An outline for a "How to Play Pinball" Seminar. Thoughts?

Hey all. I’m giving a 1 hour long “How to Play Pinball” Seminar at the Rocky Mountain Pinball Showdown this weekend. I’ll be mic’d up, and have a machine with a video camera being display on a monitor. I’m frequently showing people how to play on location, but it hasn’t been very formalized.

I wrote a rough outline of what I think I should cover in the seminar, and I did put some thought into how this should be ordered. I’d love some advice and feedback though. Maybe I’ve missed something? Maybe the order could be better? Maybe this is too much? I haven’t tried it out on anyone yet, but will find a guinea pig for that soon.

(This is just an outline and doesn’t go into depth on anything, but hopefully you can imagine what I might say for each item). Begin:

My story

  • thought pinball was too random and unfair
  • finally watching someone good
  • playing a lot (for free if possible!)

Simplicity disclaimer: we’ve got people from all abilities here so don’t be put off if the first few minutes is simple simple stuff. In the beginning of this talk, I may do use some techniques out of habit without explaing them. I’ll come back to them later though.

“Oh come on! It went right down the middle!”

  • It’s (almost always) your fault. How to avoid? Don’t miss.

Controlling the ball

  • simple cradle
  • tee ball analogy (if you wanted to hit a ball into left field, wouldn’t it be easier to put the ball on a tee than try and hit a fastball?)
  • If you flip both flippers at the same time, that’s the first habit to break.

Aim for Something Specific

  • shoot the flashing shots
  • knowing basic game rules helps
  • how to start modes
  • how to start multiball


  • inlane, outlane, flippers, slingshots, shooter lane, plunger, scoops, etc

General concepts for (most) games

  • skill shot
  • rollover lane change
  • ball save
  • inlane lane change
  • locking balls for multiball
  • 2+ player games, many beginners don’t know this!

Flipper skills

  • bounce pass
  • post pass
  • tip pass
  • tap pass (not sure if I’ll have an older machine)
  • drop catch
  • live catch
  • beware the slap save!


  • it’s not illegal (explain tilt bob)
  • when at the top of the slings
  • when headed towards the outlane (you are moving the post into the path of the ball…not trying to move the ball)
  • when headed STDM
  • slapping the side of the cabinet

Safe shots vs dangerous shots

  • all shots are not created equal
  • risk / reward
  • backhand vs forehand
  • up and down the playfield vs side to side
  • might want to avoid using upper flippers

Getting control of ball

  • watch other players to see what they do
  • return from kickouts (cradle or bounce over?)
  • return from ramps (pass over or shoot immediately?)
  • return from orbits (cradle or bounce pass?)
  • what returns are consistent? a (nearly) guaranteed way of controlling the ball is incredibly valuable
  • As a novice player, playing one game and then moving on to the next machine will not help you in the beginning. Play the same game over, and over, and over, and over to learn how to read & control the ball on one machine. Then move to the next.

Fun vs Not Fun

  • people tell me that they don’t try to control the ball because it’s less fun. (I get that, but provide counter-argument)
  • When learning new skills, you’ll probably get worse at first


  • Usually where the vast majority of the points are
  • Figure out how to start modes
  • Then, make the shots!


  • Good to know your objective ahead of time
  • Okay to flail during ball save
  • Consider cradling after (with <3 balls)
  • Cradle separation
  • Up and under
  • Saving a STDM drain with another ball
  • Get those super jackpots!
  • Add-a-ball & restart of the ball save
  • Multiball strategy varies wildly from game to game.
  • Some games: use multiball to progress on other, dangerous objectives.

Competitive Play

  • leagues and/or local tournaments
  • “I’m not good enough”. There are people of all abilities. I see total novices at almost every event I go to.
  • “I’m not going to win, so what’s the point?”. Yes, you’ll be throwing your money away at first, but all the local tourneys and leagues are $5 per night. I won money only once in my first 22 pinball events. I told myself that I was donating to the better players - but I would watch them and ask questions to get my moneys worth. Pretty good entertainment value for $5.
  • Some people are afraid that they’ll look bad or embarass themselves. It’s all in your head - the other players aren’t talking about you - they’re worried about their own play.
  • “I’ll join once I get better”. The people playing in leagues and tournaments are improving faster than you. :slight_smile:
  • Leagues are more casual/social and have a wider range of skills. Tournaments are a little more serious, but still 100% welcoming to novice players.
  • One of the best things about pinball: mostly skill, but there is enough randomness that anyone can beat anyone else if it’s just one single game.

Haven’t figured out the closing yet.


Have you watched this yet?

