How Pinball Flipped My Life: Interview with TEDx Speaker Michael Sandler

How Pinball Flipped My Life: Interview with TEDx Speaker Michael Sandler
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How Pinball Flipped My Life: Interview with TEDx Speaker Michael Sandler
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How Pinball Flipped My Life: Interview with TEDx Speaker Michael Sandler
Published on
February 21, 2024
Updated on
February 21, 2024
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When it comes to pinball origin stories, Michael Sandler’s isn’t too dissimilar from others you may have heard before. While he had been exposed to pinball growing up, it wasn’t as big a part of his life until he stumbled upon the Pintastic pinball show in New England several years ago. 

Since then, Michael has been exploring all corners of the hobby, from buying machines to repair, competitive play, and more.

Michael was even provided the opportunity to talk about everything pinball in a recent TedX talk, which has now been edited and released to the public. 

Check out the full video here:

Interview with Michael Sandler

Kineticist: Obviously we want folks to watch your TEDx talk, but could you give us a quick overview of yourself and how you got into the pinball hobby?

Michael Sandler: I’ve been a high school teacher since 2008. I did a lot of different things in my twenties but finally settled into teaching shortly after getting married and starting a family in my early thirties. I teach at Arlington High — psychology exclusively, though I used to teach history as well. And how I got into the hobby is actually how the TEDx Talk starts. I basically wandered into Pintastic in 2016.

A longtime friend of mine was visiting from the West Coast to stay with his family. He had grown up right on the New York/Massachusetts border. I asked if he could make it into the city to see the house that we had bought, but he just couldn't get there. I had been to the Sturbridge Host Hotel for a conference, and we both had young kids; there's a little indoor pool, and we could go to Sturbridge Village. I was like, "Let's just go there. It'll be easy." And then we get there, and it's a giant pinball show.

So, that is how the talk starts, with me finding my way into Pintastic. I couldn't really play because my kids were tugging at me the whole time. They were younger then, six and eight at that time. And my wife wasn't with us.

So, when I got back to Boston I made it a point of emphasis to get out and play some pinball. We were doing this major home renovation and it was a really stressful time. So started going to [the now-shuttered bowling alley] Lanes & Games just to blow off steam, to just be in the moment and not be thinking about teaching, not be thinking about how giant these checks [were that] I was writing for work on this house. I played a lot of Tron Legacy because that was the one game that was set for three plays for $2.

And, yeah, it just really rekindled something in me. I used to go to this little bodega when I lived in Washington, D.C. after college and played Scared Stiff and Theatre of Magic. I remember playing Attack from Mars at bars with friends of mine in the '90s. But yeah, pinball had not been on my radar for 20-plus years. 

And then, as I say in the talk, I met Mitch [Curtis] playing at Flat Top Johnny's [freshly re-opened in Cambridge, MA], and he was just a really great ambassador into the community.

Kineticist: How did this opportunity come about?

Michael Sandler: In November [of 2022], I got an email from TEDxTufts saying, "You've been anonymously nominated to apply to give a TED Talk at Tufts in the spring." And at first, I was like, "Hmm, that's bizarre." And then I decided, hey, I might as well. I spent maybe two minutes throwing together an application of sorts just filling out the Google form, and I titled it Psychology and Pinball. TEDxTufts is a little different than other TEDx events in that the speakers are all involved in the Tufts community, and I'm an alum of the university.

They chose 10 speakers in total, and my talk was definitely the least heavy of the 10. Most of them were professors. There were also grad students, undergrads, and one of the nurses from the college’s health center. I was the only alum who spoke. I'm curious how many people applied. At any rate, they liked the initial application. Next, they asked if I could send a video of me just talking to the camera in order to see how my public speaking was. And then, I went in for an interview with three members of the TEDx club team, all undergrads. It's a student-run club. I believe there are maybe 40 people involved in it.

