The Wizard of the Silver Ball

”Ever since I was a young boy
I’ve played the silver ball.”

In the 1960s, many a child was enthralled for good when a Fortuna game emerged from the large package plucked from beneath the Christmas tree. Over the holidays, the metal ball clinked insistently, seeking the paddock fenced by small nails that would yield the highest point score. Shouts of joy and irritated accusations of cheating, whether due to the poking technique or the correctness of scoring, mixed into a cacophony that filled the entire living room, prompting parents to retreat to the kitchen or bedroom to escape the infernal racket and regret – too late – the purchase of the blasted device.

A 50s Fortuna table game
Photo: Wanha Elias Antiikkiliike

Fortuna, as its name implies, which gained great popularity already in the 18th century, was not so much about the player’s skills but rather about the smile of Dame Fortune. Fortuna could be found in the toy arsenal of almost every family with children living in the Menninkäisentie neighborhood. As skill was a secondary element in playing the game, a six-year-old snotty next-door kid could outdo the whole group, adults included; provided that the person calculating the points was honest and up to the task.

An advanced version of Fortuna was a spring-powered ”Superfortuna,” hand-built by my friend Hassan – with a little help from his old man. You could play it with a five-penny bet. Whoever managed to get the glass marble into the ”Viktory” hole could choose almost anything from Hassan’s yard sale table. No skill was involved in this game either. Around the Superfortuna, elementary school-aged boys hovered with their five pennies held in their dirty hands, like a swarm of gadflies circling around a swimmer who had just lifted his head above the water at the Westend beach on sweltering July days. ”Viktory” was hard-won…

Pajatso, a game for skilled players: there’s a chance to win real money. Photo: Wikipedia

Pajatso was a degree more addictive. After all, there was the possibility that with a small bet and skillful fingers, you could win a scoop full of 20-penny coins. However, the more likely outcome was losing a mark or two saved for an evening screening at Kino Tapiola. Pajatso was clearly gambling, and – according to the men who patted the sides of the machine, day after day, in the gas station café – a mechanical device requiring real skill. That’s how it seemed from a little boy’s perspective too. The coins dropped into a metal cup with a sound that entranced the senses. The uproar of the male crowd around the machine was comparable to the sounds produced by the Fortuna.

There may have been some text about age restrictions on the metal sign bolted to the side of the Pajatso. But, as with buying cigarettes in those times, it was sufficient for a boy to reach the counter at the R-Kiosk or to the game’s mysterious ”myntinkast” – meaning the coin slot in Swedish – to load their coins. The main terms quickly became familiar to the young lad who’d accompanied his father or uncle to the café to enjoy some Coke: middle pot, front row, back row… Pajatso machines were encountered almost everywhere. No one would have been surprised if they’d seen the pastor and sexton putting their coins on the line for a game of Pajatso in the church foyer.

Myntinkast, i.e. the coin slot
Photo:  PS Auction

Hassan was just the guy who introduced me to the real silver ball game, pinball. A one-and-a-half-year age difference and my friend’s endless curiosity-borne confidence made him a big brother figure to me, well into my teenage years. As usual, Hassan had biked over to check out the offerings of the Dipoli building, which had just opened its doors. The sensational news was that in the corner of the cafeteria on the second floor of the main building, there was that amazing electromechanical table game, called pinball, that we had already seen in foreign movies.

Dipoli… Somewhere inside that building I was initiated in pinball playing.
Photo: Teuvo Kanerva, KAMU Espoon kaupunginmuseo

The reason he took me along was quickly revealed. Hassan needed coins to introduce the new game to me. He knew I had them because he had bummed the remnants of a milkshake from me at Valio bar in Mäntyviita that same autumn afternoon. My friend played well: he knew just how to shimmy the machine to the brink of tilt and slightly beyond. I also got to play for a moment before two elderly men, picking their teeth with toothpicks and dressed in dark suits, arrived. A decade later, I understood that they were actually two twenty-something engineering students, at the beginning of their studies. The mid-60s dress code was still very gentleman-like. ”Now make way, petty plunger boys, so that uncles who have just enjoyed their lunch can also play” was the line with which we were shooed away. I’m still not sure what that expression meant, but undoubtedly it was related to the hip movements made while playing pinball.

