Is Pinball a Game of Chance, or a Game of Skill?

August 16th, 2013

If it’s the former, it would have been banned by New York under general gambling statutes. If it’s the latter, it would not be banned. So how to test it? An ultimate game of pinball–in court!

Which brings us back to the May morning in 1976 with Mr. Sharpe waiting patiently to enter the courtroom. He had been hired by the Music & Amusement Association (MAA, for short) to be their star witness in their pursuit to overturn the ban on pinball in New York City. Roger Sharpe, besides being a writer on the subject matter, was also a superb player himself, widely considered to be the best in country. He had been provided with two machines to prove his case, with one being a backup in the event that the first machine broke. While the MAA had been granted this hearing due to one committee member’s sponsored bill to overturn the ban, the other committee members were known to be against lifting the ban on pinball. The the MAA, the bill, and Mr. Sharpe were underdogs in this fight.

Upon entering the courtroom, Sharpe began eloquently to argue why the ban should be overturned, stating that while in the past, it may have been associated with gambling, this was no longer the case. It was a game that tested your patience, hand eye coordination, and reflexes. Quite simply, it was a game of skill, not chance.

As expected, Mr. Sharpe was asked to prove this assertion. Thus, he began to play one of the machines in the pinball game of his life. But he was soon stopped by one particularly grumpy councilman. Afraid that the “pinballers” had tampered with the machine, he demanded that Mr. Sharpe use the backup. Sharpe agreed, but this added another degree of difficulty. You see, Mr. Sharpe was extremely familiar with the first machine, having practiced on it a great deal in preparation for this hearing. He was not nearly as experienced the backup machine.

Nonetheless, he agreed and began playing on the backup. Despite playing well with the weight of a giant silver ball on him, the grumpy council member was not impressed. With the ban on the verge of not being overturned, Sharpe pulled a move that has become pinball legend.

Reminiscent of another New York sporting legend, he declared that if he could make the ball go through the middle lane on his next turn, then he would have proven that pinball is a game of skill- essentially, he was calling his shot, and staking the future of pinball on it. Pulling back the plunger, he let that silver ball fly. Upon contact with a flipper, the ball zoomed up and down, through the middle lane. Just as Sharpe had said it would. He had become the Babe Ruth of pinball and, with that, proved that there was indeed skill to the game of pinball. The council immediately overturned the ban on pinball. By playing a “mean pinball,” Roger Sharpe had saved the game.

Imagine qualifying him under Daubert as an expert!