And I just talked enthusiastically about pinball for an hour, and they accepted my application a few days after the interview. It was obvious to them that I was very interested in the topic and they had no idea there was so much to be said about it.

And then, a week before the TED Talk itself, I got an email from a former student who is a current Tufts student, a graduate of Arlington High School, whom I had taught. He revealed that he had nominated me. He ended up coming to the talk with some other Tufts students I had taught. So, that was really cool. I had current and former students in attendance, along with old friends, co-workers, family, and newer friends from the pinball scene. 

Kineticist: What was it like trying to consolidate your thoughts on the hobby?

Michael Sandler: Trying to consolidate my thoughts on the hobby was really challenging! The first couple of drafts were so long and ranging, and I was trying to include so much of the history of pinball: Roger Sharpe's shot and the illegality of it and how they evolved from flipperless bagatelle machines. And I was trying to cram too much into what's essentially a very small window of time to speak. Fortunately, I had two undergrad students at Tufts who were part of the TEDx Club who were my coaches, and they were excellent at making it clear when I was talking just too deeply. They were like, "This paragraph makes no sense to me because I don't know pinball."

Eventually, I had them over to the house to play some of my games. At that point, they got it — but not everybody has that opportunity. So, they were really helpful. Also, I have to definitely give a big shout-out to my friend Steve Almond, who's an author and a teacher. He really helped me decide on the right words and provided super-valuable feedback. So, I don't think this would've turned out the way it did without his imprint on it.

Kineticist: In the video, you talk about some formative experiences with Mitch Curtis (local operator) and Pintastic (pinball convention). Are there any other moments or people that really stand out to you in that journey?

Michael Sandler: I've met some really wonderful people who, even without pinball, I would hope to be friends with. Through NEPL I met Steve Mossberg, who is a fellow teacher but also a musician and makes crossword puzzles. And we have so many things in common. Going to the Southern New Hampshire Pinball Club with him for the first time and stopping for Vietnamese food on the way and talking about kung fu movies and heavy metal and hip-hop and funk music was a stand-out experience. Pinball was sort of the launching point, but meeting another kindred spirit has been a highlight.

I mean, Daniel [Radin] and Ty [Ueda] are just such great guys and contributors to the scene. Ty did a phenomenal job of shooting the video that’s in the talk.  John Day, who I just had to include, is an incredibly generous individual, and all the suburban pinball folks I've met through him with insane collections are part of this journey. Joel de Guzman, who does the artwork for Pintastic — he's just so talented and a fun individual. There were so many people who I just wanted to say, "Wow, it's been really great getting to know you or playing with you!” Meeting Seamus Meader as a middle-schooler, and now he's into the latter half of high school, and seeing him not just grow in height, but in pinball playing prowess has marked the passage of time. Just all the different kinds of events that are happening, watching this scene grow and develop has been really delightful.

It's kind of how I travel now, too. If I'm in a city that I've never been to, that's what I do, I get on Pinball Map and explore. 

Kineticist: In the video, you said, “The primary objective in pinball, as in life, is to stay alive.” I’ve often had my own metaphorical thoughts about pinball and its relation or resemblance to aspects of life and the human condition. Generally, I get the sense this isn’t an uncommon thing, either. What is it about pinball that encourages these lines of thinking?

Michael Sandler: if you're playing pinball with somebody, there are so many entry points for conversations. "Hey, how long have you been into this," or, "What's your favorite game," or "How do you play this game? What's your strategy here?" And then it can go off in so many different directions from there.

So, it's kind of like an easy point of contact, but it's a little journey that you get to go on, which is unlike a video game, although video games are much different now than they used to be when I played them. It's not quite so prescriptive. There's so much randomness in pinball. So, in a lot of ways, it feels like a condensed version of existence or life.

The other day, someone said, I don't remember who it was, "I wonder if anyone's ever been buried in a pinball machine like a coffin." And I was like, "Oh my God, I've had that same thought, too!" Just looking at an empty cabinet, it really does resemble a final resting place.

