In the post-prohibition America of the 1920s, ostensibly pious politicians around the country set their sights on what they believed to be the next most pressing vice: gambling. Of particular interest were coin-operated slot machines and their ilk; by 1942, oddly, officials rolled up pinball machines with slots and banned the games for public use in New York City. Other cities and states soon followed suit. It was still legal to own the machines for private use, however, and companies like Stern Pinball still quietly manufactured them, but the public came shockingly close to losing the pastime forever.
Fast forward to 1976 and one Roger Sharpe, a celebrated pinball player considered the best of his time and a representative for the Music and Amusement Association, an organization attempting to overturn the ban. It's a long story, but Sharpe was tasked with proving how the game required skill and focus by playing before a panel of New York City councilors.He wowed them all with one shot, and they lifted the ban.
"Sharpe went into a courtroom and … he's the guy who saved pinball," says Nick Schademann of New Mexico Pinball. "[Pinball machines] were outlawed because they were thought to be gambling, and Sharpe proved they were not a game of luck, but of skill. It's interesting to think that if he would've missed that shot, I wouldn't be playing pinball today."
Schademann and his partner Jenny Noack head New Mexico Pinball, a group dedicated to the playing, appreciation and discussion of pinball. The pair hosts free meetup events at The Alley (153 Paseo de Peralta, 557-6789) every Wednesday evening at 6 pm and, in just two months, have grown the group to nearly 20 members. It's a scene that spans the globe in the form of competitions, appreciation organizations, modders, hangers-on and beyond. As far as Santa Fe goes, we can think of Schademann and Noack as members of a semi-secret nerd club that hosts chapters everywhere and, when possible, sojourns to nearby machines and meetups in Albuquerque.
Speaking of which, Albuquerque's pinball scene and venues like 505 Pinball do make Santa Fe's offerings look slim. The Alley is the only public space with consistently operational machines. For Schademann and Noack—who have a Walking Dead machine at home anyway—it's almost more about the social aspects than playing the game. Growing up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Schademann says discovering the pinball scene as a youth was like finally finding his people.
"There was a community around it," he tells SFR. "Those people taught me how to play and became some of my closest friends."
Noack traces her love back to a time when the couple lived in Colorado.
"I had never encountered pinball before we moved there, but the community is very robust and welcoming," she tells SFR. "I'm there for the community and meeting people. I'm not a single, I'm not out at bars meeting people, it's a good avenue for [making friends]."
But, as Schademann points out, there are any number of groups dedicated to making friends and playing games. What sets pinball apart?
"I enjoy the artwork, the sounds and how the machines work," he says. "It's like a puzzle to me; the new machines have pages and pages of code, it's a big branching tree. When I found out it was more than hitting a flipper, it clicked."
The mantra would be "When I Do This/This Happens." In other words, every move made during the course of a game causes a planned reaction. Techniques vary, including the flipper method and so-called nudging (literally nudging the machine to move the ball or buy a moment to think) to understanding the layout and rules of each specific machine. The Alley has five so far, one of which is Jurassic Park-themed, a new addition that Schademann says Alley management installed after they noticed New Mexico Pinball was drawing fans.
For others, it's as simple as having a great excuse to get out of the house. Local comics creator Alec Longstreth, for example, has a long-held affinity for the game, and New Mexico Pinball gives him an outlet, plus a reason to be social.
"One of the things that's great about pinball is that it's in real life," Longstreth says. "You've gotta actually go out and talk to someone. You get a beer, you talk to people while someone else is playing."
Longstreth's love of the game stretches way back. In a previous life in California's Bay Area, he frequented the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda and collaborated on a pinball-themed zine called Drop Target with his fellow artist Jon Chad. These days he's got two young kids and can't get out as often, but a regular meetup of like-minded pinball fans scratches the itch.
"There's something about playing with other people," he says. "Going out, playing a game you don't know very well and getting better at it—I was very excited when The Alley said they'd have pinball."
Schademann and Noack, meanwhile, are adamant that all are welcome. The New Mexico Pinball group, they say, is meant to be a safe space.
"If you want to come and play pinball, there's no requirement," Schademann says. "We've had a 4-year-old, we've had an 80-year-old. The more people who get involved, the better. Any way I can do that …"
He trails off, the siren call of the machine perhaps too alluring to ignore any longer.