PAX East 2013…How To Play Pinball with Bowen Kerins

I suspect you won’t get through your entire agenda, unless you really power through it. It might be better to hit fewer topics but hit them hard. Good luck!

The counterargument is that showing skill and winning is fun. The first time you show a friend a live catch is almost magical.

I tried to think of a good analogy to the “controlling the ball isn’t fun” argument, but I couldn’t come up with one I liked. What are you (or other folks) using?

Here’s a similar talk I gave several years ago which covers the same ground, but I did it in five minutes. Might get some ideas from it.


Hm the great disappearing previews bug seems to be recurring. Great!

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Awesome list, but yeah, that seems like a lot for an hour. Especially if you’re dealing with noobs. On the flipper skills, a dead flipper pass and a post pass is about all you want to teach in one lesson. The rest of the flipper skills look advanced to me. You can show them a live catch or a tap pass, but that’s way ahead of the typical learning curve. Better to stick with basics.

When they come back wanting to know more, then start charging for lessons. d;^) Good luck.

It works best imo if the person playing is NOT doing the talking.

Although we had a bunch of camera problems, a multi person-dynamic worked well for us here:

I would suggest taking the glass off the machine. Set the game up very easy.


Since we’re going into the summer season, imagine a giant cake of bottle rockets. Not just the Whistling Moon Travelers (with report, of course!), but the slabs of tiny, squealing rockets where you light once and enjoy.

These things are so fun! Snaps and whistles fill the air with joyous sound and flashes give a great light show. While you know they will go up, each one will fly off in a seemingly random direction…just like flipping away in pinball.

Usually, rockets are fired away from things and people you hold dear so everyone can enjoy the show. Flipping away without any effort at control is like pointing a cake of bottle rockets at your house and guests. Some of the time you’ll be fine, but eventually a window will get broken or someone will get hit and the fun is over…just like your ball.

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Good ideas, but too much for one hour [I’ve given lots of presentations in my time, just not many on pinball]. Suggestions:

Choose a machine with simple rules but also with both modes and a multiball. No EMs, no modern Sterns. Something like TAF [not Gold version!] might be a good choice, it’s got both and it’s a very common game. It also has most of the features you want to illustrate in a relatively visible layout, e.g. clear mode shots, kickout choices, etc.

“K.I.S.S.” - - save the advanced techniques for those interested afterwards. Just do bounce, post and tip passes. Skip forehand vs. backhand or sometimes not flipping upper flipper.

Explain the difference between practicing to get “somewhat better” and practicing to get “a lot better.” The “somewhat” version allows more “fun” with not staying on the same machine so long and not practicing the same technique several times in a row. This is more like the casual golf, bowling or tennis lesson. The “a lot” version is more like hitting a few dozen sand shots from the same trap, shooting for just the ten pin all game on your first ball, or hitting backhands with topspin for several minutes at a time. Serious players do more “reps” when they practice, but this is only useful once they’re mastered the basics.

Specifically draw attention to the “you’ll score worse at first” angle, and suggest that practicing in an environment where you’re not paying for each game helps, e.g. at a play-all-day for a fee show or location [e.g. an Expo or a Nickelrama] or at someone’s home.

Don’t get into cradle separation, up and under, etc. yet, either. Not in class 101.

Do point out using multiball to advance towards other things; I’d mention finishing cities in AFM or going towards Crank It Up on MET as particularly good examples.

Manage expectations. Nobody gets really good at anything overnight, and pinball’s no exception. Improvement requires a time investment. If you’re having fun while investing the time, you’ll be willing to invest more time. Also point out that there’s no “right” level of skill to shoot for. It’s all a personal decision about how much time and money investment is worth it TO THEM. If they just want to get good enough to make their quarters last longer, that’s perfectly fine. If they want to go to the league or tournament level, that’s fine, too, but each requires a progressively larger investment.

Great points generally, though! Good luck!



Some of the things I always tell new people are:
*You don’t get any better by not playing
*All the best players drain
*Pinball is hard because you have to be on the offense and defense at the same time
*You will almost always surprise yourself at how much better you do than you thought you’d do


Excellent and simple. Only thing I’d add is "Ask questions. When someone you’re playing with (or that you’re watching play) finishes their ball, ask them “How did you do that?” or “Why did you do that?”


This is a great outline. Perhaps one more to pack into your hour/101 level? Tourney settings: often a surprise gotcha for noobs. No ball saves, no extra ball - can turn a fun first impression into “its rigged, never again”.

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I really appreciate all the advice and comments in this thread - thank you!

Sounds like I’ll probably need to cut a ton out. :slight_smile:

I’m glad you said this…I probably wouldn’t have thought to do it. Not even sure what game I’ll be using yet (going to pull in something nearby).

