Huge Tournament Celebrates End of Oakland’s Bizarre 80-Year Pinball Ban
OAKLAND, California—Can you believe there was a time when the game of pinball was illegal in this town?
Can you believe that time was this year?
Residents of this Bay Area city probably couldn’t possibly imagine they were breaking the law every time they sidled up to a Bally table and played the silver ball. But it was only last month that the Oakland city council finally passed a measure lifting an 80-year ban on the public operation of pinball machines. To celebrate this occasion, a local RadioShack is holding a month-long pinball tournament. The chain, a key resource for pinball owners, has purchased and installed an Iron Man machine in the store in the city’s Fruitvale Station, and invited players to test their skills. Anyone who tops 50 million points will be invited back to compete for the grand prize—the table itself.
Pinball, Scourge of the Nation’s Youth
Oakland’s absurd ban dates to the 1930′s, when the machines were considered a form of gambling. Before the addition of flippers, which allowed the player to bounce the ball and more accurately affect the game’s outcome, pinball machines simply rolled the ball down the playfield. The only way of controlling the outcome was to imprecisely nudge the table. This was not particularly effective, making pinball largely a game of chance. You might get a payout for achieving a high score.
“There was this stigma for what pinball was,” said Josh Sharpe, president of the International Flipper Pinball Association, “which stuck around as it evolved into an amusement machine, with electricity and the opportunity to control the ball via flippers.”
Roger Sharpe, the Association’s co-founder and Josh’s father, was a driving force behind destigmatizing pinball in the 1970s. In 1976, the elder Sharpe appeared before the New York city council to demonstrate that pinball as practiced was a game of skill, not chance. His testimony (and supple wrist) helped reverse New York’s ban on pinball. But the bans, like other ridiculous or outdated laws, remained on the books in other cities across America, including Oakland.
That said, the law went largely unenforced and it wasn’t until an Association tournament was shut down that the organization knew it must fight to see the statute reversed.
“It might have even been about the noise of the business, just based on the machines and the people there,” Sharpe said of the complaint that led to the enforcement of the anti-pinball law. “If you want to shut someone down, find a way to make what they’re doing illegal. So they found this old rule that didn’t allow people to operate pinball machines that way.”
Instead of backing down, the group fought the law as many other communities have done over the last 40 years. The result was Oakland lifting its pinball ban, as a part of a larger measure looking at modern gambling establishments in the Bay Area city.
“We’ve had a really big pinball renaissance and resurgence in the past five years,” said Jody Dankberg, director of marketing for Stern, the only company in America currently manufacturing pinball machines.
“We’re seeing a huge growth in location pinball, a huge growth in league play, tournaments, and things like that,” Dankberg said. “Organizations like the IFPA, these competitive players, they’ve really been the driving force behind getting some of these bans lifted.”
Pinball bans still exist, like in Oakland’s neighboring city Alameda—the location of the Pacific Pinball Museum, which had to remove all the coin slots off of its machines to comply with the law. But pinball can finally emerge from out of the shadows in Oakland.
“It opens the door for so many more cool things,” Dankberg said. “Across the country we’re seeing a huge trend in the barcade business: bars that sell craft beer and have classic videogames and pinball machines.”
“With a law on the books, like it was in Oakland, it prevents that type of venue. So now this is pretty exciting—hopefully we’ll see more pinball in Oakland.”