Las Vegas: Pinball wizard in pinball nirvana

Road Journals Blog—The Las Vegas Strip is such a screaming vortex that once you get sucked into it, it’s hard to get out.

Which is a shame because in less time than you’d spend waiting in the buffet line on Saturday night, you can ride a taxi to any number of really interesting places just a short distance off the Strip.

One of the best is the Pinball Hall of Fame on East Tropicana Boulevard, not far from McCarran International Airport.

Bullseye scores 100 points | Marcin Wichary/Flickr

The exterior is a nondescript, one-story warehouse with a vinyl banner above the door. Inside, however, it’s pinball nirvana. There are aisles and aisles of machines—more than 250 in all. You can play every single one of them for as little as a quarter.  Admission is free.

Steve Cruse of Las Vegas spends his lunch breaks playing pinball. | Anne Burke

The oldest game in the house is a circa-1938 iron-claw amusement machine from the Atlantic City Boardwalk. The newest are recent releases from Stern Pinball—the only pinball manufacturer out there these days. The Rolling Stones machine, one of Stern’s newer releases, features a moving-target Mick.

“If you want to see the Holy Grail of pinball machines, it’s over here,” said Tim Arnold, the lifelong pinball enthusiast who runs the place, as he led me down a dimly lighted aisle to a 1993 machine called Pinball Circus.

“You’re looking at a million and a half dollars here. They only made two of these. You can play it for $1. If I were smart, I wouldn’t let anybody touch it.”

There are a couple dozen people inside the place—tourists, office workers, college kids on spring break. Unlike slot-machine players, who tend to look catatonic, the people here appear to genuinely be having fun.

Inside the Pinball Circus | Randy Stewart/Flickr

“We had a couple from Japan who spent eight days straight in here playing pinball," Arnold said. "They didn’t speak a word of English. All they wanted to do was play pinball."

It’s a family-friendly scene. There’s no booze or smoking. No super-violent games.

Arnold is a fan of classic games from the 1950s to the '70s. He leads me to one called Surfer, made by Gottlieb in 1976. It's a single-level machine with no loud, distracting noises—just a familiar ding-ding-ding and ka-ching ka-ching.

“It’s very simple,” he said, “but after you play it for a while you realize there’s a strategy, that you have to hit certain things in a certain order for the maximum reward.”

We wander over to another classic machine, Ice-Revue, also from Gottlieb. “This is what a pinball machine should look like—colorful and bright, and nothing is hidden,” said Arnold. He digs a quarter out of his pocket and drops it in the slot.

Not quite a pinball wizard this time around. Needing 1,200 points for a replay, he scores just 393.

“To become one with the ball, you have to quit thinking and get to the point where your fingers are doing it automatically," he said. "When I was a kid, I could walk up to a game and get in the groove. Now, I’m old and cynical and burnout.”

Arnold, originally from Lansing, Mich., is kidding, sort of. The Pinball Hall of Fame is wildly successful, which, for Arnold, is good and bad. The place is open seven days a week, but Arnold has no paid staff—just some volunteers who help out for the love of the game. He’s there practically every day.

What little money Arnold makes, he plows back into the place or donates to charity. He’s a big supporter of the Salvation Army.

“Monetarily, this is probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever done," he said. "But I’m making people happy.”

This blog post was first published in June 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.