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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
A great source listing
auction prices of bingos for the past few years is http://bingo.cdyn.com/. 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
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.
Pinball was a favorite pastime
in the '50s.
courtesy, Library of Congress.)