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.