You can find them next to the Kiddie Room at Funspot in Laconia, NH; in the dark depths of the Dream Machine Arcade in the Walpole Mall; and 24 hours a day in the Boston Bowl Game Room. You may have tested your abilities on one, for a dollar a go, hoping to capture a prize for your child or lover, foolishly lured by the apparent simplicity of the machine.
Yet its appearance belies its sordid past. The machine gives up its secrets, like its prizes, only to those with the patience to extract them.
At a Pittsburgh Wal-Mart, a young man with brown hair poking out from under a beanie presses his face to the glass of the machine, surveying the battlefield. Behind him, his mom flips on a camcorder. He steps past a young girl, who has already sensed the presence of a master, to see the claw's position from another angle.
"Gotta use my angles," he says.
But as the claw drops, it doesn't quite grab on to the prize, a rubbery purple ball with spikes on it. He and his spectators let out a communal grunt, and it's the first loss of the day for Matt Magnone. It's also the first 40 seconds of an episode in his YouTube series "Journey to the Claw Machine," which documents him matching his skills against various machines.
"You have to get all three arms of the claw as far around the prize as you can, before the claw starts to pull back up," he says. "The center part of the claw . . . where the prongs are attached, if you center that over your prize or the plush, then usually that will plant on the prize, and you'll have a better chance of winning it."
In his second attempt, he successfully claws a prize — a rubber ball — but when the claw reaches the prize chute, it refuses to let go. Another spectator, this time a boy in a green sweater, suggests they speak to the owner.
"Nah, I've done this before," Magnone says, as he begins to rattle the machine around, hoping to shake the ball free.
SKILL VS. CHANCE
Claw lore holds that the original, coin-operated "crane machine" was invented around 1893. However, it took until 1926 for appearance of the world's first patented crane game, the Erie Digger: a countertop glass box, with a tiny metal crane that could be raised and lowered with a simple wheel.
Sensing a burgeoning market, a carnival-concessions operator named William Bartlett developed his own version: the Miami Digger. Where older cranes could only go up and down, Miami Diggers allowed a player to move the crane around the box. Bartlett eventually controlled the claw empire from his beachside palace in Miami, and helped usher in a new era of art-deco claw machines of the '30s.
The Depression was on, and even gambling was encouraged to stimulate the economy. Pamphlets asked "men of vision" to make opulent claw machines for hotels and upscale storefronts. These machines, with their elaborate cabinets ("made of burl walnut with birch finish trim") and highly detailed interiors, offered a tangible prize for skill and ingenuity, when few lines of work offered much promise.