Sometimes in Life, You Need to Tilt

I was never a big Elton John fan growing up. My favorite music from the ‘70s was mainly Kiss and Rush. I still believe Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson is either an alien or dark wizard, since no human should be able to play guitar like that, though that never stopped me from trying.

The one thing I did like about Elton John, however, was his pinball machine. Not to brag or anything, but I had “Captain Fantastic” mastered. I knew how the ball was going to fall, when to hit the flippers and how to get extra games.

You could get free games on any machine, but I had the best luck on “Captain Fantastic.” Most people just waited to see if they got a match — that’s when the last two numbers of your score “match” another set of numbers generated by the machine in a special readout. If you “matched,” you got a free game and a chance to keep going without feeding the machine more money.

I had a better way. It was simple, really – I waited for the last ball to drop, and then at just the right moment, as the final score was being tallied and the game about to end, I shook the machine. More often than not, this forced the machine to match and give me a free game.

Usually shaking a pinball machine was a bad thing, because you would “tilt.” That stopped everything dead, with no way to revive the game. But personally, I always found tilting worth the risk.

To a great extent, pinball is totally out of your control — it’s a lot like life in that way. But shaking the machine to win a new game was the one thing in pinball that you could do to make something happen. It was the one way to change the natural order of things, like a defibrillator shocking the heart. It might work or you might tilt, but either way, it was worth a try.

Shaking the machine was my secret weapon, my one chance to cheat a premature pinball death. I never understood why more people didn’t try it. I used to look around the arcade at all these kids just standing there, conceding the game and quietly hoping that they’d get a match and play again. They never did anything to try to help themselves – either they felt there was nothing they could do, or they were afraid to shake the machine because they knew it was wrong.

That didn’t make any sense to me. The way I saw it, the game was going to end if you didn’t do anything, so you might as well do something, even if it was somewhat risky. Control the game, or let it control you.

As I said, it’s a lot like life. Sometimes you get another shot — and sometimes it’s just tilt, game over.

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