Another academic fringe question: highly skilled players and chance

As an outsider, I appreciate how helpful folks here with my first questions. Here’s another one.

Based on reading some of the conversations here and my own limited experience, I get the feeling that there are highly skilled players who, if they have been able play on the same machine many times, can get very good at making certain desirable shots by controlling the plunger, flippers, and whatever other control possibilities a game allows. At the same time, my gut feeling is that given how complex some of the playing fields are, there is always going to be some element of chance, even for the best players. Maybe sometimes it matters whether a ball hits a bumper a half a millimeter to the left or right, for example, ends up, after a couple of other bounces, making the difference between the ball ending up on one side or the other side of the playfield. Or maybe very slight differences in flipper timing–differences too small for anyone to control, can have this effect. (This sort of phenomenon is what’s known as sensitive dependence in chaos theory–when very small early differences can cause very large later differences.) Or maybe variation in ball densities or smoothness could even make a difference. Even for the most skilled players on a machine they know well–even one the player owns.

That’s my suspicion, but I don’t know.

(This is another one of those things that might make a difference about exactly what I say when I use a pinball machine as an analogy in the philosophy of science book I’m writing.)

Thanks! I’m really curious to see what people say.

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btw I just read in Adam Ruben’s new book Pinball Wizards that a judge ruled in 1935 that pinball was not a game of skill, but “relies on ‘Innate Gambling Spirit’” (p. 26). That was those machines then, though, and those players. It was the pre-flipper era, apparently.

Most of your gut feelings are essentially accurate. There is a certain amount of luck/chance involved but generally, a highly skilled player can overcome bad luck or unfavorable conditions with effective ball control and shot making. Some tournament formats attempt to mitigate for this by increasing the number of games played and the IFPA WPPR ranking system uses the games played metric as a basis for calculating the total value of a tournament. It’s assumed that more games played is less likely to have a result that is chance driven. For example, an event with a single game, high score wins, every player has one opportunity to play a game, stands a greater chance at having an outlier result than one where every player has 10 opportunities. In the latter the best players will almost always rise to the top.


Sure. This is IMHO no different from most other physical sports. The most skilled quarterback on the planet misses some easy throws sometimes. The top rated ski racers or ice skaters sometimes catch an edge and fall. These things can be caused by chaos – in pinball, like you said, maybe that’s a millisecond or two timing variance of a flipper or a slingshot, or a little bit of dirt or wax on the playfield that causes some weird spin. Or maybe the player just slept poorly the night before and isn’t performing their best.

Of course, the reverse is true too: sometimes middle-of-the-road players find themselves totally “in the zone” – and maybe getting some lucky breaks – and dramatically outperform their “expected performance”, beating up opponents to whom they would normally lose.

Over a large number of samples (games), the most skilled players rise to the top. There’s a reason Keith Elwin has a gazillion champion banners and trophies in the PAPA facility. But on any given game, who knows what happens! That’s part of the fun.


[quote=“mars0i, post:1, topic:3292, full:true”]… there are highly skilled players who, if they have been able play on the same machine many times, can get very good at making certain desirable shots by controlling the plunger, flippers, and whatever other control possibilities a game allows.

At the same time, my gut feeling is that given how complex some of the playing fields are, there is always going to be some element of chance[/quote]

Correct. Chance is designed into the game. Slings and pop bumpers have a comparatively high element of chance. Generally you try to keep the ball under control by making shots. Games often offer a high reward for shooting something that puts the ball out of control to make taking that risk lucrative. Walking Dead drop target bank is an example.


Here’s how I look at it:

A combination of luck + skill is used to get the ball into a position where pure skill (+ minor variance) will shine.

A ball’s return has elements of random chance to it, with that level of randomness depending on the element it hits and the specific machine. For example, From the lanes Frepower has multiple feeds: left side, right side, center, and rarely back out the right loop if the diverter fails (chance!). Each of those has varying odds of occurring and outcomes; off the target screaming down the middle is terrible. Everything else can have failure chances mitigated by predictive nudging (I see the ball heading to danger, let me knock it out of the way before it becomes an issue), reactive nudging (“CRAP, SAVE NOW!”), flipper skills for ball movement/trapping, and so on.

If you can get the ball to a cradled state, barring any malfunctions the next flip towards an objective should be completely skill-based since you have complete control over the situation and have removed the randomness of spin and velocity.

Depending on various properties, games have varying levels of random chance. As expected, the elements of EMs and early solid state games have them trending more towards chance than pure skill. No matter what, you have control over the machine and there will always be a level of skill involved when playing pinball.


Looking from a game design POV, the elements that create chaos are the best defense against highly skilled players. For example, even the software can affect this. If you let a ball settle into a hole kicker and give the ball the exact same pulse to eject it every time, the trajectory will be fairly predictable, but if I either don’t let the ball settle all of the way or give the eject pulse a random “On” time, that device becomes more unpredictable. The same goes for slingshot hits (that send the ball toward the opposite outlane).

