Getting A Bang Out Of Bingos

By Mike McLeod

Mentioning pinball machines conjures up images to some of pool halls in the 1950s, black & white youth gang movies, and hanging out on a Saturday night. Today, this old-fashioned entertainment is still great fun to collectors.

For those who have not looked beyond the eye candy art on the backglass of pinball machines, there is much more going on there than just girls in bikinis and flashing lights. While there are many types of vintage and modern pinball machines, let me introduce you to one very interesting category to collectors-bingos.

Bingo pinball machines are just like the name implies; it is a game of bingo. The object of the game is to drop balls in the numbered holes and light up numbers in lines on the "card" in the backglass. Since most bingos do not have flippers for smacking the ball back up through the playing field to roll down again, you usually have only one chance to hit the right holes. As you can imagine, it takes quite a bit of talent and trick shots to finesse a ball into the proper hole.

In this day of hi-tech video games, you might think bingo pinball would get boring pretty quickly. But that's far from the truth. For example, bingos have from one to six cards on the backglass so multiple games can be played at the same time. Some bingos allow you to switch the left column of numbers with the right column and move the center column up or down a number. Imagine doing that in a regular game of bingo.

Although you can win the privilege of moving numbers, you can also pay to do this by adding more coins to the game. In some games, adding coins will allow you to do it after shooting the fifth ball. Think that would increase your chances of winning? You bet. (Which is exactly what most bingos are made for-betting and gambling.) In addition, after the fifth ball is played, you can collect your winnings from the original card, shift the columns of numbers, and collect again.

Suddenly, this is getting a little more interesting.

Some bingos are "turning corners" games. They let the player rotate the positions of the four numbers in each of the corners of the card.

But wait-there's more:
Magic screen. Some bingos have colored screens in different shapes (L-shaped, zigzag, etc.) over the cards. Getting two or more numbers anywhere in a color wins. In this game, the numbers don't move, but the "magic" screens do on some bingos. Several screens can be moved into position over the card one at a time, usually before the last ball is played. Choosing the right screen to lock in before the end of the game is critical to winning.

Shapes. Bally's London game has a separate game played at the same time in which you try to sink balls in holes also marked with squares, triangles and circles. Getting one of each shape with your first three balls wins 48 credits/free games. Then, you can press a gold button on the rail to play triple or nothing to win 144 games. If you are feeling lucky and go for the gold button, the machine randomly lights one of the shapes to hit. Get it, and you can again play triple or nothing to win 442 games. Now what would someone do with 442 games? Keep reading.

Red letter game. This is usually the most sought after feature on bingos by collectors. After hitting numbers with stars, this feature awards a free game (a special game played afterwards). Winning this game yields a big payoff-600 games. Plus, he or she gets the pleasure of watching and hearing the machine go crazy with beeps, clangs, flashing lights and assorted noises. In the inner workings of the machine, there is a switch with 49 steps on it. Each step initiates noises and "special effects." Those steps trip one at a time, so for a bingo fan, the aural and visual payoff is almost as good as the financial reward.

Rollover lights. These are yellow and red lights in the corners of the playing field that give rewards when rolled over while lit - a free number on the card, extended plays, more time to move numbers, etc.
Score boosters. Getting three numbers in line scores as four in a row and four score as five.

Magic number. Scores double when the ball falls in the magic number hole chosen randomly by the machine before the first ball is played.

These are just a few of the games going on in bingos. There are many more.

With all these games and features and options, bingo pinball required skill, quick thinking and a great amount of luck to win big. And even when those lucky stars lined up, a player still often lost. Unscrupulous owners tampered with games to make them even harder to beat. They sometimes jury-rigged mechanisms that allowed players to win an extra ball or extra games, or they cut or disconnected wires to special games, like the red letter game, so they wouldn't work.

Why? Because all these enticing games were really for one purpose only: gambling. The more nickels or dimes a game tempted you to "punch in," the more you had to lose.

Pinball machines paid off in coins, tickets or free games. Awarding free games was one way to avoid laws against gambling since you weren't really winning anything tangible. But proprietors usually paid for the free games won. Some machines had a "knock off switch" underneath that dispensed winnings when pressed. Or the switch was used to just reset the free games counter, and the owner paid out of pocket.

