Colin Plays Pachinko
Any town in Japan with a population larger than seven has a giant loud gaudy Pachinko Parlour in it. Festooned with neon and animated characters beckonging, the automatic doors part and you are standing in a great din of clanging bells and falling metal balls.|
Pachinko is an analog arcade game, like vertical pinball. If Pinball is a fight against death, as you try to prevent the balls from disappearing at the bottom of the board; Pachinko is a search for balance in the midst of largely uncontrollable life.
The Pachinko machine is a board with nails on it. You grasp a plastic knob on the right side, below the board, and as you turn the knob, a steady stream of metal balls arcs up from the bottom left over the top of the Pachinko playing field to fall down between the nails. You can't control the path of the falling balls, you can only make adjustments to their starting speed. If you time it right, more of your balls will fall down the center, towards an open chute. The more balls that fall in the chute, the more balls you are given to continue playing Pachinko.
When you reach that sweet spot, you are holding steady on a knob, breathing, watching balls fall with a certain likelihood, but still largely out of your control. The right spot is a place of balance, the middle way between too hard and too soft. And it is a place you want to stay.
Pachinko is also gambling, unofficially. While at the Pachinko parlours themselves you are only gambling for little metal balls, there are invariably small storefronts nearby that will take your balls and exchange them for cash.
First Brush - April 2001
I met a hardware programmer named Hedley in a soba noodle place earlier, we were hitting late night Tokyo to see what kind of trouble we could find. Geeks, we stumbled into Akihabara, hoping to see some strange tech. We stumbled into Pachinko instead.
Neither one of us had any experience playing the game. From three rows in a small parlour, we found two adjacent chairs, and I went to the front to see how I could purchase my starting bin of balls. There was a card dispensing machine, starting price, $20. I put in my $20 and got my card. He was griping about the price. Come on man! Throw down $20 for a chance to understand something.
We inserted our cards, and spent five of $20 on a first round of balls. Down they came out of the machine, into a plastic tub, and up they went over the top of the nails. Immediately my losses far outpaced my successes. Hedley had a much easier time putting balls into the chute somehow - it took me about ten minutes to realize what I was aiming for, and how I could get it in there. There's plenty to distract you along the way; behind the playing field, a small screen features dancing animated characters who are only partially responding to your efforts to land balls. The ambient noise is a bit like vegas - whirling whooping clacking clanging sirens and some chatter. A woman in a uniform came by and deposited a small plastic bottled yogurt drink at my machine.
I watched Hedley who was deconstructing the device - he figured out that the right number of balls in the chute at the right time would create enough balls to keep playing - he was far richer in balls that I.
Next to Hedley, a young man in his twenties had found a sweet spot. His hand held firm on the knob, he was creating an inevitable ball doubling. As I watched, one plastic bin became three plastic bins. With his left hand he was steadily kneading a bin of balls, running them through his fingers, caressing them, shifting their positions.
Hedley observed that these were cheap ball bearings.
I got up to take a walk around for a moment - in the next row over a middle aged Japanese man in casual clothes was playing well enough to have seven plastic bins full of balls stacked up behind him. His starting $20 was going to lead to a effortless-looking night of Pachinko.
I returned to my seat. In spite of my studies I was losing balls fast. My attempts at balance and technique were not creating results. Hedley was doing some better than I. I sat back to watch him and the young man beside him. When you find the spot that doubles your balls, do you stay there and continue to win? Above each machine, a small readout tracks the number of balls purchased and regurgitated and won. At night after closing time, technicians visit the machines and adjust the nails of the machines that have been balling too much.