“Lukas points out that one of the beauties of his Bally is that it is asymmetrical. Early pinball machines had symmetrical playfields – symmetrical thumper-bumpers – but in time they became free-form, such as this one, with its field laid out not just for structure but also for surprise. Lukas works in this room – stacks of manuscripts on shelves and tables. He has been working for many months on a book that will weigh five pounds. It will be called Nightmare: The Dark Side of the Nixon Years – a congenially chosen title, implying that there was a bright side. The pinball machine is Lukas’s collaborator. ‘When a paragraph just won’t go,’ he says, ‘and I begin to say to myself, “I can’t make this work,” I get up and play the machine. I score in the high range. Then I go back to the typewriter a new man. I have beat the machine. Therefore I can beat the paragraph.’ He once won a Pulitzer Prize.

“The steel ball rolls into the ‘death channel’ – Lukas’s term for a long alley down the left side – and drops out of side off the low end of the playfield, finished.

“‘I have thought of analogies between Watergate and pinball. Everything is connected. Bumpers. Rebounds. You light lights and score. Chuck Colson is involved in almost every aspect of the Watergate story: the dirty trucks, the coverup, the laundered money – all connected. How hard you hit off the thumper-bumper depends on how hard you hit off the slingshot depends on how well you work the corners. In a sense, pinball is a reflection of the complexity of the subject I am writing about. Bear in mind, I take this with considerable tongue-in-cheek.’

“With another ball, he ignites an aurora on the scoreboard. During the ball’s complex, prolonged descent, he continues to set forth the pinball philosophy. ‘More seriously, the game does give you a sense of controlling things in a way that in life you can’t do. And there is risk in it, too. The ball flies into the ellipse, into the playfield – full of opportunities. But there’s always the death channel – the run-out slot. there are rewards, prizes, coming off the thumper-bumper. The ball crazily bounces from danger to opportunity and back to danger. You need reassurance in life that in taking risks you will triumph, and pinball gives you that reaffirmation. Life is a risky game, but you can beat it.”

– from John McPhee’s 1975 Essay “The Pinball Philosopher,” collected in his book of essays Giving Good Weight. Lukas goes on to an illegal(!) best-of-five match against New York Times film critic Tom Buckley in the game room of a Times Square peepshow hall. It’s an epic contest, and a wonderful essay.


  1. Jonathan Webb says

    Asymmetrical ones are the best.

    There is an excellent Simpsons one.

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