I just watch this…thanks for the link. I would not have thought to pull members out of the audience to play. Do you think that was valuable for the attendees? If nothing else, they got a good taste of how much better Bowen is than the average person.

I’ll be giving this same talk on two consecutive days…so I’ll have a chance to make some improvements the second time around. :slight_smile:

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Might be worth including a “references” area with links to other resources like:

I find that a lot of new players think they’re terrible and that everyone else is better than them. Using average players allows people to see that this isn’t necessarily true, or at least the degree to which it is true is significantly lower than they’d otherwise believe.

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I’ve also considered doing something like this at a show that we run. If your audience is complete newbies, you should probably include the very basics.

  • How to start a game.
  • How to add players.
  • How to know when it’s your turn

We see lots of complete newbies at our show, and quite often you’ll get a huddle of three or four friends taking it in turns to play 1 player games. Equally you see young kids just jamming on the start button whilst waiting for their second ball to appear in the trough. Some education in this area would go a loooong way to making public shows less frustrating

A basic (pessimistic) game for a non-player is going to go like this:

Put in too many quarters. Mash the flippers, then the extra ball button, pull the plunger, mash the flippers again, then stumble across the start button and press it nine times. Fire the ball at full speed, smash both flippers every time the ball gets close, and then drain after like, ten seconds. Turn away in irritation to take a sip of your beer, not noticing the ball save until too late, when you fumble back at the machine and lose the ball again. Launch the next ball. Repeat process. Maybe lock a ball at some point. If you started a four-player game on accident, at some point you’ll probably get bored and leave with a ball in the trough. If you didn’t, you will finish the game having achieved seemingly nothing. Some numbers flash on the screen, and sometimes the machine makes a weird, loud noise. If you locked a ball, the machine will then trick you by spitting it down the playfield, making you think you have a second chance, but you don’t and, you get annoyed. You take your beer and go back to playing the beat-up Mrs Pac Man.

At most, I’d cover:

-How to start a game and add players. No more mashing the start button and winding up with a twelve-ball game.
-The importance of the DMD/display. Explain the ball save and match feature, it’s amazing how often I see people wander away from a game with credits left because they got a match.
-How to approach a machine. How many flippers? what do the words on the playfield say? Is there a skill shot?
-The concept of multiball and modes. I can guarantee you 99.999% of people who don’t play pinball have no idea pinball machines have modes, or even goals beyond batting the ball around and praying for points.
-Some very basic ball control techniques. Dead bounce, trapping, and how to “aim” the ball would probably be the most complex I’d go (show them a post pass and a live catch, though, just for funsies).
-Explain that nudging is not illegal.

I don’t know how to incentivize controlling the ball, unless you can demonstrate how to advance modes/achieve multiball by aiming strategically, because then your audience will see the modes being demonstrated and be like “Oh, I want that”.


All great points. Worth reiterating that this seminar is happing at a pinball show - so I should give people a little credit.

But, I’m definitely going to ask some questions at the start to find out where my audience is at. :slight_smile:

Haha that’s probably a good idea :grin:

I take it that the seminar has already passed, but I just want to give my two cents on it. As someone who did not understand pinball at all when I was little and was turned off for it for decades, I feel it’s very important for any pinball fan to help lower the barrier of entry.

I made a topic over here some time ago discussing what non-players do. That might be helpful.

Agreed 100%. In pretty much anything, I would say that’s one of the best things to learn: Watching someone else do something, then asking that person if there’s something you don’t understand. If you’re the one answering the questions, you also have to watch out for if they’re NOT asking questions pertaining to something though: Either the observer fully understands it, or they never even noticed it. For instance, most non-players do not know there are modes, even when they’re watching. If they’re not asking any questions pertaining to modes, odds are they’re not noticing they exist.

I see that sort of game so very often. Actually, sometimes, I also see them leave during Player 4’s first ball, because they know a game is 3 balls long and they leave after draining the third ball unaware they’ve been playing a 4-player game. Machines particularly vulnerable to people mashing the start button are ones with cutscenes at the beginning, such as Tales of the Arabian Nights, or ones where you’re required to select something before beginning, like Metallica. They think mashing the start button will make the game begin faster, akin to how they’ll mash the walk signal button at a crosswalk.

As for the match feature, that’s not a thing that happens in any other type of arcade game, so I can understand why people would just walk away. Even if the DMD reads “Match Game,” how would a non-player know what it means? How would a non-player know what the knocker sound means?

I’ve spoken with people who were unaware of points too, by the way. They think a game of pinball is about how long you can last.