Pinball Machine Wizard Steve Kordek Dies at 100

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He designed the iconic two-flipper pinball machine we know today, went on to build over 100 pinball games and lived for over a century: Steve Kordek, one of pinball’s pioneers, passed away on Feb. 19. He was 100.

Pinball owes a debt to everything from bagatelle to bocce ball and billiards, but in the 1930s, the first mechanical “marble” or “pin” games involved pulling a spring-triggered plunger to send a ball spinning around a board. But getting the ball in a hole required physically shaking the table. Using flippers to repel a ball up a slightly angled playfield didn’t arrive until 1947 with a game called “Humpty Dumpty,” but since its flippers were relatively weak, its design employed six. It was Kordek who — standing in for pinball factory Genco’s lead designer, who’d fallen ill — took the six-flipper design and reduced it to just two. When he demoed his new game, dubbed “Triple Action,” at a 1948 Chicago trade show, it drew raves…and pinball as we know it was born.

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“I just figured two flippers on a game was enough,” Kordek told the Chicago Tribune in a July 2009 interview. “I was taught to be very conservative to hold down costs. There was no way I would put six flippers on a game when I could get away with two.”

In an interview with the New York Times, Pinball author Roger Sharpe says the two-flipper design was only part of Kordek’s revolutionary contribution: “[Even] more importantly he provided direct-current power to those flippers, meaning that a ball skillfully flipped from the bottom of the playfield could actually get to the top, and anywhere in between, with some semblance of accuracy.”

And that was just for starters: Kordek went on to design over 100 different board layouts for manufacturers like Genco, Bally and Williams, selling more then 200,000 games in all. Other Kordek inventions of note: the first drop targets (a standup target that drops into the playfield when struck) and multi-ball play (multiple balls in play at once).

Kordek’s career in pinball almost didn’t happen — while visiting Chicago in 1937, he was passing by Genco when a rainstorm forced him to seek shelter in the company’s lobby, where he was unexpectedly offered a job.

“I had never seen a pin game before in my life,” Kordek told the Tribune, admitting that after six decades in the coin-op industry, “I had more fun in this business than anyone could believe.”

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