Game layout and game rule design can also make the player take “Chances” by either shooting dangerous shots or shooting the ball to a place where it gets out of their control.(such as Pop Bumpers).

As Steve Kordek said “The Ball is Wild”!

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I thought that quote originated with Harry Williams.

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Wow. Thanks everyone. Each of the answers added informative details. Just what I wanted. More, actually. Thanks.

Because their operation was less consistent, or because they were less skill-oriented by design?

Earlier games tend to have few if any shots that intentionally return the ball to the flippers in a predictable way – you’re often shooting for targets (which rebound the ball) or maybe shooting “up top” to an area where the ball bounces around randomly in some pop bumpers and such. More recent games (say, last 25 years) have many more shots like ramps, orbits, and scoops that return the ball directly to the flipper in a fairly predictable way. That said, even when shooting a rebound target, a good player can still predict the path of the ball, just like a pool shark can predict rebounds off the sides of a pool table… it’s just a more chaotic, more difficult prediction than watching a ball neatly following the narrow walls of a ramp.

One might also argue that older games are less consistent in their operation… for example, I would say that modern games generally have crisper flipper action than EM games. This may be due, to a greater or lesser degree, to more worn parts on the older games (even down to the level of stuff like corrosion on the wiring), but whatever the reason, it’s often true.


What @joe said, exactly. It’s more of a choice of the features and elements used in the games of older eras that prevent pure control than anything else. On classics, “hitting the right shot” tends to lead into slings and pops that decrease the amount of control a player has and increases the amount of “luck” involved. On moderns, the games are moving into more controlled outcomes with ramps, loops, scoops, and isolated pop bumper units, although newer features like magnets are throwing pure randomness into the mix.


It originally may have been Harry Williams who said “The Ball is Wild”, but I heard Steve Kordek make that phrase during a seminar at an early pinball expo (late 1980s). But, no matter who originally made that statement, it is true to this day!

OP might want to talk to some of the papa folks about how the alter machines to change strategies / risk reward. Most obvious example is the pebble added under the rubber of earthshaker to add flipper hop and remove the strategy of shoot the ramp all day.

Of course instances like Cayle on who dunnit at pinburgh 2015 where he defeated the software and removed one of the elements that where suppose to control risk/reward. It still took a crazy amount of skill, but he removed a lot of the chance via a bug.


@gammagoat, those are very interesting examples. This is all extremely helpful for me, although I don’t have a need to go so deep into it that I’d want to contact PAPA people. I’ll take your word for it.

@joe, @ScoutPilgrim: For a novice like me, it’s interesting that the EM machines involve more chance, even though at first glance the newer machines look wilder and more chaotic. From your descriptions I can easily understand why the recent machines are more skill-based, but it’s not what I would have guessed based on pure ignorance. (Now I’m eager to try EM machines. There’s an arcade a few miles away that has a few. I realize now that the last machine I played until recently was EM, one night back in the 70s. When I looked up EM playfield mages in IPMD, I immediately recognized the style.)

One reason modern pinball tables are less random is the industry association with gambling. Pinball was banned as a form of gambling in many places. Some places paid out by buying the replays/credits. Manufactures shifted gradually towards skill based games by adding flippers and changing playfield design.

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That reminds me that the UK All Skill games are certainly relevant.

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@gammagoat’s comment about PAPA modifications led to me wondering: Has anyone ever noticed differences between balls that affect play within the same machine? I think this would be hard to notice, normally, but who knows. Seems like this would be a way to make a game more chancey, but my intuition is that no one would do that on purpose.

But maybe a ball that’s so worn-out that it’s misshapen? Or is that crazy for metal balls?

(I’m not asking about cases like Twilight Zone that have two radically different balls in the initial design. I see there is a special ceramic ball that’s released sometimes and is faster and non-magnetic.)

Goldball is interesting enough to warrant a mention in this thread as an extreme case of chance. There is a low percentage chance that earned extra balls are replaced by a special “gold” ball that triples scoring while it is in play. The ball is physically identical to a normal ball, just anodized so it looks brassy. There is a separate trough mechanism that stores and releases the “gold” ball.

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@Law, so the fact that the ball is physically different doesn’t do anything, right? It’s just that the machine knows that once it goes into the special state, and releases the gold ball, it knows that scoring is different until the next drain. (If someone went into the machine stuck a regular ball into the trough where the gold ball is kept, the machine could still go into the triple-score state, but the ball wouldn’t be gold.)

Correct. The two times I’ve seen this game the gold ball had been replaced with a regular one since replacements for the the gold ones are difficult or impossible to find.