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Million Dollar Pinball: Part I

By ur an idiot in Culture
Tue Jan 15, 2008 at 08:50:59 PM EST
Tags: (all tags)

In the early 1990s, Los Angeles' area Commerce Casino was a hot bed of activity. At the time, the casino was just a card room where low and high stakes poker was played. Off to a side room, the last dying breath of high-stakes Backgammon was still being played, and mostly by some of the top players in the world including "Action" Dan Harrington.

The casino was very popular and a lot of top players would play there when they were visiting the LA area. This caused a problem - lines for games, especially Poker, would get too long and players would get impatient.

The owner of the casino, a man I've never met, came up with a brilliant idea: install several pinball machines to keep the waiting list happy.

Among the machines involved was Bally's Addams Family Pinball, the top-selling pinball machine of all time. At first only one machine was installed, but it proved to be so popular that 2 more were installed, and then another 2. Soon, a whole bank of Addams Family Pinball machines was installed on the floor, at the expense of a couple of poker tables.

At the time, I was playing mid-stakes lowball, usually limit Razz or no-limit deuce-seven triple draw. The limit stakes ranged for $30-$60 to $100-$200 blinds for me, as I worked up my bankroll from playing just $2-$4 and $3-$6 limits. The Addams Family game, however, piqued my interest, and I played the game frequently as a break or while on the waiting list.

I became quite good and had challenged several of the top spots on the machine. At the same time (and unbeknownst to me), several players were making prop bets at the machine. A prop bet is short for proposition bet and is just what it sounds - two players agree on a something to wager, agree on a pay structure, and then play to determine the winner. A typical conversation might go like so:

"Hey Johnny, I'll bet you that I can break 100,000,000 points this game. What do you say we put $1,000 on it?"

"No way. You're too good. Give me 2-to-1."

"No that's too unfavorable to me. How about 1.5-to-1?"


The players would shake and Johnny would play. If Johnny broke 100,000,000 points, he would receive $1,000 and if he didn't, the other player would receive $1,500.

A prop bet could literally be anything. It could be a wager that a player makes a specific shot, a wager that a player exceeds the points of the other player, a wager of anything related to the pinball machine.

When I first found out about these prop bets, I realized this was a huge money making opportunity for those who could exploit it. From my poker training, I learned to play on the odds of something happening. For instance, if I have a 20% chance of hitting my hand and winning the pot, then I could call any bet less than 20% the size of the pot and, over the long run, I would make money on calling such a bet.

Pinball, however, is never as clear cut as cards. How do you know the chances that you will beat a certain opponent? It's very difficult, and only estimates are possible.

But I knew something else - most of these people were very cocky, a characteristic that perhaps helped in their poker and backgammon play. However, I thought this tendency would lead them to overestimate their own play, and as it turned out, I was right.

I started coming to the Commerce Casino now, not to play cards, but just to watch the pinball players. For a week, I kept careful track of the statistics and went home to put them in a spreadsheet. From there, I would calculate standard deviations, and I could even make fake prop bets in my head and calculate volatilities. I wrote programs that performed prop bet simulations based on the statistics I had gathered. I had a good idea of what was a good bet and what wasn't within the context of my bankroll.

In the meantime, I found another arcade that had Addams Family Pinball, and I played it long and hard. I would drop $20 in quarters, 80 games, take a break, and hit it again. After a single day, I owned all the top scores. After a week, I felt like I was one of the better players at the casino, judging from what I observed.

It was showtime.

The first time I walked in with the intention to make prop bets, I noticed a flyer on the wall indicating an upcoming tournament with a $500 buy-in. I knew that this was here to stay, at least for now, and I thought there was a strong possibility that I was one of the better or even best players at the casino, equipped with my statistics and my prop bet simulations I had done.

That day, I took in over $20,000, starting with just $2,000 in my pocket. I started making simple prop bets for $100 and $200, and soon I became more aggressive. I was astounded at how easily these guys would take bets - even things they knew couldn't possibly be in their favor! It was as if they were gambling, pulling the handle of the slot machine, and that they didn't have any expectation to win.

Within a week, I had built my bankroll up to $50,000. I was playing pinball 10 hours per day and I wasn't the least bit fatigued. It seemed I rarely lost a prop bet (like all gamblers, I kept professional records, of course, but I have been unable to find them. I imagine I enjoyed a 20% edge over most players though).

That week, I took 5 days off and celebrated my successes with a trip to San Fransisco. I was living like a king, drinking $1,000 champagne in an equally expensive hotel room. I had no reason to believe anything would change in the future, and I looked to be a millionaire in no time.

