As the song “Eye of the Tiger” blares from the arcade’s speakers, a player taps buttons and sends a silver ball flying from flippers to ricochet among lighted bumpers inside a glass-covered cabinet. The player is focused on the frantic action and does what he can to propel the ball at a variety of targets. The game comes to a sudden end as the ball rolls out of the playing field, and more bells and buzzers announce the final point tally.
Pinball—a “devil’s game” once banned in nearly every state—survives as an in-person pastime in an age of online gaming. In Reno, two businesses have built communities of players of all ages. Some come for the nostalgia; others step up to the tables to compete in a mechanical game that was already old when their grandparents were born.
What’s the attraction?
“The social aspect is the biggest thing,” said player Brooke Chesney, 21. “We get to see our friends, and we get to invite more of our friends here, too. Nothing compares to the physical machine, all the clicky-clacky sounds. You can emulate it on a home computer all you want, but it’ll never ever be the same as being there in person. Also, it’s cheap; $20 will last you all night. It’s affordable, cheap thrills.”
Jake Cronin, 27, enjoys the lights and sounds of game play. “And it’s a really fun feeling to get better at something, and fun to see the skill actually involved with pinball,” he said. “It’s very satisfying. You can stay home and do whatever, but at the end of day, you aren’t really socializing the same way you can as if you actually physically go out.”
In Reno, Playfield ’76 and Press Start Bar and Arcade are hubs of the pinball revival.
Playfield ’76 managing partner Hassan Mahmood, who opened the bar at 150 N. Arlington Ave. in 2021, said his goal was to create a “speakeasy atmosphere” that would entertain his customers. When Mahmood was a teenager, his friends played ice hockey, but he was more interested in pinball, he said.
“I think there is a story in a pinball machine. Once you figure out what the goal is, it becomes pretty interesting to me,” Mahmood said.
The players’ diversity in ages and backgrounds also is an attraction, he said.
“We have someone who comes in who’s rated one of the top pinball players in America, (and) when he’s playing, there might be a 23-year-old on the pinball machine next to him,” Mahmood said. “I love that about the game; it brings the age gap together.”
Banned in the 1940s
Pinball machines became popular during the Great Depression and, like slot machines, were seen as a corrupting influence. The machines were banned in many states in the 1940s, because they were considered a form of gambling.
Mahmood loves the game’s shady history. He christened his arcade Playfield ’76, because a New York court ruled in 1976 that the game involved more skill than luck.
As arcade games became more electronic, the popularity of the mechanical devices faded. The vintage games started making a comeback in the early ’00s, however, when arcade bars propagated in New York City.
Modern machines have the look and feel of the old pinball cabinets, but with high-tech upgrades. The games’ themes often are inspired by movie franchises, including Deadpool and Lord of the Rings. Inside, computer software creates the visual and audio effects.
Pinball wizards compete
Press Start Arcade and Bar owner and operator John Simpson started with a few pinball machines; now, his arcade bar, at 600 S. Center St., hosts Reno’s largest pinball tournaments.
“Pinball’s popularity in this town has been in a state of disrepair for a long time,” Simpson said. “(The old) machines never functioned properly. They were never taken care of, so there wasn’t much to build a crowd from.”
When he opened Press Start in 2017, he focused on attracting regular patrons and growing a pinball community in the Truckee Meadows, he said. He has three rules for his business: “No. 1, make sure all the machines are functioning. Secondly, keep it affordable, (so) we are half the price. … Lastly, (we want) to build a community that has all types of people with different skill levels.”
Press Start is the only arcade bar that legally caters to customers younger than 21, because the bar and arcade spaces are separate, he said. That attracts families and people of all ages to the games.
Most Press Start customers are in their mid-30s, Simpson said, but he noted that in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, he has seen more younger players.
Playing a mean pinball
RenoPinball.com owner and pinball player Jim Martin runs the International Flipper Pinball Association Tournament (IFPA) in Reno. Martin began playing the game in the early 2000s. He is now in his mid-50s and continues to play regularly. It’s all about flipper techniques, he said.
“With pinball, there is no pattern to be learned. The ball is random, so what it decides to do dictates what the player is going to do,” he said. “It’s betting on your ability to learn the skill of nudging the ball off the rubber and to hit the flipper where you want to make the shots.”
In 2018, Martin teamed up with Simpson at Press Start, where the duo began running the IFPA tournament almost every Tuesday.
“Because there’s a bar, most people who come to Press Start to play are 21 years and older,” Martin said. “However, I (recently) had a girl who played in my tournament who was 8 years old.”
Reno pinball player Ben Hoaks grew up in the 1980s playing arcade games and became fascinated with pinball. He now owns 14 pinball machines and plays regularly in the IFPA tournament every Tuesday. His advice for players: “Practice, practice, practice. Keep your eye on the ball, and shoot the flashing lights,” he said.
At year’s end, the 16 players with the most points in the IFPA tournament battle it out for the Nevada pinball championship. Last year, Hoaks and seven others from the Press Start tournament competed in the state tournament, which was won by Teddy McGinty of Reno.
Kevin Woods taught himself how to repair pinball machines in the 1980s and, thanks in part to pinball’s increasing popularity, turned his hobby into a full-time job.
“Pinball has really comeback in the last 15 to 20 years or so,” said Woods, the owner of Kev’s Pinball Repair.
A lot of his time is devoted to keeping up with the technology. He noted that the newer machines have gotten easier to repair, but regular maintenance is required for the older, mechanical models.
“A lot of the newer techs don’t touch the older stuff as much. So for me, I wonder: Are we going to be a dying breed?” he said.