The Rally Bonanza corner turning game allowed the player to insert up to 40 nickels to play a game. (The cost of games progressed in price over the years to a dime and then a quarter.) This $2 bet could award a very lucky player with anywhere from 40 to 600 games. A nickel was paid per winning game on nickel machines, a dime on a dime, etc. A very lucky winner of 600 games might actually win $30 on a $2 bet in a nickel game.

In his book, Bally Bingo Pinball Machines (Schiffer Publishing ISBN 0-7643-0874-2), Jeffrey Lawton reported, "Believe it or not, there were people who made a living playing bingo games, winning anywhere from $10 to $30 each time they played. (Keep in mind, during 1951-1955, a person earning $100 per week was doing all right.)"

Some machines did not attempt to hide the fact that they were made solely for gambling; they showed odds, such as 4-16-96. These odds paid four coins (or free games or tickets) for 3 numbers in a row, 16 for four in a row, and 96 for five in a row. You could increase the odds played for by adding more coins.

Many bingos were manufactured specifically for Las Vegas' legal gambling, but they were found and played in just about all states.

I was introduced to the intricacies of the game by an expert bingo restorer, Hugh Kown. Hugh takes unshopped (unrestored) machines that have been sitting in warehouses and backrooms for decades and makes them look like new. This is quite a feat since unshopped machines are usually rusted, corroded, broken and filthy dirty. Hugh makes them look and work like new, refinishing the wooden parts, repainting the sides with the original graphics, and by filing the thousands of contacts in the mechanism.

Virtually all vintage bingos these days that look in mint condition have been restored. The telltale signs are fresh paint, freshly sanded and varnished wood, new scoring cards (or signs), a machine where all the features actually work, etc. Most collectors want restored machines, preferring to view and play with their treasure as it was originally during its glory days.

Hugh took me on a tour of a dozen restored machines in his work area. You would think that the electro-magnetic operating systems of these old-fashioned games would consist of a few wires, a bell and a couple of lights. But opening the back of a bingo revealed miles of copper wiring. The guts looked more like the inside of the telephone company junction box for the subdivision where I live-masses of wires bundled together.

Hugh unrolled a 12-foot-long schematic diagram to show me just how intricate the wiring is.

"Some schematics are 26 feet long," he said.

To the mechanically challenged like myself, this was impressive. Then he told me that even though he was a supervisor over machine shops at Lockheed and a field engineer for Georgia Power Company before retiring, he still needed help figuring out the wiring when he started restoring bingos.

The highly prized bingos are the Golden Gate, Silver Sails, and Malibu Beach. Unshopped, these bring $600-$800; restored and rated a 9 on a scale of 10, they can bring $2,000 to $2,500 or more. A Silver Sails that rated a 10 cosmetically and a nine mechanically sold for $3,750 last year. Prices fluctuate for unshopped, common bingos, from around $100 to sometimes as high as $500, depending on condition.

A great source listing auction prices of bingos for the past few years is It also has a list of manufacturers, their games, photos, explanations of game features, a bingo glossary of terms and a wealth of other information.

The largest manufacturers of bingos were Bally (97 machines, 1951-1980) and United (28 machines, 1951-1957). About nine other manufacturers created anywhere from one to several games each.

Although most collectors of bingos own maybe one or two, some own dozens. A few own hundreds. But whether you own one or not, everyone can get a bang out of bingos.

My thanks to Hugh Kown for introducing me to the world of bingos.

Bingo pinballs, created for gambling, paid out in coins, tickets or "free games."

Miss America has a max payout of 1,200 games. Win with in-line numbers, colored lines, corner scoring, etc.

The playing field on a Miss America bingo. Yellow & red rollover lights are in the lower corners.

The intricate inside of a bingo.
Wiring diagrams are up to 26' long.

Bally's London showing odds, ways to win, etc. The shapes feature is lower right.

A "corner turner" bingo - the four numbers in the corners rotated.

Hugh Kown with a few of his restored bingos.

1954 Bally Surf Club bingo. A 1-card game with two super cards and corner scoring; i.e., win big if you get the four corner numbers on any card.

1961 trade ad for
Bally's Bikini bingo.

(Courtesy )

Pinball was a favorite pastime
in the '50s.

(Photo courtesy, Library of Congress.)