Kino Tapiola ja Valio bar, side by side Photo: unknown, KAMU Espoon kaupunginmuseo

A pinball machine also appeared in the lobby of Kino Tapiola. I often went purposely to play pinball in the lobby: although quite rarely, as I usually didn’t miss the opportunity to also go see any movie that happened to be on – anything was acceptable, including Angelique films. The cinema’s pinball was a tricky case. By this point, I had already gotten familiar with the psyche of those machines and considered myself a pretty good player. The difficulty of the movie theater’s pinball is best described by the fact that I managed to get a free play only once. I almost jumped when the loud snap announcing a free round echoed from within the machine. Many of my friends complained about the same, so getting a freebie brought some kind of reverence in my circle of friends: ”Rob once got a freebie from that!”

A pinball heaven…
Photo: Wikipedia

We didn’t often muster the energy to go to Linnanmäki amusement park from Tapiola with a group of friends. Or rather, it was more about a fair amount of spending money needed and, without a car ride offered by someone’s dad or mom, it was quite an adventure too. My enthusiasm for pinballs was so great that I spent one rainy Linnanmäki trip in the arcade hitting pinball. Getting soaked on the roller coaster once was enough for the rides. The money set aside for outdoor devices could also be burned playing pinball. Hassan wisely stalked the guys who left their game unfinished, whose parents managed to pull the game-enthralled junior away from the machine by tugging at his sleeve.

The roller coaster at Linnanmäki amusement park
Photo: Arvo Kajantie, Helsingin kaupunginmuseo

Infatuation is the right word to describe the emotional state that was created when the player transformed into a part of the machine. This was entirely possible for a teenager who dedicated his whole soul to gaming. In modern terms, one would speak of a flow state, a feeling of not being able to lose the ball, but a stopper always conveniently appears in the side alleys, and even the slight touch of the flipper’s end is enough to bounce the ball into the missing bonus hole. Unfortunately, such a state was achieved only on very rare occasions. Usually, playing was fumbling with sweaty hands and losing the ball too easily as it continually found the only straight path between both flippers.

Young audience watching Wigwam play in Syyslystit by the Central Pool 1970
Photo: Teuvo Kanerva, Museovirasto

Recently released pop records were played over outdoor speakers at the Tapiola autumn celebrations, called Syyslystit – quite loudly, I think. While idling around on the Central Pool’s side terrace in a drizzle, my ears picked up something unheard of. As if an extraterrestrial bright light would have illuminated my innermost being; the rainy autumn weather had been wiped away. The song started with the powerful flamenco pattern on an acoustic guitar, until suddenly a massive, distorted bass rumble cut through the jingle of the guitar. Then a familiar-sounding singer began his storytelling: ”Ever since I was a young boy, I’ve played the silver ball. From Soho down to Brighton, I must have played ’em all…” Only after the first verse did the drums storm in. I was in a trance. What band, what song? Someone knowledgeable near me said: ”The Who, Pinball Wizard”. The next day, the single was found at Wager Musiikki, the local record store. A couple of years later, when I had managed to purchase a decent Hi-Fi system with my summer earnings, the first song I listened to – and surely it was heard by the whole building at that volume – was ”Pinball Wizard”. Now, over fifty years later, the power and effect of the song has not diminished in the least.

Pinball Wizard/Tommy by the Who, the album cover

The strangest thing is that The Who’s Pete Townshend composed ”Pinball Wizard” as if it were a commissioned work. Respected music critic Nik Cohn, who heard the raw version of the ”Tommy” opera, didn’t exactly get excited about the grueling album, which was overflowing with mystical-spiritual shades. Knowing that Cohn was a pinball enthusiast, Townshend suggested that the deaf, dumb, and blind protagonist of the story would play pinball. The single was then almost immediately recorded, and Cohn praised the ”Tommy” double album as a masterpiece, launching The Who into entirely new spheres of global popularity. A prime example of this is the band’s raucous early morning gig as one of the headliners at the Woodstock Festival in August 1969.

”I thought I was the Bally table king” Photo: Harri Ahola, Helsingin kaupunginmuseo, colorized

In Räkälä, the local church’s youth club, there was a whole room full of pinball machines. There, I tried playing pinball blind and deaf, inspired by The Who’s ”Tommy” album, with expected dismal results. We once discovered that one of the machines, Vagabond, gave free plays when the open backside of the scoreboard was slightly fiddled with. This somehow felt unfair. This injustice was quickly rectified when the older guys saw what we were doing. We were pushed aside using mild violence.

