Why Skee-Ball Doesn't Change

A century after its creation, the game is still a perfect balance of skill and chance. An Object Lesson.

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Updated on December 5, 2016

In 1909, the same year that William Howard Taft became president, the arcade game known as skee-ball made its appearance. That same year, an issue of Popular Mechanics heralded this “new and unique hand-ball game that seems destined to great popularity.” The ball, Popular Mechanics explained, “is jumped ... into the pockets in the same manner as a skee-jumper”—which is surely where the idiosyncratic spelling of skee originated. The pockets were of varying sizes and corresponding difficulty. “Great skill,” the magazine concluded helpfully, “is required to consistently make a good score.”

Skee-ball’s design has remained basically unaltered for a century. And along with that simple essence comes a dollop of instant gratification in the form of perforated tickets, which are spit out via a little dispenser near the coin slot. The higher the score, the more tickets received, which can be redeemed for chintzy prizes. Skee-ball has survived so long not because it is special, but because it is ordinary.

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Contrary to its plebian connotations, Skee-ball actually has an Ivy-League imprimatur: Its inventor, J.D. Estes, was a Princeton alumnus. New York City’s first Skee-ball emporium opened in 1915, owned by two former Princeton football players. (Some dispute these origins, but Estes is generally regarded as its inventor.)

Perhaps thanks to the network effect of its early inventors and hosts, skee-ball’s popularity seems to have progressed at a rapid clip. Accounts from the May 8, 1915 New York Times describe it as “the fascinating sport which has found so much favor at the seaside resorts and in Philadelphia” and “is reported to be as fascinating as bowling and to require the delicacy of billiards.”

“Its devotees,” the Times related, “are firm in their belief that it will place in the scrap heap some of those games which are just now better known.”

By 1916 skee-ball had become so popular that it was considered a public nuisance: The Times reported that the authorities in Atlantic City—spearheading a losing battle to purge the town of indecency—had decreed that “noisy amusements” were to be closed on Sunday. Skee-ball was included in the list of such noisy amusements. Although the stakes were low, skee-ball was indeed a game of chance. If you wanted to get technical, it was a form of gambling.

Skee-ball has long been a fixture of amusement parlors and carnivals. It is easy to see why the game caught on. For one, it was easily installed, the opposite of roller coasters or bumper cars. Little arcades and bars could incorporate skee-ball without expense. It was cheap to play, and it swapped the duplicitous trickery of prize-bearing carnival game barker for the skill of the player. Skee-ball was the perfect balance: It was a game of skill, but not that much a game of skill. Attaining proficiency was not a huge undertaking. The prizes—as minimal though they were—offered an affirmation of the player’s prowess. But a low score was also okay; a game is brief and minor, and poor performance could be chalked up to bad luck.

Yet if skee-ball has long been a fixture, it has long been an afterthought as well. Roller coasters and saltwater taffy have earned their respective niches in the American vernacular. Miniature golf gets name-checked in “All Summer Long,” the Beach Boys’ free-flowing, iconic ode to that magical season. But nobody has ever really waxed rhapsodic about skee-ball. Its uniformity certainly was a major component to the game’s popularity, but at the same time it quashed any sort of distinctiveness. There wasn’t much difference if you played skee-ball at the Jersey shore or in California. Skee-ball had none of the thrill of the roller coaster or the kitschy zaniness of miniature golf. What you saw was what you got: wood balls racing up a ramp into a target. Simple, unadorned, it was akin to that affable fellow you ran into everywhere but could never quite remember his name.

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Close to a game of chance, skee-ball has straddled two worlds. The game has associations with the wholesome summer amusement, but it is also tied to the more louche side of carnivals and arcades. That particular lineage of disrepute has largely faded away in the public mind, but carnivals and arcades had longstanding reputations as hosts of unwholesome pastimes for unwholesome people. The entertainment was of the sensationalist freak-show variety, or it was smutty. The games of chance were often rigged. There was the distinct element of hucksterism: The crooked carnival barker became a folkloric staple. (Even well into the 1970s, Space Port, the arcade-like emporium at my local mall, was populated by a vaguely threatening constituency of the type of guys who smoked cigarettes and had sprouted facial hair before the rest of us.)

And skee-ball, for all its summertime associations, was not exclusively a beach phenomenon. It was also very much a fixture in cities, in places such as Times Square. A 1937 Times account of a suspected murderer, the upholsterer Joseph Gedeon, cited his alibi: He was playing skee-ball at a late hour at a Third Avenue bar and grill. Skee-ball, according to an April 8, 1946 Times dispatch, was specifically targeted in an anti-gambling crackdown throughout Coney Island.

Skee-ball has not just endured for over a century, either. It has actually undergone a resurgence, morphing into a bona-fide, organized pastime. In the past decade, skee-ball exegetes like Eric Pavony have been at the forefront of a skee-ball renaissance. Under his aegis, the old reliable—somewhat gussied up, but still adhering to J.D. Estes’s basic template—has been in brought into the realm of friendly bar competition. It has become the focus of events that feature live music and locally sourced food. Pavony’s avid fan base is of an equal male-female ratio. This skee-ball is played in regular adult leagues as well as youth leagues. There is skee-ball strategy designed to optimize one’s score. These leagues, according to Pavony, have actually engendered numerous marriages.

To be sure, there is a large measure of irreverence in these endeavors (“from skee to shining skee”). But Pavony’s efforts are emphatically not an exercise in hipster irony. His love for the game is genuine.

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This past summer I stood with my tween daughter amid the bustle of the summertime crowd at Jilly’s Arcade on the Ocean City, New Jersey, boardwalk. The skee-ball corner was abuzz with activity. We did manage, though, to commandeer one of the games.

In the antiseptic, increasingly silent computerized world—where the solidity of the TV clicker and the clack of a typewriter have passed into extinction—our skee-ball experience was refreshingly tactile and sensory. There was the grip of the little wood balls, the satisfying thump as the ball made contact with the sturdy little alley, the brief moment of triumph if it successfully hit its target. The ticket dispenser cranked out those little perforated sheets.

What made skee-ball enticing in 1930 continued to make it enticing in 1950 and in 1970 and in 1990, and in the present day. Skee-ball occupies the rare perch of a nostalgia without esotericism: The game is a genuine, low-risk challenge. And there is an innate part of the childhood psyche—which we never seem to truly outgrow—that takes pleasure in the most rudimentary rewards: the gold star from the teacher, the prize in the box of Cracker Jack. That same part of the childhood psyche takes pleasure in tossing a ball and hitting an intended target, in tallying up a score, in collecting one’s little prize. And thus, skee-ball endures.

This article appears courtesy of Object Lessons.