By Tom Anderson
The game of Pachinko is almost synonymous with modern Japan. Popular in part because it represents a loophole in otherwise strict anti-gambling laws, the business of pachinko parlours is estimated to make up as much as 5% of Japan’s GDP. The first step in a game of pachinko resembles pinball, in that one launches a metal ball bearing up an angled (or vertical) table with a spring-loaded launcher. However, whereas pinball is a game of skill in which the player must keep the ball in play by striking it with flippers at the right time, pachinko is almost entirely random (save perhaps for timing when one launches the ball in machines with rotating pieces). In a pachinko machine, the ball rattles and ricochets off numerous brass pins, before either entering one of a number of holes to win prizes, or else draining away to the bottom for a loss. The complexity and unpredictability of the random paths taken throughout the field of pins is part of the game’s appeal. Just as America has the slot machine (aka the one-armed bandit or fruit machine) and Britain has the coin pusher (aka that 2p machine where you can win 2ps), the pachinko machine has become iconic of Japanese traditional arcades. But where does it come from? The answer is not only surprisingly complex, but strangely prophetic. Let us work backwards in time. Pachinko became popular in Japan in the 1930s, spreading from an initial focus in the city of Nagoya. The first machines for adult players were likely derived from a children’s toy manufactured in the 1920s, itself inspired by an American ‘Corinthian Bagatelle’ toy. Bagatelle is similar to pachinko, but simpler, with wooden pegs rather than brass pins and the ball historically launched not with a spring-loaded launcher, but a manually-operated cue. It is, in fact, related to other cue games such as snooker, pool and Russian pyramid—the difference being that these are played on level rather than tilted tables, so gravity is not a factor. Bagatelle was a popular game in the nineteenth-century USA for both adults and children; in fact, a political cartoon from 1863 depicts President Abraham Lincoln playing full-sized bagatelle against his eventual opponent General McClellan. The version depicted in that cartoon is more like pool or snooker, with a horizontal board with many different-scoring holes dotted across it and lacking the pins or pegs of the angled game. So now our question becomes: where did American bagatelle come from? The plot thickens once more. Bagatelle was introduced into the fledgling United States during the American Revolutionary War, by French officers of the army sent by King Louis XVI to support the rebels against the British authorities. It was a recent craze and a popular game among the French aristocracy at the time, and these officers sometimes even brought their own bagatelle tables with them on campaign!
So what were the game’s origins in France? In 1777, only a year before France’s entry into the war, King Louis had had a party at a new house recently built for his brother the Comte d’Artois—the house being named the Château de Bagatelle. The name signifies a Frenchified form of the Italian word bagatella, meaning a trifle, a small decorative thing. The Comte had built the expensive house as a hunting lodge for throwing parties, and the dismissive name was emblematic of the vapid and arrogant character of the French aristocracy which would so soon end in the fire and blood of revolution. In that inaugural party, a new game was shown off for the King’s amusement. It consisted of a tilted billiards table in which ivory balls, launched by cue, would ricochet off fixed pins and into holes or pockets. The Comte d’Artois dubbed it ‘bagatelle’ after his house, and a craze was born. Bagatelle did not come out of nowhere. As hinted above, it was pitched as a variant of billiards, a long-established European game dating back to at least the fifteenth century. Billiards began as a purely outdoors game (known in hindsight as ‘ground billiards’), nowadays effectively extinct but the ancestor of many other lawn games. The clearest line of descent is to croquet, but hockey is also believed to derive from ground billiards. In the original game (though the rules varied) players used a mallet or ‘mace’ to hit balls through hoops in order to have a chance to strike a stake called the ‘king pin’ or ‘sprigg’. (Hence the later term ‘kingpin’ for a leader, such as the fictional crime boss in Spider-Man). In ground billiards one lost points if one’s ball actually knocked the king pin over. Interestingly, ground billiards is not even the beginning of this story, as it has an (obscure) relationship with bowling, which itself descends from mediaeval game of skittles. In bowling and skittles, of course, one is instead trying to knock the pins down rather than strike them but leave them upright. Let’s pause to reflect on the interesting fact that the two games most commonly associated with twentieth century American working-class sports bar culture, pool and ten-pin bowling, are therefore actually both derived from the same ancestral family of games played by their ancestors in Gothic cathedrals six or seven centuries earlier! Billiards