In the previous essay I went through a rather rigorous exercise to demonstrate the basic chance of winning at the bingo machines. If you haven't read it yet, do that before you go here.
Now we know what we're up against. What do we do about it?
I set out to try to write about how to properly play the machines. What that means, more specifically, is how to beat the machines. The game is the gamble, and proper play can only be defined as winning play. On the bingos, that meant only one thing - cashing out for more than you put in.
Now, keep in mind that it has been many, many years since these machines have been operated anywhere near where I could actually play them the way they were intended to be played - with cash on the line in a pool hall, bar, bowling alley, or casino. So, I would say that I'm probably going to leave some things out. The passage of time may have eroded my memory some.
You might ask what makes me worthy of writing an article like this. Well, I used to make a bit of coin playing the bingos when I was a young man, and I have some recollection of what I used to do. That, and I volunteered, so what you see is what you get.
At the risk of sounding like an old man living in the past (which may be true to some extent), I think the best way for me to explain how to win is to tell you how I did it. There's not one way, I'm sure, but this is the only one I know, and it is the story I have to tell.
If you read the rambling about the probabilities on the machines, you are aware that putting extra coins in is a bit of a folly, at least to start. If you can't win with the most favorable odds, you certainly will not win with more money on the line and the house advantage even greater. Again, I know that most players never really calculated the odds in such detail. But you didn't have to, because a simple assessment would have been enough. Put one coin in, and you win 4 games for a three-bagger. That pays back 3 to 1. Put two coins in and win 6 games for the same hit. That's 2 to 1. Put three coins in and you'll win 8 games, a 1.67 to 1 proposition. That deterioration of odds is what killed most of the bankrolls, and players allowed it to happen because the machines were designed to suck you into chasing uncertain events.
So the way to begin to have a chance was to play ONE COIN AT A TIME! But you still have to beat that natural house advantage, and the only way to do that was through skillful play. Guess what! The best way to get better was to practice, and by playing one coin at a time, most of your session was spent playing the balls, not banging nickels.
I must admit, I certainly didn't start out as this type of player. The flashing lights, the fun of moving the screens or whirling the numbers, the enticement of the big hit - all of these things provoked me to make the same mistakes everyone else was making. And, of course, I was losing.
I had the good fortune of meeting an older guy named Mike when I was about 19 and in college. I remember his last name, but won?t disclose it here - he may not want anyone to know about his bingo playing, and a search engine might turn it up; I haven't seen him for many, many years. Mike was from New Orleans and moved to Denver, where he took a job as an electrical engineer at Martin Marietta's big plant south of town. He had an unfortunate relationship with his wife, and they divorced. I think Mike lost his focus and quit or was fired from his job (he claimed to have taken a "requested layoff"). At any rate, he started turning up every day at the bowling alley to play, and we became friends. Mike took up the battle against me; he would constantly chastise me for "playing stupid". He pointed out the odds to me, and demonstrated the wisdom of the whole thing by winning, and winning, and winning. He used to say "stay even on the three baggers, make all the money on the four and five-baggers."
A guy named Dave had schooled Mike on the bingos back in New Orleans. He told the story of how Dave had put himself through Tulane University, I think it was, by playing the bings - no jobs, no scholarships, no visible means of support. (Amazingly enough, some time later this story was verified in a small strip casino in Las Vegas, where I met a pit boss named Spitter who knew Dave as well.) Anyway, Dave taught Mike about the odds, and more! He taught him to overcome the rotten house take and make real money, and Mike passed that on to me, his young protege. So, credit where credit is due?
This particular establishment always had three machines running. I think when I first showed my face there they had a Surf Club, a Big Time, and a Key West. These were older machines than I was used to. The police busted the pool hall I cut my teeth in, and smashed the Silver Sails and Carnival Queen I used to play in high school. (To my chagrin, I witnessed the fiasco on the nightly news.) As it turned out, I liked the Big Time best.
