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Pinheads rejoice: Oakland’s 80-year pinball ban lifted

on September 15, 2014

Pinheads in Oakland celebrated a bizarre victory this summer when the Oakland City Council passed an ordinance lifting a citywide ban on pinball. The law prohibiting pinball had been on the books, but not enforced, for the past 80 years, dating back to a time when pinball machines were seen as gambling devices. In July, the council voted to amend an ordinance in the City Code that made it “unlawful for any person to store or use certain pinball machines.”

While the law had not been enforced for decades, in honor of the lifting of the ban, Radio Shack, the International Flipper Pinball Association and Stern Pinball, the largest and for years the only pinball manufacturer in the world, are hosting a month-long tournament at a location not often associated with pinball: A Radio Shack store in Fruitvale.  Just inside the store’s entrance sits an intricate, colorful Iron Man pinball machine available for anyone to play free of charge. Pinball players will compete for a chance to win the pinball machine itself, along with a check for $2,500.

While those actually meeting the minimum 50 million point score needed to qualify for the finals are serious—even professional—pinball players, a recent afternoon saw a security guard, a group of young kids, and a man who drove up from San Jose just to play the game, all taking their turns flipping the silver ball through a miniature world of bright lights, sounds and superheroes.

Why was pinball banned in the first place? When pinball machines were first mass-produced in the 1930s, they were constructed without flippers, essentially leaving the game completely up to chance. Authorities saw this as gambling and, as the games became more popular, cities around the country enacted laws banning pinball. Pinball “attracted the mafia and it was a constant struggle for pinball manufacturers to disassociate themselves from gambling,” said Michael Schiess, owner of the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda, where he skirts an Alameda law banning pinball by removing the coin drop from each machine. (He instead charges an entrance fee to the museum.)

Schiess actually has a pinball machine in his museum that was confiscated by the Oakland police in 1936. The machine was supposed to be destroyed, but instead was brought to Alameda and gifted to Alameda police officers. By the time Schiess got his hands on the machine, it had been sitting in a former Alameda police officer’s garage for 80 years.

City councils have a rich history with pinball as well. In 1976, New York City dropped its ban on pinball after magazine editor Roger Sharpe performed some courtroom theatrics for city councilmembers to prove that pinball was not gambling, but rather a game of skill. A pinball machine was wheeled into the courtroom, and Sharpe promised to hit the ball through the middle lane—then did just that. The council promptly overturned the ban.

A recent resurgence of pinball in Oakland may at least in part explain this city council’s decision to drop the ban. “Pinball just seems to be the game that won’t die. It’s touched so many people throughout the years that it’s seen a lot of resurgence,” Schiess said. “When video came out, pinball got hammered pretty good, but then it sprang back. People got tired of video games. It sprang back because it wasn’t a virtual thing. It was real.”

While Seattle and Portland are recognized as the true hubs of pinball in the country, the game has been spreading down the Pacific coast into San Francisco and Oakland in recent years. In spite of the ban (which many business owners and city officials were not aware of), pinball leagues have been launching all over Oakland, including Belles and Chimes, the first all-women’s pinball league in the world.

Schiess thinks Oakland leaders are recognizing the potential of pinball to spur local business. “They realized that Oakland has become an epicenter for pinball,” Schiess said.  “A lot more leagues and tournaments are popping up. They certainly must have seen the economic benefits of letting pinball be played. Whatever threat it had in the 30s and 40s is long gone.”

But the lifting of the pinball ban was just incidental, according to a city council agenda report from the city administrator. In January, the city council’s Public Safety Committee, led by Councilmember Noel Gallo (District 5), directed city staff to modify the city’s municipal and planning codes to close a loophole that allowed “Internet sweepstakes cafes” in the city’s Fruitvale District to operate legally.  The cafes allow paying customers to play computer games in which they can win money. The council viewed the games as illegal gambling, and a report from the Public Safety Committee argued that the “Internet sweepstakes cafes” were leading to check and credit card fraud, loan sharking, robbery, and money laundering.

City staff happened upon the outdated pinball law in the municipal code as they attempted to regulate these cafes. So along with the pinball provision, the council passed an ordinance on July 15 prohibiting Internet cafes from offering games that people play on computers to win prizes and money.

Now fans hope the attention from lifting the pinball ban brings in more players. “Hopefully, with the lift there will be some pinball enthusiasts out there who get back into it,” said Aaron Nelson, who is the 54th ranked player in the world with the International Flipper Pinball Association, and who is helping organize the tournament at Radio Shack. “They’ll be reminded how great it was playing as a kid growing up, how much fun it is, how it can bring families together.”

Radio Shack, Stern Pinball and the International Flipper Pinball Association are hosting the month-long tournament at Radio Shack on East 9th Street in Fruitvale. The winner will take home an official Stern Iron Man Pro Vault Edition pinball machine and a check for $2,500.  The tournament ends September 19 and the final game will be played on September 20.

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  1. Echa Schneider on September 16, 2014 at 10:31 am

    <3 this story! Thanks for covering the Iron Man tournament, it's always awesome to see pinball in the news. If any readers are interested in learning more about the Bay Area pinball scene, they can find a list of upcoming tournaments and other pinball events, as well as information about all the local leagues at:

  2. Pinball Machine Australia on March 23, 2015 at 11:53 pm

    Pinball is a great game, a wonderful recreation that should be maintained and promoted. More players will certainly make this game more enjoyable and challenging. Hope the tournament revealed more enthusiast and players. Let’s keep the game of pinball rolling!

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