was a popular game in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in its various forms. One of these was France’s jeu de mail(le), the latter word meaning ‘mallet’, while Italy’s trucco survived a number of centuries. Another was a Scottish and English variant known as Pall-Mall (from Italian pallamaglio ‘ball mallet’), played on an elongated rectangular court that resembled an alleyway (and often was a repurposed one!) Pall-Mall gave us both the term pell-mell (referring to travelling at high speed like the balls) and a street name in London, which began as a pall-mall court (as recorded by Samuel Pepys in the seventeenth century). Indeed, this is the origin of the word ‘mall’ in multiple European languages to describe a long, straight arcade. Some of these later became shopping districts, and this gave us the modern, American notion of the closed-in shopping mall. So if our stereotypical twentieth-century American workingmen mentioned above manage to avoid spending all their hard-earned dough on bowling and pool, they might take their wives and kids out to a shopping mall—another thing derived from the same family of games! The only snag for early modern enthusiasts of billiard games was that cold winters made them unpalatable to play outside. The solution arrived early on, when indoor variants were created. These were played on a table intended to resemble the outside courts—and now you know why snooker and many other billiards-derived games use green baize as their tables’ surface, to resemble the original lawns! The original indoors billiards game is described in The Compleat Gamester (1674) by Charles Cotton, who also contributed to the better-known The Compleat Angler by his friend Izaak Walton. At first, it was a direct transposition of the outdoor game, with maces, hoops and a king pin; but, not embedded in the cloth as it was in the lawn, the latter proved too easy to knock down. Some variants of the game developed where this instead became the goal (such as five-pin billiards, still played in Italy and Argentina today) but others made pins a fixed part of the table. Another reason for this may have been that knocked-down pins took too long to reset. Holes in the table instead became the goal for hitting to the ball into. It is from these forms that the tilted Bagatelle game of 1777 was derived. There are many other games derived from the original indoor billiards, some still played today across Europe, for which space does not here permit me to do justice.
It is interesting to note, for alternate history speculation purposes, how this chain of consequences depends on the happenstance that the American Revolution blew up, and France chose to intervene, at such a time. If it had been a few years earlier or later, if the Comte d’Artois had found a different amusement at his party to show off, not only would pachinko not exist—but neither would pinball, as it too derives from that first game of bagatelle. In fact the divergence of the two is where we come to our remarkable bit of prophecy. The earliest bagatelle game in 1777 may not, in fact, have been quite so newfangled as it seems—perhaps it merely popularised the concept with France’s ruling classes. Tilted pre-bagatelle tables with balls richocheting off pins to land in holes were already being made in France some years earlier. Some of these even already had spring-loaded ball launchers, prefiguring modern pinball. This variant needed a name. We must remember at this time that many European innovations or discoveries were given almost randomly-chosen ‘exotic’ signifiers to attract public interest. For example, the turkey (as in bird) is so named because the country of Turkey was exciting and exotic to its consumers, never mind that it was actually imported from America. Later on, the French and Belgians would play a flat-table form of billiards (which became modern bar billiards in Britain) which they named billiards russe, or ‘Russian billiards’, again despite likely not having much of a connection to Russia. The same logic was used for those tilted pre-bagatelle tables in the 1750s-1779s, which was dubbed billiards japonaise—Japanese billiards. At this time, remember, Japan was still closed to all western contact, save for a trickle of contact through the Dutch in Nagasaki. It is absolutely certain that no Japanese person ever saw a ‘Japanese billiards’ table in the eighteenth century, much less that they were responsible for inventing it. It purely a piece of marketing by eighteenth-century French game inventors to make their game sound exotic and fascinating. And yet, the name turned out to be bizarrely prophetic. For from billiards japonaise came Bagatelle, then Corinthian Bagatelle, and then Pachinko—which would go on to dominate Japan to the extent of being viewed as a cultural peculiarity. Modern western gamers frustrated with the frustrating giant pachinko machine bonus level in Super Mario Sunshine have been known to curse Japan’s pachinko obsession. But can we stop for a moment to reflect how remarkable it is that an eighteenth-century marketeer’s lie became a twentieth-century truth?
Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, and The Surly Bonds of Earth