Finding the One True Way

A recent post about pachinko over at the USS Clueless rubbed me the wrong way. The line that bothered me was:

There’s no skill involved and no real way for the player to increase their chance of winning.

This is just false and I was disappointed to see this on Steven Den Beste’s blog, as he is one of my favorite daily reads. He usually researches his subjects well and writes about them in great detail. Regarding this one specific point, however, he is wrong. There is skill involved and there are ways to increase the odds at winning at pachinko, and good pachinko players use them all. I will not cover cheating or illegal methods in detail here, but rest assured they do exist and people get caught all the time. Actually I know quite a few stories regarding the dark side of pachinko and may cover them in a future post.
My credentials regarding this subject:
I used to play a lot. I have always been lucky at pachinko, which is of course a big reason why I like it. How lucky? Back when I was in university, I could make money off it fairly regularly and probably came out slightly ahead overall (although not enough to forego working part-time). My biggest take for one day was 149,000 yen, over a thousand dollars at the time (winnings aren’t recorded or taxed). My luckiest feat was the time when I walked into a pachinko parlor and picked up two balls that had spilled onto the floor, put them in the machine, sunk the second ball in the center hole, and won 6,000 yen when the machine hit. I fondly remember walking out without gambling any of that money and instead buying dinner for my girlfriend, so you can see that pachinko shares common ground with all other forms of gambling: Knowing when to walk away is key.
Choosing when to play is a major factor for winning at pachinko. It is generally thought that weekends are the worst time to play because the popular parlors are guaranteed high turnout by people who play for fun. The ideal time to go to pachinko is the first few days after the opening of a new parlor. People will wait outside for hours (opening time is almost always 10AM and closing time varies but is usually 11PM) on opening day because the parlor will often set the machines to easier settings to attract a crowd and make a favorable impression with their prospective (return) customers. The second best time to go is when a parlor replaces their old machines with newer types, which usually happens every few months and the frequency of which is a good indicator of how much money the store brings in. At these times as well, the machines are often changed to easier settings for a few days.
The machine has both electronic and mechanical systems that are used to change the payout profile and the chances of winning. The electronics control the “heart” of the game that pays a set jackpot (approximately 4500 – 6000 yen) if matching numbers/characters/symbols line up on the center display, much like a Las Vegas slot machine. The electronics can be set to raise or lower the odds of winning, and there are usually presets numbered 1 to 10, with 1 representing the highest odds of winning. I know this because I have taken several apart for fun (used machines can be bought legally and I’ve found several in the trash).
Unlike a slot machine, the start of the game is not controlled directly by just inserting money and pulling down the arm. You buy the pachinko balls at a set rate (different between regions; Osaka and most of western Japan is set at 4 yen per ball) and use the knob on the lower right side of the machine to control the stream of balls into the area of play. For the vast majority of machines, the object is to get balls to fall into a hole under the center display to trigger the start of the game (this is where action starts on the display). Therefore, the more balls you can get to fall into the “trigger” hole, the better chance you have at winning, and that, in a nutshell, is the primary goal of pachinko – finding the One True Way to the center and into the hole.
This is where the mechanical side of the equation comes in. Between the top of the play area (from which the balls fall down) and the trigger hole there are rows of bronze pins arranged in patterns that determine the flow of the balls when they drop down. The positioning and shape of pins is extremely important to the parlor. They bend them to precisely control how easy it is to get the pachinko balls into the trigger hole. It is a fine art, and more secure than the electronic settings, which can be tampered with by concealed radio transmitters, swapped control chips, or even modified cellphones. There are of course mechanical hacks as well, but they are more visible and almost all parlors have security cameras to catch the low-tech crooks.
As a player, one of the most dramatic ways of increasing your odds is by being able to “read the pins” (Japanese: kugi wo yomu), and choose machines that can be triggered with a minimum expenditure of balls. I often hear tips regarding this subject passed back and forth between pachipro, professionals who are good enough at pachinko to make a living off it. (An example of a typical tip is about looking at the shape of a specific pin on a specific type of machine.) But reading the pins can be done by any level of player who wants to win and is willing to learn through a bit of trial and error (this is also a hook for a future post). By reading the pins, you can also quickly figure out where to aim the flow of balls on the particular machine you have chosen. The faster you can find the One True Way, the more efficiently you can use your supply of balls to trigger the start of the game, and the greater chances you have of winning.

2 thoughts on “Finding the One True Way”

  1. Thats gotta be the first field guide-style article on pachinko that I’ve read. I find it impressive how my co-workers cite their winnings without mentioning their losses.
    Teacher: I won ichimon last night at pachinko?
    Me: How much did you spend?
    Teacher: (Mmmaahem!) Ichimon gosen.
    Me: Ah (downward glance), good job.

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