coin-machine distributor’s office, blowing a hole in the concrete floor.
By August 1960, Mayor Clinton had had enough. The headline: “Pinball Games Must Go ‘Regardless’ — Clinton.” The city council complained it couldn’t live without the $325,000 in annual pinball-licensing fees.
But newspapers had been reporting on politicians and law-enforcement figures whose finances were under investigation — and prominent pinball names kept popping up. Names like Frank Colacurcio (who’d go on to become Seattle’s infamous sex-and-strip-club kingpin); Galeno (whose car got exploded); and Cichy, the yacht owner and reportedly strong swimmer who would be found in 5 feet of water.
A short item about his death in the Daily Times included an opaque but ominous detail: “Cichy’s glasses were not broken, and his watch was still running when the body was recovered.” He also was still wearing slippers.
People had to know the stakes were higher than $325,000 in fees.
And they were.
IN THE EARLY 1960s, University of Washington sociology professor William Chambliss went undercover in King County’s vice scene, gathering material for what would become his opus on corruption, the 1978 book “On the Take: From Petty Crooks to Presidents.”
During the ’60s, Chambliss reported, there were 3,500 pinball machines licensed in Washington, making more than $7 million a year — in 1965 dollars. Adjusted for inflation (per the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics), that’s $56,876,994 per year, or $16,251 per machine. Cash.
Retired amusement-game mechanic Ed Anacker wasn’t around for the bad old days, but remembers later operators hauling $10,000 in coins out of prime locations every two weeks. “There’s the potential for skimming, money laundering, tax evasion, all types of theft.”
And if one operator horned in on another’s territory, it could be problematic.
“Things can happen,” Anacker explains, like an operator ordering goons to go into a bar and wreck a competitor’s machines, later telling the bar operator that he can offer better games — and keep a watchful eye on the place. “Little things like that.”
Little things begot bigger things. “Drowning is a favorite method of eliminating troublemakers,” Chambliss wrote in a 1971 article for the Wisconsin Law Review, alleging there had been at least 13 suspicious deaths affiliated with Seattle’s pinball and the vice scene between 1955 and 1969: a county auditor who talked to a reporter and was found dead in the water the next day, a vice-friendly assistant police chief who drowned on a fishing trip with associates, Cichy by his yacht, etc.
This drama was unfolding in, and abetted by, a peculiar legal setting — Seattle’s Tolerance Policy. That history begins in the 1940s and is its own saga, but former council member Burgess boils it down: “Basically, the city openly and officially took the position that if we allow just a little bit of crime, we’ll keep the big East Coast Mafiosi out of Seattle. Beat cops would allow certain vice activities to occur, and beat cops would collect money, literally, from illegal gambling joints, gay bathhouses, whatever.”
Pinball existed in that legal gray area, alongside sex work and poker. Police, in conjunction with vice bosses, ran a pay-for-play system. During the mid-1960s, Chambliss wrote, “gambling, book-making, pinball, and usury operations grossed at least $25 million a year in the city alone. It was literally the case that drunks were arrested on the street for public intoxication while gamblers made thousands of dollars and policemen accepted bribes five feet away.”
The Tolerance machine was a keep-a-little, pass-the-rest procedure all the way to the top, which is how police chiefs and a city council president wound up in the 1971 indictments — and perhaps why it was so hard to eliminate pinball until Gorton’s 1969 lawsuit, which finally declared the game illegal gambling.
“The pinball industry basically stopped operating once we won that lawsuit,” Boerner says. As for the grand jury indictment, Boerner adds, “We didn’t win all the cases, but it was successful in ending the Tolerance policy.”
Over the next few years, the state legislature rewrote gambling laws and brought just-for-fun pinball back into the world — in the meantime, serious criminals seemed to lose interest.
“There’s much more money to get in drugs, that kind of thing,” Anacker says.
In 1975, The Seattle Times ran a short pinball story, this time about three teenagers in Spokane who set a world record for continuous play on one machine: 57.5 hours, spending $18 in the process.
Pinball was innocent again.
IN THE COMING decades, pinball would be almost entirely abandoned for video games. Shorty’s opened in 1997 as a curiosity — a pinball-themed destination — and slowly added more machines after its founder, Martha Manwaring, married a Dutch pinball mechanic named Avout Vander Werf, who still runs the place.
The game limped along until around 2008, when things just started to happen: the first Northwest pinball show; the ’zine Skill Shot, which made pinball seem like a real scene, with news and gossip; new pinball destination openings: Add-a-Ball, the Seattle Pinball Museum in the Chinatown-International District, Full Tilt in Ballard, Flip Flip Ding Ding in Georgetown, and on and on.
But why pinball? Why now? Why here? After asking dozens of pinball aficionados, nobody seems sure. (One popular answer: “Dunno. Maybe because it rains a lot?”)
Brad Johnsen, who co-founded Add-a-Ball in his old scooter repair shop, has given the question serious thought.
“A lot of people who play are loners,” he says one slow afternoon at the bar. “I don’t mean this insultingly. They might be like, ‘Pinball is a weird thing I do, but I can go somewhere with so many people around me doing it, too.’ They can trade games, acknowledge each other’s high scores. It brings people out of their shells.” It’s a good game for a lonely town.
Johnsen pauses. It’s around 6 p.m., and the place is getting busier.
“At some point, the flippers start to become like an extension of your body,” Johnsen continues. “These things moving around that you can’t touch, but you can feel. It’s like surfing in a way — a flow, a rhythm, so much of it is unconscious — but the ball is in a case, under glass, like it’s in another world.”
Johnsen pauses again, thinking, then seems to give up.
“I don’t know,” he finally says. “Pinball is a weird contraption.”