One of the things the Bally engineers were kind enough to do on the machines manufactured from late 1956 until 1963 was provide the player with bunched numbers on the playfield , i.e., numbers with a proximity to each other on the board and the backglass as well. Take a peek at the Big Time backglass grid (photo from Phil Hooper - I didn't ask, hope he doesn?t mind!):
Look at the left column of that grid, and notice the 1 and 2 are right next to each other. And look just above them. The 9 and 10 are sitting there, and at the bottom, the 11. This is like a gift to the player who was smart enough to take advantage of it. A double and a triple on the same line! Why is this so beneficial? It provides a margin of error, a target area; it gave the player an immediate focus, even before the first ball was shot. This was the line that needed to be attacked.
Here's another photo I stole from Phil Hooper. This one shows the playfield of the Big Time. I put it in here just on the off chance someone reading this isn't familiar with the hole layout.
Anyway, as you can see, the 1 and 2 are at the upper left side of the board, and the 9, 10 and 11 are almost at the top, and at the left to middle. The first shot, then, had to target the 1. I had more success shooting the left side with a very strong serve - it simply had to hit the rebound rubber, bounce back against the gate stop, and back again to the left side. Trying to finesse the ball without a bounce was lunacy. The hard serve I used was accomplished with a "thumb shot", where the right hand pulled the plunger back in place and held it, while the fingers of the left hand were placed behind the lockdown bar and the left thumb applied firm forward pressure. Once the right hand releases, the plunger moves forward very quickly, propelling the ball much faster than otherwise possible. The ball will be heading in the right direction, toward the area we're interested in. If the ball misses the 1-hole, there's still the 2 right next to it, or those other numbers right below. With a lot of practice, I was able to hit that 1 shot a high percentage of the time. (Sorry, I wasn't so anal as to keep the actual stats.)
The line was the 2-hole; without it, no winners. It had to be hit. But how can that happen with any consistency? Although the hole is in the area of the serve, there's no way you can rely on luck at all and expect to win. When I learned the answer from Mike, it was a Revelation of the First Magnitude. Just shoot the 1 again! That ball plugging it now becomes your ally. When the shot can't fall in that hole a second time, use a slam to kick the ball into the 2. (I'll explain how to execute the slam later.)
Sounds easy enough so far. Now what? This is a no-brainer! Why change a proven formula if you don't have to? And you don't. Just shoot the 1 again! This is getting monotonous. But now, when the ball can't fall into the plugged 1-hole, just let it drop down onto the post just above the 8. A hard well-timed hit will send it above the 9, toward the 10 and 11. Either one of those numbers is a winner. The 9 can be had by nudging the ball off of the post just above and to the right of the it. The ball will drop in from the right side.
Even though the 9 won't provide any immediate gratification, once it's plugged, it makes the four-bagger a rather easy grab. If you can hit the 9 again, that same old slam shot will drop the ball right in the 10 hole, and that's a winner.
If the first ball missed any of these targets and somehow managed to slip away, it was generally best to just forget about it and keep focusing on the same line. I learned to never, ever chase low probability events unless the payout was worthwhile. Persistence, resolve, repetition, and a willingness to grind (along with the being able to put up with the derision of other "players") paid off - "Big Time".
Now, I am not saying that the only line to play would be the one I'm talking about here, but I am saying that a good player had to have a plan of attack right out of the chute. Suppose this Big Time machine had a right roll bias (where the machine tilted slightly to the right). Which line do you shoot? Take a look at the backglass and the playfield again, and the answer may be obvious. The 7, 18, and 22 are all on the far right side of the board, and line up at the bottom of column 2. The problem here is the four-bagger requires the 19, and that's on the left side. And without the four and fivers, it was almost impossible to make money.
It should be apparent that a left-side roll is really an advantage to the player on the Big Time machine, and we will see in a later article that this was always the case on magic screen type games. Therefore, another Immutable Law: select and learn to play the machine that offered the highest win probability, and don't fight the machine. If the machine rolled to the right, don't waste your money. If the machine rolled true, don't waste your money. Find a machine with a left-side bias.
I guess a lot of old bingo players are probably thinking this was sort of a cheat, taking advantage of a situation. But the operators were the ones who set the machines and the players had to work within those parameters. No one forced anyone to play any machine at all, so the shifty guys who ran the machines were working a balancing act - maximizing throughput to maximize profits. Put in percentage terms again, let's assume a fair machine, the 30% take and 100 coins through - expected earnings of 30 coins. Now look at another machine with a left-side bias. More play, more winners, say a 15% take and 500 coins through. Expected earnings of 75 coins. What would you do if it were you?
