Las Vegas pinball wizard ‘Spittin’ Jerry’ boasts of being the best

Jerry Kaczmarek plays on the "Circus Queen" bingo pinball machine at his home in Bull ...

To call “Spittin’ ” Jerry Kaczmarek one of the best to ever play a now-vanished type of pinball game known as a bingo machine is to do him a disservice, he says.

“I was the best pinball machine player that ever lived,” said the 72-year-old Kaczmarek, who usually introduces himself simply as “Spitter.”

So prodigious was his prowess on the machines, which, unlike most pinballs, paid out in coins, that he says he was able to support himself and his then-wife in Las Vegas through the 1970s and into the early ’80s.


Jerry Kaczmarek plays on the “Circus Queen” bingo pinball machine at his home in Bullhead City, Ariz., on Thursday, June 27, 2019. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @csstevensphoto
Jerry Kaczmarek plays on the "Circus Queen" bingo pinball machine at his home in Bull ...
Jerry Kaczmarek plays on the “Circus Queen” bingo pinball machine at his home in Bullhead City, Ariz., on Thursday, June 27, 2019. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @csstevensphoto

The biggest downside, he said, interrupting himself with a laugh, is that he was always driving his Cadillac, with the personalized license plate reading “SALIVA,” around town with a trunk full of nickels, dimes and quarters.

The problem with being a purported master of a forgotten art is that such claims are open to skepticism and outright disbelief.

I was the best pinball machine player that ever lived.

Jerry ‘Spitter’ Kaczmarek

“The guy is full of s—-,” Tim Arnold, co-founder of the Pinball Hall of Fame and president of the nonprofit Las Vegas Pinball Collectors Club, said when asked about Kaczmarek’s claim. “Bally wouldn’t have designed and continued to build for 30 years a machine that could be beat by the player. It’s absolutely beyond belief that you would fall for a story like that.”

A detailed view of the "Circus Queen" bingo pinball machine made by Bally's at the ho ...
A detailed view of the “Circus Queen” bingo pinball machine made by Bally’s at the home of Jerry Kaczmarek in Bullhead City, Ariz., on Thursday, June 27, 2019. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @csstevensphoto

Games of chance

Such a reaction is understandable, given that the bingo pinball machines, also known as payoff or payout pinballs and “juke boards,” which appeared in 1951, were designed to be true games of chance.

Unlike the pinball games that most Americans are familiar with, the bingo machines had no flippers to shoot the metal balls back to the top of the field of play, which adds an element of skill. Instead, players fired the silver metal balls using the standard spring-loaded striker and then watched them bounce off a series of rubber-ringed metal posts before landing in numbered holes.

The holes corresponded with a display on the upper portion of the machine resembling bingo cards, which is how the machines came by their name. The grids indicated how much a player would earn if the balls landed in particular holes.

“You used to see them in the bars a lot, and occasionally you’d see one or two in a casino,” recalls Charlie Lombardo, a Henderson gaming consultant who has worked in the industry since the early 1970s. “Most people didn’t realize what they were, so they would put money in them even though they didn’t understand how they worked. They didn’t realize it was a gambling device.”

The machines were popular in many parts of the country in their heyday. Most paid out in free games, though proprietors would often quietly pay off players in cash and then reset the machines. But in in Las Vegas, they simply spewed out coins, just like slot machines.

Spitter, who got his nickname in his native Louisiana when a bar owner inquired about a puddle of spilled beer and a friend replied that it was the messy byproduct of Kaczmarek’s habit of loudly blowing air through his lips in a sort of Bronx cheer while he was playing, says the sharp players knew a trick that enabled them to manipulate the balls.

The key was forcefully slamming the machine at just the moment it struck a post or a ball already nestled in a hole, Kaczmarek explained. You had to hit it nearly straight on and hard, he said, to avoid activating the “tilt” mechanism that would shut the machine down, but when it was done just right, it was possible to make the ball in motion move left or right — a move he calls “wheeling” — and even knock the other ball out of the hole by varying the force and timing of the blows.

“Nobody believes you could beat ’em, but you could beat ’em,” he said during a recent interview in his home in Bullhead City, Arizona. “Anybody who saw me play ’em couldn’t believe what they saw because I could make the ball spin around, bounce it off one ball to another. … Even I don’t believe it how good I was.”

He demonstrated how it worked on a battered old Bally’s Circus Queen machine that he keeps in his living room, a gift from casino owner Don Laughlin, he says. The exercise looked a bit like a heavyweight fight, with Spitter repeatedly slamming his sinewy Popeye-size forearms into the machine, causing…

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