How to Beat Your Friends at Pinball

Deceptively difficult and endlessly rewarding, pinball is a spectacular hobby you’ve probably never considered before.

It’s amazing pinball machines even exist. With miles of wiring, thousands of switches, and complex code (in the newer machines) pinball machines are a playable piece of art, and much more in-depth than many people realize.

Most people see pinball as a novelty, but for those who like a challenge it can be as rewarding a hobby as nearly any other. The balance between skill, strategy, and luck draws more similarities between poker as opposed to video games.

With only two buttons and a box, the game itself appears to be easy. As you have learned if you’ve ever tried to play, it’s anything but.

The General Theory

Same as poker, scoring well in pinball is all based around one concept: your goal is to remove as much luck from the game as possible.

Players new to the game all begin by doing the same thing: attack the ball anytime it comes within striking distance of the flippers.

This 'cowboy' style can be practiced and refined. By increasing the accuracy of your shots, you’re lowering the random bounces, in turn lowering the luck of the game.

But to take it a step further you want to play a more controlled game. The objective is to trap the ball whenever possible, and only make 'safe' shots. More on this to come later in the article.

Always Pick the Safe Shot

Pinball machines are all very similar in design. While the layout will change from machine to machine, the standard pinball shots and lanes are as follows:

  1. Left Orbit
  2. Left Ramp
  3. Up the Middle
  4. Right Ramp
  5. Right Orbit
  6. Left Outlane
  7. Left Inlane
  8. Right Inlane
  9. Right Outlane

If the goal is to remove as much luck from the game as possible, it won’t serve you to be making dangerous shots. In pinball a dangerous shot is any shot, when missed, which will result in losing the ball, or putting it dangerously out of control.

While in a perfect world we would make every shot we take, the reality is you have to anticipate missing most of them.

As a general rule, shooting backhand is always safer than cross shooting. But note: for the most part backhand shots are only obtainable from a trap. Take a look at the image below, it should be all the explanation you need.

Keep in mind not all shots in the ‘backhand zone’ can be made. Some won’t have the angles they need, others can’t get the speed. In the example used: the dragon shot (second shot from the left) isn’t really makeable as a backhand. The right ramp is makeable, and on some machines you can even backhand the right orbit.

Playing the Control Game

A basic trap.

Trapping up is the most important thing in pinball. The idea is to hold a flipper up with the ball resting in the elbow. This gives you time to plan your next shot, and take that shot with ball moving at a consistent speed. Every time you trap the ball, the timing of your shot will be nearly identical. This makes aiming significantly easier than always trying to shoot on the fly.

It takes a little practice to understand when it’s possible to trap the ball, or when it’s moving too quickly to accomplish. But the following tips will greatly help you along the way.

The hold pass

Called a 'ski jump' pass by some, a hold pass is used when the ball is coming down the inlane with too much speed to simply hold up the flipper for a simple trap. Most machines have ramps which return to an inlane. When this happens, and the ball is quickly moving towards the flipper, simply holding up the flipper will allow the ball to ramp off the held flipper nicely to the other side where you can make an easy trap.

The risk: if the ball is moving too fast to trap, but too slowly to make the jump, you will want to abort at the last minute by quickly flipping to 'pop' the ball up and out of danger.

The dead pass

Hands down, the dead pass is the most used, and most simple, trick of them all. All it takes is a little anticipation, and some self control.

If the ball is coming down the playfield and is going to strike a flipper anywhere but the tip, or the elbow, just do nothing. That’s right, do nothing at all. Unless the ball is coming at mach 6 or slower than molasses, it will nicely bounce from one flipper to the other, where you can make an easy trap.

The live catch

A more advanced maneuver, the live catch is the ability to ‘catch’ a ball on the flipper, stopping it dead in place. The idea is this: if the ball meets the flipper at the exact point where the flipper meets the end of its stroke, the flipper will eat up all the ball’s momentum, causing it to stop dead.

Trying to learn this trick is pretty safe, most often the result of a poorly times live catch is swatting the ball away, like a cowboy.

The drop catch

The most advanced of all maneuvers, a drop catch is the opposite of the live catch. When drop-catching you hold the flipper up, and let it go the exact moment the ball meets the flipper. This will result, most often, in the ball stalling dead in the middle of the flipper. This means you won’t get to trap it, but you will stop it, and get to make a more aimed shot.

When to use the previous tricks depends on your strategy, and what’s happening with the ball. Some angles are more suited to one idea or the other, or if you’re trying to make a shot from the right flipper, it can make more sense to catch the ball, instead of dead passing it over to the left where you can’t make the shot you need.

But if you do have the ball trapped up on the ‘wrong’ flipper, almost all machines allow you to post pass.

The post pass

When you have a ball trapped, if you quickly let the button go for just a split second, you will send the ball off the flipper into the bottom sling post right above the ball. If done at the correct speed for the machine the ball will bounce off that post safely across to your other flipper. This trick works on nearly every machine.

Simplify Multiball

When new players get multiball, typically they just panic. The best thing you can do for multiball is to get one (or more) balls trapped on one flipper, and then play with just a single ball using the other flipper. This keeps the trapped balls safe, and only requires you to play one ball at a time.