Ideally, as you're playing, your mind is wide open and you're just living exactly in the moment, and it kind of gives you an opportunity to let your mind wander. Maybe that's why there's so much opportunity for finding metaphors in the hobby, but who knows? 

Kineticist: We had a convo with Bowen Kerins recently, and he sorta lamented the decline of kid-friendly arcades with pinball in them, like he and others had growing up. The general sentiment is that without spots like that, getting the next generation invested in pinball will be hard. Do you think that’s true?

Michael Sandler: Yeah, I think there are just so many more options for kids now for entertainment. I mean, one difference between being a kid now is we weren't seen as a viable market when I was growing up in the '80s. Of course, there were toys and video games, but the number of industries that have children as their demographic target is just a huge change between then and now. Kids today have so many more options, and I think about my own children, who sadly have zero interest in pinball.

My son's on his PlayStation talking on a headset and going on adventures with his friends. I mean, some of that has to do with the fact that the pandemic kind of pushed kids into having digital friendships because they couldn't see one another in real life for a year-plus during really formative years. So, I think we'll still be unpacking plenty of the effects of the pandemic on kids, of course. But in terms of introducing kids to the joys of pinball, I think it's like you got to get it in front of them, and hopefully, it will resonate for them.

Kineticist: It sounds like you’ve explored the pinball hobby pretty in-depth. Do you have a favorite aspect that resonates with you more than others? 

Michael Sandler: I really enjoy getting people into the hobby, or deeper into it.  My friend Alex played in college, and then we actually co-owned a game. It was just too good a deal to pass up. It was a Riverboat Gambler that someone was selling on Cape Cod. And I told him, "I can't get it by myself in my sedan," but he had a minivan. I said, "Listen, let's just buy this game together, and you can hold onto it for a while." He had that game in the basement of the hardware store he owns in Boston, and it was just a great place to have a pinball machine.

And then after a while he's like, "It's taking up a lot of room. It's half yours. You should get it back." My response: "All right, well, we've got to transport this thing from Boston." Then I saw someone had posted that there was a movie shoot that was looking for a pinball machine for their production, They specifically wanted a game that was either red or green and no earlier than 1992. "Well, I have a pinball machine that's red and green from 1990." So, I ended up renting out this pinball machine that’s in the movie FinestKind. 

But part of the deal was they would have to pick it up in Roslindale and then transport it to Arlington to my basement once they were done. So, they ended up doing that and paid us more for five weeks of renting this machine than we had originally paid for it. Unfortunately, they dinged it up a little bit. But in the year or so since, I actually sold that machine to the parents of a former student of mine who I befriended.

My favorite part of it [the pinball hobby] is finding games, finding deals, and putting people together. Hey, someone wants to buy a game. "All right, well, great. Let's find a game for you."

So, I enjoy the hunt. I love hearing people's stories about it, how they got into the hobby or how they picked up that Skateball This is where I have a lot more room to grow just because I'm not a particularly technical person, but I've broken down and cleaned so many stepper motors at this point and put them back together, I have a pretty good understanding of some of the mechanical parts. 

Kineticist: Where do you think you’ll go next with the hobby? Are there any parts you haven’t dove deeply into yet?

Michael Sandler: I think I would love to do a re-theme or a home brew eventually, but that's going to take a lot more technical know-how than I currently have. And I've yet to host any tournaments or anything like that. So, that's on my to-do list. I mean, every time I restore a game, I try to learn at least one new skill with it.

Kineticist: What would you like to see more of in the hobby? Less of?

Michael Sandler: More young people, more women, more people who aren't overweight, suburban white guys. Not that we're necessarily bad. There's room for more people. 

I'd like to see fewer collections that just feature new Sterns. I'd like to see people having EMs or an early solid-state in their collection.

Kineticist: Where can folks find you and connect? 

Michael Sandler: I’m sandman74 on Pinside, and you can email me at Thanks, Colin, this was fun!