They sit in the corners of dimly-lit dive bars, blinking brightly and begging for quarters. If you slip one a dollar or two, it comes to life, shouting familiar phrases from licensed films and awarding you three shots to score the most points possible. Other than a little distraction, pinball doesn't have much of a purpose; most machines are clearly labeled with the reminder that playing is “for amusement only." But as innocent as the fun may seem, it wasn't always this way. Pinball—like prostitution, murder, and dealing dope—was illegal for almost four decades in New York City (as well as Chicago, Los Angeles, and a few other major American cities).
When Fiorello LaGuardia was sworn into the Mayor's Office in 1934, he made it his mission to banish corruption and erase the stereotypes of Italians as gangsters. He hit the mob where it hurt the most—by taking sledgehammers to their slot-machines. By 1942, similarly coin-operated pinball was considered gambling, seen as games of chance rather than games of skill. So LaGuardia sent his police force to round up any remaining machines, destroy them, and dump them into the city's rivers like traitorous wise guys sent to sleep with the fishes.
Today, you don't have to don scuba gear to get your game on. The ban was lifted in 1976 after pinball wizard Roger Sharpe proved to a stunned City Council that pinball involved more skill than chance by calling out his shot Babe-Ruth style before their very eyes. It flourished in settings like Steve Epstein's esteemed Broadway Arcade—where Lou Reed held his wedding reception—until redevelopment pushed the venue out of Times Square along with porn shops and peep shows, once again lumping pinball in with seedier pass times. But perhaps because of its kitschy appeal, gastropubs, skates shops, and showrooms across the city are bringing pinball back in a big way, and for once, a New York mayor was on board! During his term, Bloomberg upped the machine maximum from four to nine tables on-sitewith no need for an arcade license.
Mint machines can garner $25,000 or more from serious collectors, there are new manufacturers in Jersey and Amsterdam, and NYC has its very own league, boasting nearly 300 members. You can ball like a gangster no matter what your affiliations—here are some of the best places to do so.