A Vagabond pinball machine giving free plays galore…
Photo: Google Arts & Culture

The worst of my pinball obsession gradually faded away. Partly because there were no more gaming machines clattering in every lobby and waiting room. However, it didn’t mean that I could walk past a pinball machine like any ordinary person. I still had to nudge a couple of games. During my first trip abroad to Mallorca in the summer of 1980, I unexpectedly found myself in front of a pinball machine. A small bistro in Fornaluxt village had a machine that generously gave out free plays. I intentionally tried to play poorly, yet free plays kept appearing on the scoreboard. The owner smiled behind the counter as I ordered another round. Free plays couldn’t be wasted, after all.

One would have thought that domestic travel in the early 90s would be a pinball-free zone. But it wasn’t. During a dull late summer holiday in windy and rainy Kalajoki, a fully digital machine beckoning from the corner of a café kept me and my son sane. We were the only customers pounding on the pinball machine. The fruit machines were popular among other vacationers. They could yield more than just free plays.

A fully digital pinball
Photo: Wikipedia

A spa vacation in Ikaalinen later in the same decade also brought me into the magic circle of the pinball. The machine was tucked away in a nice secluded corner under the stairs. If that pinball machine is still there, my top-ranking score might still be displayed on the Top Ten list. The good score was mainly due to an apparent design flaw in this particular machine. The ball couldn’t be nudged out if one simply remembered to lift the flippers in an upward position in time; the silver ball remained on the playing field.

The video game boom that began in the early 80s meant, if not complete extinction, a significant blow to pinball machines. The primitive coin-operated games like ”Space Invaders,” ”Pac-Man,” and others that buzzed in every corner of bars didn’t really interest the pinball generation. Video games lacked that mystical ”petty plunger” element. They couldn’t be tilted or nudged, two factors that brought a sense of real control over the gaming machine.

Space Invaders, no tilt in this game, but it’s game over...
Photo: Wikipedia

In the early 90s, it was easy to install freeware and shareware games borrowed from acquaintances and, as was still possible at the time, commercially sold software onto our family’s first computer. It seems incomprehensible now, but the first version of the Office suite could be installed from a few disks that contained all the necessary files. Complicated protection methods with tricky codes only became prominent much later.

One of the first games on our new Hyundai, which boasted a blazing four-megabyte RAM, was, of course, a pinball game. It wasn’t the same as tilting a real pinball table, but the software was evolved enough that certain key commands simulated tilting and nudging – even up to triggering a tilt. When we upgraded our computer, that beloved pinball application, which featured sampled sound effects from popular hits of the era, refused to work anymore. When you hit a jackpot, the game would play a snippet of Peter Gabriel’s ”Sledgehammer.” Groovy!

Peter Gabriel/Sledgehammer
Screen shot: YouTube

In the fall of 2011, I was on a leave of absence from university work, so I had seemingly endless time on my hands. That same year, inspired by my son’s example, I bought my first real smartphone, the Samsung Galaxy S2. Among the first applications I installed was a pinball game. I think I went through all the pinball apps available on the Play Store until I settled on one called Pinball Ride. It also worked well on my very primitive Acer tablet. The game had a blatantly sexist storyline, but it was straightforward and didn’t have any shady hidden bonuses. Of course, when I switched from the overpriced Samsung phones to another manufacturer’s devices, that pinball game no longer worked on the new phone. And for some reason, it couldn’t even be downloaded to Samsung’s brand-new tablet, except from some dubious websites as an APK package. The only alternative left was Pinball Deluxe. It’s decent, but the laws of physics go out the window when playing that app.

Pinball Ride, a sexist pinball game
Photo: Play Store, Massive Finger

Pinball machines are still available for purchase. Prices range from a few hundred euros to tens of thousands and beyond. But where would one put such a noisy, flashing, and large contraption, even if I had the money to buy a decent pinball machine and my wife granted permission in some temporary bout of insanity? The answer is: nowhere. However, I promise that if I ever hear the familiar call of the silver ball, I will answer it. There’s always time to play a round or two…

Quotations: Pinball Wizard. Words and music by Pete Townshend, the Who, 1969


Sähköpostiosoitettasi ei julkaista. Pakolliset kentät on merkitty *