Chicago's 98-year-old pinball wizard has the magic touch for game design
Steve Kordek, 98, helped make Chicago's game a world favorite
By Lisa Pevtzow | Special to the Tribune
July 8, 2009
Steve Kordek, pinball innovator. (Chicago Tribune photo by Alex Garcia / June 24, 2009)
The way Steve Kordek tells it, there was less than two months to go before the annual pinball trade show in 1948, and the head designer of the Genco pinball company fell ill.
Kordek, a young employee who had never designed a game, took over, working practically around the clock to develop the prototype for a new kind of pinball machine.
Now 98 and a legendary designer of an iconic game, Kordek borrowed an idea -- the flipper -- from a competitor. But he reduced the number of flippers from six in the upper playing field to two at the bottom and gave them a lot more power, enough to flip the ball back to the top.
"I just figured -- what the hell -- two flippers on a game was enough," said Kordek, who went on to design about 100 pinball games, and worked on hundreds more. "I was taught to be very conservative to hold down costs. There was no way I would put six flippers on a game when I could get away with two."
Chicago area's only pinball-machine maker hangs on And that's how flippers on a pinball game have been ever since. His game, Triple Action, immediately made every other one obsolete.
Pinball is a quintessentially Chicago game -- brash, flashy, fast-moving and loud, especially loud -- even though it was based loosely on the French game of bagatelle. The first modern pinball machine began here in 1931 when David Gottlieb designed a tabletop mechanical action model with a coin slot, said pinball historian and designer Roger Sharpe.
"From that time forward, things happened exponentially," said Sharpe, who became part of pinball lore when he played a demonstration game before the New York City Council in 1976. That led to the legalization of pinball, first in New York and then in Chicago.
Within a year, Chicago became the world capital of pinball, where it has been ever since. Dozens of manufacturers opened their doors in the area, and most shut them almost as quickly. Many of the great games were designed here by Kordek. And it is in this area where the last maker of the American icon, Stern Pinball Inc., still turns out pinball games. At one point, Kordek even worked for the father of Stern's owner.
"All the designers were here," said Kordek, who lives in the same house where he and his wife, Harriet, raised their four children.
He is called one of the three best pinball designers of all time by Gary Flower, author of "Pinball: The Lure of the Silver Ball."
Besides the dual flipper set, he is revered by pinball enthusiasts for the "drop target" in the 1962 game Vagabond and "multiball" in the 1963 Beat the Clock. Some of his other many games include the best-selling Space Mission, Grand Prix and Pokerino.
"Steve is an incredibly gifted individual" who had an appreciation and understanding of what it took to create an exciting playing field, Sharpe said. "That's what's miraculous about Steve. I don't know many people who can remain current for five decades while tastes are changing and sensibilities and world markets."
Jim Schelberg, editor of the Pingame Journal, said Kordek really stood out as a designer. "It wasn't just about the machine as a working mechanical device," Schelberg said. "He loved pinball."
But Kordek's daughter, Kathy Petrash, said that unbelievable as it sounds, she and her three siblings didn't really find out what he did until she was in her late teens.
"He would take me to arcades and put some money in the machines, and watch what the other kids and people were interested in and what was hot," said Petrash, of Mission Viejo, Calif. She and her siblings are just learning the full extent of his involvement in the world of pinball, she said.
In 1937, Kordek literally walked into the industry. The Bucktown native had been working for the Civilian Conservation Corps in Idaho and returned to visit his family. He was walking down North Ashland Avenue, when -- too poor to afford an umbrella -- he took shelter in a pinball company to get out of the rain, he said. He was offered a job on the spot.
"I had never seen a pin game before in my life," said Kordek, the son of a Polish immigrant. He was placed on the Genco production line, and worked his way up to the engineering department.
At the time, the rudimentary tabletop game had just acquired legs and a backglass, he said. It had been just a few short years since sounds and lights had been incorporated into the game, and companies were trying to replace the clunky "C" batteries, which the machines operated on, with internal electrical transformers to give them more kick. A pinball machine cost about $70, and they were so wildly popular that pinball operators typically recouped their investment within three or so months, he said.
At the time, pinball was mainly a bar game played by men, who would bet on the outcome, he said.
"We couldn't make enough to put in all the taverns, and the operators couldn't get the pennies out fast enough," Kordek said. "It got so popular, because it was the Depression and it cost only a lousy penny to play. Everyone had a half-dozen pennies on them."
Sitting in his Edison Park home, surrounded by a lifetime's accumulation of memorabilia, Kordek found copies of early pinball brochures and pointed out what made each more exciting than the last.
"The secret to designing a good game is to attract the player," Kordek said. "What attracts a player, first, is the pictures on the backglass of the game. Second, if what he sees on the play field is different, that's a success. And when the features are so exciting that he wants to put more money in it, you've got him."
In the 1950s, when Genco was failing, Kordek took a team of workers and moved to Bally Manufacturing Corp. and later to Williams Manufacturing Co., another pinball giant. He stayed there until the company closed its pinball division. Since then, he has become a cultural icon, said Schelberg.
Almost daily, pinball collectors, historians and people who just love pinball contact Kordek to pick his brain about who made which game, how it was made and who helped. Plus, he is mobbed at pinball shows by fans who want his autograph and even ask him to sign the machines he designed.
"It's gotten to the point I feel I'm the last guy in this business," Kordek said. "Since I'm still around I'm knowledgeable, and thanks to the good Lord, I can remember what they want me to recall." He said he gets a charge out of going to the shows, especially the annual Pinball Expo in Chicago, and seeing how excited people still are about the game.
"I had more fun in this business than anyone could believe," he said.
Commento file: Steve Kordek, pinball innovator. (Chicago Tribune photo by Alex Garcia / June 24, 2009)
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