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Such A Supple Wrist

February 28, 2012
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Last week, Steve Kordek, pinball machine designer extraordinaire, passed on at the ripe old age of 100. Now get this, the thing he thought of that entirely changed pinball machines? He added flippers!! That’s right, apparently there were flipperless pinball machines. Man, those must have sucked. I’ll have to see if they have any at the Asbury pinball museum.

There was a time — starting in the 1930s — when pinball machines were at the forefront of entertainment for millions of people with coins to spare and time to pass. Along came Steve Kordek, a game designer from Chicago who revolutionized pinball in 1948 when he introduced a pair of flippers at the bottom of the machine. It changed the way the game was played.

Mr. Kordek, who died Feb. 19 in Park Ridge, Ill., at 100, was credited with developing more than 100 pinball games, including the bestsellers Space Mission and Grand Prix. Yet his most enduring contribution was the dual flippers. Pinball historian Roger Sharpe said every pinball game designed since has incorporated Mr. Kordek’s flippers. Modern pinball for most of its early history had been a game of chance. In the early 1930s, a movie projectionist and tinkerer named David Gottlieb invented the first pinball machine in Chicago. The object of the game was to roll a ball toward holes with different point allotments. Luck alone dictated where the balls would fall.

At a penny per play, pinball proved immensely popular during the Depression, when men would wager on the outcome of the games. The practice so enraged New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia that he outlawed the machines. His goal was to slim the pockets of pinball proprietors, whom he called a “slimy crew of tinhorns, well-dressed and living in luxury on penny thievery.” (In 1976, the machines were officially made legal again in New York.)

Flippers made pinball more of a game of skill. “It changed the game considerably,” said David Silverman, curator of the National Pinball Museum in Baltimore. “The goal of the game is control over where the ball goes. By putting flippers down there, there was much better control and a much wider field to shoot the ball in.” (Silverman pointed out that the flippers, as was the style of the time, faced outward. The flippers were later pointed inward.)

After he retired in 2000, Mr. Kordek revealed his secret to a good pinball game. “What attracts a player, first, is the pictures on the back glass of the game. Second, if what he sees on the play field is different, that’s a success,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 2009. “And when the features are so exciting that he wants to put more money in it, you’ve got him.”

Now that’s a freaking legacy. Rest in peace, Mr. Kordek.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. jco permalink
    February 28, 2012 10:09 am

    They in fact have machines with no flippers on display in AP, although you cannot play them.
    I am going to use the phrase “slimy crew of tinhorns” today, in Fiorello LaGuardia’s honor. Awesome post.

  2. February 29, 2012 11:34 am

    They’ve got a pinball museum in Asbury Park? I have to get out there! R.I.P. Steve Kordek, a true flipping genius!

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