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Pinball Wizard

Innovator Steve Kordek replays six decades in the business.

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Steve Kordek fished through his desk drawers, looking for a picture of his daughter. "'Twas here, 'taint here," he muttered. "'Twas here, 'taint here no more." Aside from the golf trophies, there were few personal items in his office at Williams Electronics Games, at the corner of Roscoe and California. It looked like an archive of pinball history, with promotional flyers for almost every pin game manufactured since 1932. Outside his window the Chicago River snaked past, and Com Ed transformers loomed overhead. It was November 29, 2000, and the next day Kordek would officially retire from a career that had won him the nickname Mr. Pinball.

Back in 1947, Kordek worked at Genco Manufacturing Company, a Chicago outfit run by the Gensburg brothers. Before World War II the city had sustained 30 to 35 pin-game manufacturers, but by the end of the war, scarcity of materials and lack of government contracts had eliminated all but a half dozen of them. At that point a pin game was just a playing field with holes in it; the player scored points by kicking, shaking, and shimmying the ball into the holes. But all that changed in October 1947, when D. Gottlieb and Company, the first manufacturer of pin games, came out with Humpty Dumpty. Designed by Harry Mabs, the new game had six mechanical flippers that tossed the ball around. "The flippers did more for the pin-game industry than any of the gimmicks before," says Kordek, "because you made pinball a game of skill depending on how you designed the game--anywhere from 60, 70, 80, to 90 percent skill."

With the annual coin-machine show coming up in January 1948, the other pin-game producers had to scramble. Genco's only game designer was in the hospital, and in December 1947, Kordek was tapped to design a game for the show. He didn't have much time, but he managed to draw up his game, lay it out, and wire it. Triple Action incorporated Gottlieb's flippers, but with one crucial difference--it placed them in the center at the bottom, in a defensive position. "All the games at that show, every company, copied Gottlieb's--four or six flippers on the side," says Kordek. "I was the only one at that show who had only two flippers on the game, at the bottom. And they've been there ever since."

Triple Action was the hit of the show, and with its new feature and layout, electronic pinball became popular all over the world. A game might feature more flippers at the top or middle of the playfield, but it always had two in the center at the bottom. "Focus on the bottom flippers," a friend told me when I was first learning the game. "Don't worry about what goes on up there."

As a boy growing up in Buck-town, Kordek never planned to get into the electronics business. The eldest of ten children, he graduated high school in 1930, as the country was sliding into the Depression, and his parents refused to go on relief. "If I could get a job where I could get ten cents an hour, I was glad to take it," he says. In 1934 he was hired by the Civilian Conservation Corps and sent to Lowell, Idaho. He excelled in the work--a veteran of the footraces sponsored by the Chicago Daily News, he would race the locals up the mountainsides--and after his tenure at the CCC he was hired by the U.S. Forest Service as a dispatcher for fire-fighting units. By the time he returned home on leave in late 1936, the Forest Service had offered him a scholarship to study forestry at the University of Montana.

But Kordek was homesick; he looked for work in the city and spent his nights studying at Coyne Electric School (now Coyne American Institute on Fullerton). In April 1937, three weeks before he was to return west, he was walking up Ashland Avenue under a torrential downpour when he sought shelter in the vestibule of a factory. A woman opened the window and asked him if he was looking for work, and the next thing Kordek knew, he was earning 45 cents an hour doing soldering work on the production line at Genco Manufacturing. "That was the first time I ever saw a pin game."

Kordek met his wife in 1938, when both were part of a "dramatic circle" that performed Polish-language plays, and as the years passed he became a game tester and then a head game designer at Genco. During the war the company manufactured walkie-talkies, an enterprise that made Kordek more valuable at home than overseas, and he trained hundreds of women in soldering. "The most pleasant satisfaction that I had was to see the number of women we used to have coming to work," says Kordek. They would report for work after dropping their kids off at school and leave to pick them up in the evening, and they were "glad to make the few extra dollars they were able to make."

When Genco went out of business in 1960, Kordek moved over to Williams Electronics Games, where he worked with Harry Mabs. The next year Mabs retired, and Kordek became the sole game designer at the company. During the next eight years he would create 43 games. After President Kennedy vowed to put a man on the moon, Kordek began designing space-themed games like Space Ship (1961) and Friendship 7 (1962). "It got to a point where you got so excited about it, you were thinking, 'Are they really going to do it? Can they do it?'"

Kordek has never lost his Depression-era work ethic--for him, designing pin games was a job, pure and simple--but he's pleased that his work has been absorbed into the popular culture. "It comes back to thinking of how good some of the games were," he says, "and why they were designed the way they were, and who designed them. Because from a certain period of time I was doing all the designing of pin games myself."

But his grinding production schedule caught up with him in fall 1969, when he was hospitalized for a bleeding ulcer in his stomach. Surgeons had to remove about a third of his stomach, then a blood clot that had broken free of the ulcer began traveling through his circulatory system. At one point, he says, "a shade came across my eyes and I couldn't see. It came about halfway down. I could see down but not up, and then it disappeared." He thinks the blood clot, or part of it, had passed through the vessels in his eyes. He spent six weeks in the hospital. Now 58, he decided to slow down and began supervising a crew of four to six designers.

The historic Triple Action remains his favorite of all the games he's designed, but Kordek has enjoyed other successes. In 1976 he designed Space Mission, which had the largest sales and production run of any electromechanical game in the industry, and the next year he followed it up with Grand Prix, the second most popular. By that time he was 65, old enough to retire. For the past ten years he's been a consultant and a figurehead, attending trade shows, giving interviews to gaming publications, trouble-shooting game designs.

Williams Electronics Games was the last of the big pinball manufacturers, but in October 1999 it finally sold off the last of its pin games to concentrate on more lucrative products like slot machines. Kordek spent another year on the job, working half days, tending to his files. But since November he's stayed at home, coming in once or twice a week to answer E-mails and voice mails from people who still consider him an authority. Pinball machines are still big business on the collector's market, where people pay up to four figures for those buzzing, ringing, flashing portals to the past. But Steve Kordek never set out to build anyone's dream machine. "The one thing I was anxious to do," he says, "was get a regular job."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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