Collecting Japanese Slot Machines
Japanese slot machines known as pachislos — all flashing lights and tinny, obnoxious noise — rest on just about every horizontal surface of the 500-square-foot space, including the sink and the stove. In his living room, where the walls are painted black to match the carpet, there are nearly a dozen machines, and the only furnishings are a few scoop-backed stools.
In the bedroom is a bed (surprise!) and a lot more slot machines.
Your first assurance that this is not a gambling den is Mr. Cramer himself, a soft-spoken man who tells his guest, fidgeting, “I don’t really even like having people in here.”
The other assurance is that these aren’t technically gambling machines. Mr. Cramer is one of the country’s foremost collectors of pachislos, cheap, slightly tacky slot machines that have amassed a cultlike following in the United States over the last 10 years. He began collecting them about four years ago after he saw one in a mall on Staten Island. Today, he lives mostly at his girlfriend’s apartment so he can use his own to house his collection.
Pachislos (pronounced PATCH-ee-slows) look much like any slot machine you would find in a Las Vegas casino. But they differ from American slots in small but significant ways.
For one, they operate only on tokens, not currency. For another, they supposedly involve some skill: below each spinning wheel is a button that stops it manually, meaning pachislo players earn their jackpots hitting the button at the right moment. One does not have to be a skeptic on par with, say, Aristotle, to doubt that this element of skill is anything more than illusory, but it is enough to exempt the machines from most states’ laws barring home ownership of gambling equipment.
Also, they are not just slot machines. Many of them, particularly the newer models, have LCD screens on which elaborate video-game-style narratives play out. And they have some oddball traits that appeal to kitsch-happy collectors: colorful anime-style graphics, ear-splitting sound effects and unfortunate Japanese approximations of American themes like “Rambo” and “Harley-Davidson.” An Obama Inauguration pachislo comes decorated with an image of the president, arms folded, in front of the presidential seal and an American flag.
Pachislos are considerably cheaper than American slots: basic machines cost about $250, whereas a decommissioned Las Vegas slot machine can cost from $800 to $2,000.
In Japan, compulsive pachislo players are known to sit glassy eyed for hours in seedy pachinko parlors (named for the vertical pinball game that spawned pachislo). Although gambling is illegal in Japan, players can trade their tokens for “prizes” — empty plastic boxes or cigarette lighters — that they then take to redeeming centers across the street and trade for cash.
These machines “are very mesmerizing, they’re very soothing,” said David Plotz, the editor of Slate, who wrote about pachinko parlors for the Japan Society after spending time in Japan in 2001. “They are a form of escape in a country where there is very little of that.”
In the United States, however, the obsession seems to be more about collecting than playing. Collectors speak of sacrificing whole floors of their homes to accommodate their ever-growing collections. They gather on sites like Pachitalk.com and PachisloDB.com to share reviews of the newest machines or trade tips on where to find rare ones. And YouTube is filled with hundreds of hours of pachislo enthusiasts showing off their chirping, flashing collections.
Brian Evans is a retired Navy technician who discovered pachislos when he was stationed in Japan in the early 1990s. He has more than 35 pachislo machines in his home in Atlantic Beach, Fla., plus close to 20 pachinko machines.
“My neighbors thought I was crazy when they started seeing FedEx or UPS delivery boxes once or twice or three times a month,” he said. “But they came over and are like, ‘Hey, these are pretty neat.’”
For many American collectors, pachislos are the first experience with slot machines of any kind.
“I actually don’t like to gamble, because I don’t like to lose money,” said Rita Schack of Pearland, Tex., who made about $10,000 importing and selling pachislo machines last year on her site, BlueHotaru.com. “But once I found out the technology that goes into them and the great music they play and the flashing lights and the LCD videos they play, I just fell in love with them.”
She added: “The only problem now is fitting them in the house.”
But mention pachislos to a slot machine purist like Bob Levy, an antique slot machine dealer in Pennsauken, N.J., and prepare yourself for a good talking-to.
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