If you lose the ball in play, leaving you with two balls trapped on a single flipper, you can do a ‘cradle separation’. Basically a quick flip that leaves one ball trapped, and puts the other one into play. Typically the goal is to get the second ball to bounce over to your other flipper so you can trap up, one ball on each side, then pick you next shot.

Nudge Nudge, Wink Wink

Twilight Zone: Endlessly cool

Nudging isn’t just allowed, it’s an integral part of the game. In case you don’t know, pinball machines have a tilt bob inside the cabinet. This is just a metal weight hanging inside a circle of metal. If you nudge the machine too hard the bob will touch the circle, giving you a ‘danger’. You get two dangers before the machine ‘tilts’. When you tilt you lose your ball and any bonus you may have accumulated.

On some of the super old school machines a tilt will end your entire game.

But don’t let this scare you away from working on your nudging game. Since your goal is to remove as much luck as you can from the game, nudging is crucial to completing this task.

The first thing to be aware of is you are moving the playfield under the ball. So if you need the ball to move left, you have to nudge the machine to the right. You control the machine, not the ball.

That being said, almost all nudging in pinball is done by using both of your palms to give the machine a little ‘pop’ straight up. You are doing this in two scenarios:

First, if the ball is in the slings: If the ball is moving east-west in the slingshots, you’re in a world of trouble. You never want the ball moving sideways, as you have little control over what’s happening when it does. If you find the ball in the slings the idea is to nudge ‘up’ right as it’s about to fire off a sling, to try and get the ball to fire up the playfield, hopefully coming back down to your flippers where you can regain control.

When the ball is headed for the outlanes, this is the most important time for you to get your nudge on. As Bowen Karins (one of the greatest players of all time) said:

Do you want the ball to go in the inlane or the outlane? The answer is neither.

You should never be trying to get the ball into the inlane. Instead, you want to be nudging ‘up’ at the exact moment the ball makes contact with the post between the inlane and outlane. The idea is to give the ball enough bounce to get away from the lanes entirely, and back to the center of the playfield.

Desperate Times Mean Desperate Measures

The final maneuvers to be aware of are for when the ball is going to go SDTM (straight down the middle). If this is happening you might be able to save it one of two ways.

The first, and most common, is the slap-save. If the ball is headed SDTM, but almost close enough to touch it with one flipper, you might have hope.

You’re going to be slapping the cabinet (each slap hitting the flipper buttons) on both sides one right after the other, the old ‘one-two’. The idea is by slapping the side of the machine the ball is closest to first, you’re nudging the machine, causing the ball’s direction to veer slightly towards the side you just slapped. This can be enough to just get the tip of the flipper to graze the ball.

This in itself wouldn’t help, it would just change the direction of the ball as it sewers down the middle. But by slapping the other side right after, the machine is nudged in the opposite direction, letting the second flipper now coming up hit the ball hard enough to send it up and out of danger.

If the ball is too far away from the flippers to be saved, your only hope might be a slide save. This one depends on how tight the tilt is set, if the machine is on rubber booties, and what kind of floor it’s sitting on. But on most machines you can actually slide the entire front of the machine inches sideways on the floor, saving the ball from oblivion. Just beware, this will scratch the hell out of the floor, and isn’t possible if the machine is wearing rubber booties.

The Last Piece: Strategy

A pinball rules card.

Putting up big scores requires playing the game with an optimal strategy. While the general rule of thumb is to shoot the lit shots, you’re going to have to learn the machine’s rules and gameplay. There are great tutorials to be found on papa's webpage, but the best way to do this is just by playing. When you step up to the buttons at a new game, here’s what you should do:

  1. Take a look at the playfield. All the shots are labeled. Look for what shots are named (so when if it tells you to shoot a shot by name, rather than “left ramp”, you’ll know what it’s talking about).
  2. Most machines have a quick summary rules card near the left flipper button. While these are never great, they do give you some tips.
  3. Before you plunge the ball, look to see what the skill shot is.
  4. Before you plunge the ball flip both flippers and see if there are any extra flippers you didn’t notice.
  5. When you make a shot where the ball disappears, make a note of where it comes out of for next time. A tip: the machine will flash a light near where the ball is coming out right before it gets ejected.
  6. Note that the lanes at the top of most machines, and inlanes often have lights. Flipping the flipper will change which lights are lit. Almost always you want to light all the lights, unless it’s flashing. If it’s flashing you want to get it.
  7. Watch for the Shoot Again light (usually between the two flippers) flashing. If it’s flashing at the start of your ball you have ball save on, meaning if you sewer it will just give it right back. Don’t take any dangers or tilt with ball save on.

Other than that, it’s just going to take you practice. Lots of practice. But if you follow just these tips you will be putting up high scores in no time.

Final Notes

  • If a machine isn’t kept in full working condition, and clean, there’s a chance it’s not going to be worth playing the machine. They need to be working correctly to really have a chance at doing any serious damage.
  • Never put your drink on the glass.
  • Don’t hit the glass in rage, and don’t kick machines. The legs aren’t made to be kicked.
  • Super beginner tip: each time you hit the start button will add another player, up to 4. You rotate balls.
    If, after the second ball has started, you hold the start button, it will cancel all games and start a new one (and use a credit).