Now you understand why it wasn't difficult to find the left-side roll. It made bad players think they were better than they were. But it helped good players become winners.
Obviously, just learning how to serve the ball and picking a machine with a decent roll wouldn't make you a winner in the end. Most people think about playing a bingo in terms of "body English"' Sort of cajoling the ball to land where you wanted it. I can think of only a very few players I knew who didn?t do this. And since most players were losers, the approach was consistently proven to be incorrect. To win on a regular basis, the player needed to learn how to hit the machine - and I do mean hit it hard.
Learning to do that was easier said than done. Bingo pinball machines were designed with plenty of tilt trips built into the electronics to foil the aggressive players. But without an aggressive attitude, without attacking the machine - no chance. Most of these switches didn't really come into play unless you did something bordering assault. There was one, however, that caused the player grief.
On the left side of the cabinet, at the front of the machine, there is a pendulum hanging in a ring. Movement of the machine gets the pendulum to swinging, and once it touches that ring, you''e history. A circuit makes, the tilt switches trip, and game over. As a player, the idea was to be as violent as possible without disturbing the internal pendulum enough to crap out.
How? Hit the machine fast and straight ahead. Don't give the pendulum an opportunity to start swinging around. Get your business done and over with in a hurry.
Earlier, I explained how to make the "thumb" serve. The lockdown bar was an important part of that technique, and now that the ball was in play, it was just as important. My technique ? and, again, I don't claim this is the best or only - was to place my left and right hands symmetrically on the front of the machine, with my pinkie fingers about 2 inches from the corners. All four fingers of both hands were placed behind the lockdown, with slight pressure, almost trying to pull the machine forward. My palm was arched just above the bar, and my thumbs were resting on the front of the bar at about a 45-degree angle as you looked down. The heels of both palms rested on the front of the bar. Both shoulders were positioned directly behind the hands, so that a straight line could be drawn from the wrists to the elbows.
The trick was to develop speed and power from this position. To smack the machine, the palms didn't have to come back more than - of an inch, and then extremely quickly through to the lockdown. And I do mean quickly, because the slower you hit that bar, the less effective your play and the more chance of swinging that old pendulum.
This sounds a lot easier than it was. I paid a high price from a physical standpoint doing this. My palms had ridiculous calluses. My elbows occasionally ached. Who knew pinball could be such an athletic event? (Okay, that's a stretch!).
So, with practice you can bang pretty good without the dreaded tilt. Now the shot I talked about earlier can be mastered - the "slam" shot. If you can hit the machine and get a solid movement on the playfield without busting out, the next step is working on the timing og the hit. It did no good to just bash the machine randomly. The ball had to be in a manipulative position - meaning it was in contact with another object.
The slam was a hard hit when the ball was in contact with another ball already resting in a hole. Once the skill of violent, no tilt play was mastered, this was really an extremely effective and rather easy shot to do. Just smash the machine when the ball is rolling on the other ball. A good player could wait until the live ball was positioned at the proper angle on the dead ball, just like a pool player angles the object ball with the cue ball.
Obviously, the hard hit can be used for far more than this. Effectively using posts, rubbers, and springs gave the accomplished player a real edge.
What if the ball gets out of control? Every bingo player has experienced the occasional serve that just gets going to fast. The idea is to slow that ball down, and take command as a player. How? Use the same hard hit, but this time wait until the ball is just above an object to effect the play. Now the machine is moving backwards, returning to its set position, when the contact is made. This kills the momentum, and allows the player to regain the upper hand. Stops the ball cold. In fact, that's why we called this the "kill" shot.
So that's it in a nutshell - everything you needed to know to get started in beating the bingos. This, and about two or three hundred hours of practice.
A tip of the cap to my friend Mike and every other player I ever learned from. It was great while it lasted - getting paid to play the pins!
As stated - Pics are courtesy Mr. Phil Hooper - Thank you Sir :)
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