Date: November 2017

Everyone has a tale to tell about how they became involved in the hobby or business of pinball.  Some stories are quite brief and can be summed up in just a few works.  Adam Ruben’s stretches to 247 pages.

Pinball Wizards: Jackpots, Drains and the Cult of the Silver Ball
Pinball Wizards: Jackpots, Drains and the Cult of the Silver Ball

Pinball Wizards: Jackpots, Drains and the Cult of the Silver Ball is Adam Ruben’s personal reflection of how his childhood enjoyment of the game began at an amusement park in Delaware, turned into a young adulthood obsession and matured into a lifelong interest, becoming his “thing”.

Ruben is a professional writer, comedian and TV host who chronicles the growth of his interest in competitive pinball, from joining a local league to playing at two PAPA World Championships.

Adam Ruben
Adam Ruben

But, although it charts his very personal feelings about the game and the culture surrounding it, the book is far more than just one individual’s attempt to define what pinball means and has meant to him over three decades.  It is also a highly-entertaining and informative examination of pinball’s history, identifying and exploring the key moments in its development, bringing in respected pinball authors and historians to explain their significance and context.

For instance, Montague Redgrave is generally credited with the idea of adding a spring to the plunger in bagatelle, but Ruben dissects his 1871 patent number 115,357 to show the three other advances included in his Improvements in Bagatelles submission.   That addition of a mechanical ball shooter sets up a recurring theme of the book and of pinball’s place in American society – the balance between being a game of chance and a game of skill.

The table of contents
The table of contents

Pinball’s dubious reputation and its role in flat-out illegal practices across America are considered in depth, as is New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s famous drive to rid his city of the scourge of organised gambling by smashing pinballs and tipping them into the river.  Roger Sharpe’s role in helping to overturn that ban is also described in detail.

With Ruben being American, there is little mention of pinball’s wildly-fluctuating popularity, legal status or long history of manufacturing outside the 50 states.  Modern day pinball makers Heighway Pinball and Dutch Pinball do get a fair crack of the whip in the latter stages, but don’t expect any mention of Zaccaria, Petaco, Recel, MarsaPlay, Taito, Hankin, Sega or any of the myriad of non-US companies building games in Europe, Australia, South America and Japan.

Adam said the book's title was the choice of the publisher
Adam said the book’s title was the choice of the publisher

Despite the comprehensive look at the US authorities’ negative attitude to pinball from the ’50s to the ’70s, the book is weighted towards more modern times, meticulously describing the fortunes of Stern Pinball, the founding of Jersey Jack Pinball and Spooky Pinball, and Ruben’s own adventures playing at PAPA (twice).

Although such detail could easily bog down the narrative into the minutia of bill-of-materials, tournament formats, competitive etiquette and ball-control skills, the tone remains light throughout with the ever-present suggestion that at the end of the day it’s all just a game, albeit one which makes the world a happier and more-balanced place.

The problem with any printed matter attempting to define pinball’s current status is how quickly the business moves, and Ruben acknowledges this in a section called Updates.

Bringing the story up-to-date
Bringing the story up-to-date

By its very nature, the book is outdated even before it reaches the presses.  Future game releases hinted at in the text have been announced and gone into production, companies have moved to solve manufacturing problems, and pinball personalities have come and gone.

For all that though, Pinball Wizards: Jackpots, Drains and the Cult of the Silver Ball doesn’t feel stale or outdated.  The key parts of pinball’s appeal, emotional attraction and the way it remains so ingrained in our culture has changed little through the past few decades, and Ruben’s book is a hugely enjoyable way to experience and understand the enduring appeal of a small silver ball rolling around a sheet of wood.

Pinball Wizards: Jackpots, Drains and the Cult of the Silver Ball is published by Chicago Review Press and distributed by IPG.  The cover price in the US is $16.99.

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