When I came back from my vacation, I was surprised to learn that everything had changed. The players became much more tighter with their prop bets. Prop bet offers were being rejected outright far more frequently than before, and haggling over odds or other stipulation became common place. In that week, I had only pulled down $10,000, and I knew that the players were growing more and more sophisticated. The dancing days of winning $50,000 in a week were gone forever. I had to grind to win.

Over the next three months, I recall that I won on average about $5,000 per week playing pinball. Many weeks became losing weeks as people became better at knowing their play, other's play, and therefore what odds to ask for. It was still far more money than I could ever make playing low ball so I wasn't too unhappy with the situation.

But I had my mind set on making a million dollars playing pinball, and that was what I was going to do, or bust trying. Fortunately for me, the pinball tournament had been invented.

In part 2, I discuss extensively terminology and tournament play.

In part 3, I discuss some memorable tournament and cash matches, general strategy, the mathematics that is used, and the eventual demise of pinball at the Commerce Casino.


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Related Links
o Commerce Casino
o "Action" Dan Harrington
o Addams Family Pinball
o Also by ur an idiot

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Million Dollar Pinball: Part I | 20 comments (10 topical, 10 editorial, 0 hidden)
Fascinating (none / 1) (#4)
by localroger on Mon Jan 14, 2008 at 08:44:41 PM EST

My associates did all of their advantage play in more controlled situations, but they're getting into poker now because it's becoming so hard to find beatable blackjack games. In the more tightly regulated climes of MS you don't see the prop bet culture so much. Or at least we didn't; might be time to do some investigating.

alexboko: I think, how do animals view our behavior?
Sgt York: Opening
Accidentally 0'd. Sorry. Fascinating. (none / 0) (#12)
by xC0000005 on Tue Jan 15, 2008 at 02:49:55 PM EST

Combines two of my favorite things (odds and pinball). I'll look forward to your part 2. Adams family is an excellent overall pinball (I like it better than Twilight zone but less than Theatre of Magic). Then again, I once got the bright idea to write a new ROM for my pin. Never do that. It's like re-coding your microwave, only less fun in the beginning.

Voice of the Hive - Beekeeping and Bees for those who don't
+ 1FP'd to make up for it. (none / 0) (#13)
by spooked on Tue Jan 15, 2008 at 06:28:08 PM EST

I would have zeroed.

[ Parent ]
Thanks. (none / 0) (#14)
by xC0000005 on Tue Jan 15, 2008 at 06:37:25 PM EST

I thought about hauling out a dupe but it's not worth the effort usually.

Voice of the Hive - Beekeeping and Bees for those who don't
[ Parent ]
I didn't take you for a dupe kinda guy... (3.00 / 3) (#18)
by rhiannon on Thu Jan 17, 2008 at 12:59:34 AM EST

but it makes sense you'd have an army of drones to do your bidding

I continued to rebuff the advances... so many advances... of so many attractive women. -MC
[ Parent ]
I have one or two, assuming I can find (none / 0) (#19)
by xC0000005 on Thu Jan 17, 2008 at 10:20:10 AM EST

the passwords.

Voice of the Hive - Beekeeping and Bees for those who don't
[ Parent ]
Question: (none / 0) (#17)
by fn0rd on Wed Jan 16, 2008 at 09:50:59 AM EST

How'd you keep your wrists from killing you? I played that machine quite a bit as a kid, and eventually had to stop because I was getting carpal tunnel or something.

This fatwa brought to you by the Agnostic Jihad

Moral of the story (3.00 / 7) (#20)
by scatbubba on Thu Jan 17, 2008 at 02:34:24 PM EST

When you are making 50k a week, you don't take a vacation.  What were you thinking?

Stanford Wong said the same thing (3.00 / 4) (#21)
by localroger on Thu Jan 17, 2008 at 11:29:59 PM EST

OK you haven't heard of him but he's a big wheel in gamblign lit circles. On one promotion where the casino did something really stupid he said "I could not afford to go to the bathroom." That's the way you do it.

alexboko: I think, how do animals view our behavior?
Sgt York: Opening
[ Parent ]
The last time... (none / 0) (#22)
by Pnarp on Wed Jan 30, 2008 at 08:00:13 AM EST

...I played pinball, I broke my arm, got my nose stuck in the machine, and the ball ended up jammed in my left nostril. I think I was doing something wrong.

∼ Phillip Norbert Årp
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Million Dollar Pinball: Part I | 20 comments (10 topical, 10 editorial, 0 hidden)
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