It was only for a short while … and I got better.
Here’s what happened.
About the time I turned 14, my friends and I began to hang out at the pool hall.
Most small towns had at least one and as pool halls go, this one was pretty classic. Dust covered, well-worn floors. Dark corners hiding a few rickety straight back chairs. Ash trays full of butts and the air thick with all manner of tobacco smoke.
A row of heavy slate pool tables with thick wood frames with the occasional cigarette burn, but otherwise worn smooth and shiny from years of contact with beer guts and sweaty hands of shady characters and callow youth..
A jar of Penrose sausages on the counter beside the cash register, next to a jug of pickled hard-boiled eggs.
You know … all the standard stuff.
But, I digress. I was telling you about my gambling addiction.
Although it first became apparent in the pool hall, it had nothing to do with playing pool. I was then and always have been a terrible pool player.
If I had been tempted to play pool for money, it wouldn’t really have qualified as gambling. It would have been more along the lines of a charitable donation.
No … I didn’t play pool … I played the pinball machines. NOT the flipper machines. Flipper machines are NOT pinball machines.
These machines had NO flippers. They featured a simply a grid of holes with each hole having a circumference just large enough for one of the 5 chrome balls to settle in, each hole guarded by a series of pins.
It was 5% skill … 95% luck!
You pull back the spring-loaded plunger and put the ball into play. Once the ball is out of the chute, you “control” it by delicately bumping the machine with the heels of your hands trying to time your efforts with the ball’s contact at a given pin.
Try for a little too much “control” and risk the dreaded “TILT!” Game over … Thanks for playing … Try again.
At nickel a game, the sign on the machine plainly said “For Amusement Only!”
It kept me amused for hours some afternoons. At other times, I was done in 5 minutes or less.
It all depended on how lucky I was and how many nickels I had in my pocket.
The object of the game? To get the balls into a row vertically, laterally or horizontally. Sort of like a bingo card …
Get 3 -in-a-row and you win. Get 4-in-a-row and you win bigger.
Five balls in a row means JACKPOT!
You could literally turn five cents into five dollars!!
Of course by winning a game intended for “amusement only” all you did was accumulate “free games” … that you could then surreptitiously exchange for cash.
And that’s where the problem came to a head.
Once you had exhausted your 5-balls, you could “buy” an extra ball … by throwing in more nickels. But there was no guarantee how many extra nickels it would take before the machine actually awarded you an extra ball. It might take one … it might take 10. But, going for an extra ball when you had 4-in-a row was a calculated risk.
So, you probably see where this is headed.
Not only was I a budding compulsive gamble, I was also a novice coin collector.
I had a nice set of Buffalo nickels in my collection …
… and I had 4-in-a row!
Yep … I HAD a NICE set of Buffalo nickels …