Claw machines enjoyed wild success until after World War II, when the rise of Las Vegas sent Congress scurrying to crack down on gambling. Because a player could not sufficiently control his outcome, early claw machines were considered gambling devices. In this dark time, only the permanent machines in stores and hotels were spared. King Bartlett had been overthrown, and the great schism of claw history had been created: skill versus chance.
In the early '80s, though, riding on the success of arcade video games, interest in the claw machine revived. Manufacturers designed a machine that met all the qualifications for a skill game, allowing the claw to be freely controlled by a joystick. This design gave a convincing appearance of skill to courts, and thus became the claw machine we know today.
Magnone remembers when he first videotaped himself playing one of the modern claw machines, at age 12. "It was a VHSC camcorder, and it was only a few days after I got it," he says. "And this bowling alley we went to had a claw machine that I always loved. Every time we went there I would play it."
In high school, Matt worked at a CVS pharmacy and saved every paycheck for months to buy his own machine. "I literally didn't eat for a couple months," he jokes. For years, he would fill his claw machine with prizes he'd won from other machines, and spend hours at home, playing. Back then, his parents wanted to limit his claw time, "because I was so obsessed," he recalls. These days, his mother moonlights as his camera-woman.
EYES ON THE PRIZE
Now he shakes the yellow-framed glass case, the ball drops from the claw and bounces back into the playing field. "Unbelievable! Had a prize, and then I lost it," he says, after an exasperated groan. His audience seems to laugh and sympathize at the same time.
After joking with his spectators for a moment, he senses a losing streak, and switches machines. A few more unlucky attempts, and he begins to question his mastery.
In the last few years, the game has changed again. Many claw machines are now outfitted with a chip that adjusts the strength of the claw's grip, depending on how many people have played. In order to meet profitable win-to-lose ratios, these machines will only give the claw enough strength to pick prizes up after a certain number of players have lost. Players must be lucky enough to play at the right time.
"No matter how good you are, or how well you have that prize lined up, the claw can just drop it, unless it's due to pay out," Magnone says of the latest machines.
He still plays the newer machines, particularly the ones with more exciting prizes. For Matt, the prize is essential to the claw experience. "What really interested me back then, and still today, is you can pop a quarter in, and you can win an actual physical prize from a claw machine," he says. "If you think about it, it's not a waste of money if it's something you enjoy. It's exciting, you can actually win something."
He talks a little more strategy before attempting the machine again, and after six failed attempts, skill finally pays off. Despite thousands of previous victories, Magnone still whoops in celebration as the claw delivers his $7 Spikey Ball.