What Pinball Can Teach You About Business

Marketing Small Business
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Pinball seems lost on the younger set mostly because of the instantaneous access to handheld Nintendo’s and home video games. But to many of us pinball is nostalgic retreat. I saw pinball evolve from those old wooden machines with a few bumpers to some pretty amazing stuff. No joke, I have played pinball at least 10 thousand times. Most of that was with friends in college every day after classes. We had a pinball machine in the dorm. If you play pinball, my favorite was Black Knight, one of the best multi-ball machines to have ever existed.

From all outward appearances, especially to the casual player, pinball was a random game that cost you a quarter for which you got to lose three huge metal ball-bearings right down the middle in the course of less than a minute! But not us! We were truly pinball wizards. We should have accumulated college credits for the time we spent but alas, the only credits we racked up were on the machine. And we racked up a LOT. Most of us could play for hours on a quarter; except for Craig. He depended on us winning games so he could play. Given the light pockets we all had, this was damn cheap entertainment.
 
When discovering things that work in life, I think you'll find a very common thread that runs through them. These are the things I learned while playing pinball.
 
Don't shoot the obvious targets. They are affectionately known as tube-shots! The angles off the target are designed to bounce the ball right back down the center of the machine.

Moral of the story: you can't win doing the easy stuff.


Get good at one thing on the machine. If you seem to be able to hit a difficult ramp every time, keep doing it! A pinball machine is a box full of distractions. Your task is to ignore all that and hit the ramp.

Moral of the story: find out what you're good at and keep doing that. Ignore distractions.

 
Don't hang out in the bumpers. This is the most random part of the machine. It makes a lot of noise but you don't accumulate many points in the bumpers and the ball is completely unpredictable.

Moral: Random events rarely generate wins, can sometimes be dangerous, and almost always generate more fluff than stuff.

 
When you are in multi-ball mode, keep your eyes focused on the flippers. The point is to keep the balls in play as long as possible. Try to hit the shots you were good at. You've got two eyes but they can only focus on one thing. The minute your eye follows one of the balls up over a ramp, another one trickles down past your flipper and you completely missed it.

Moral: FOCUS on what you need to do to win.


We discovered a neat trick too. If you soap up the floor underneath the legs of the pinball machine, you could slide the machine left and right. If you practiced enough, this could be done very strategically without tilting the machine. It came in handy at times when the ball was heading down one of the exit lanes or the middle where the flippers couldn't reach.

Moral: Think outside the box!

 
I'm sure there were a few other lessons there. When I think of pinball, what I remember most is four guys; each duking it out to get his initials in the number one spot. They were me, Jeff, Steve and Craig. We didn't drink coffee; we couldn't afford beer. We invented "ball breakers", "pinball catch", "multiballistics", "tubeshots", "shatter shots" and the infamous "slide" (the soap on the floor thing). We left our stress at the machine, laughed a lot and apparently learned a lot. The last I remember, Craig got to put his three letters in the top post. He always wrote "FUK".

Moral: hang with people who like what you like, keep your balls in play and swear when it means something.