Chris Kuntz does business with some of the hottest tech companies in the Bay Area.
“I go to Google, Facebook and Twitter to fix the games there and they say, ‘You have the coolest job,’ ” Chris says.
As owner of Pinball Pirate in Benicia, Chris repairs and restores pinball machines. He spends his time surrounded by games that inevitably bring smiles to people’s faces. The sounds, lights, careening balls and flippers remind most people of happy times. “How can you not like pinball?” says Chris, 47.
His love of pinball goes back to his teen years. Chris grew up in the Midwest and moved to Pleasanton with his family when he was 18.
“One of the first things I did was get out the Yellow Pages and look up arcades. I found one within walking distance,” he says. “If you’re in there all day anyway and you’re helpful, they hand you a bottle of Windex and pay you.”
He later worked for an electronics repair firm and co-founded T Minus One in 1995. The game company moved to Benicia in 2002. Several partners were involved over the years, and Chris struck out on his own with Pinball Pirate in 2012.
Now his hobby and business overlap. The Bay Point resident estimates he has about 100 pinball and other types of games stacked neatly on shelves in a warehouse in the industrial park. The well-organized space includes work benches and a bank of file cabinets filled with manuals and his handwritten notes on how to repair problems he’s found during his decades of fixing games.
Most of the 60 or so pinball machines on the shelves belong to Chris. “Since this is my hobby, it does create this weird gray area. When I buy something, is it for the company or is it for me?”
What convinced you to look beyond the bright colors and lights and start repairing pinball machines? I wanted to play the game. When I was working (at the arcade in Pleasanton), we had the keys so if a machine broke, we could try to fix it. I figured, how hard could it be? I had a bicycle and I fixed it.
I would look at the one that worked and compare it to the one that didn’t. So you could see the problem and fix it. The mechanical stuff was easy, but the electronic stuff was a mystery then.
If we couldn’t fix it, we’d call Tom (Johnson from Tilt Electronics). I’d pump him with questions and borrow his tools. He hired me full-time in 1988.
What’s the state of the pinball business now? It used to be that you’d put a game anywhere – the 7-11 had a couple in the corner. Now the ATM and lottery kiosk make more money.
Video games were all there was for a few years – 1981, 82, 83. But after the mid-80s, pinball made its comeback. Ultimately it was home consoles that did in all coin-operated games. It made it so that even the coin-operated video games didn’t make money anymore.
Pinball is at this weird crossroads now. It’s not at the point where you can make money operating games, but at the same time, there’s never been a better time to get into this as a hobby. If you collect, it’s never been as good.
Who collects pinball machines? Collectors tend to be nice people who seem to have a sense of fun.
Games aren’t that expensive. You do need space. It’s not like collecting stamps. By the time you get half a dozen games, you need room. You have to be willing to store them and be willing to tinker with them once in a while or have someone tinker with them.
It’s joyous when people have a pinball machine in their homes and it’s their baby.
Where do you find parts for the machines? There are more parts available now than ever. You find them on the internet, where you find everything.
Any restoration or repair project that stands out in your memory? There are things you remember but for the dumbest reasons. I repainted a Captain America game and we took pictures, so I remember it because of the pictures and because we don’t paint that often.
Service calls stand out more, people stand out more. You remember that someone was a really nice guy. The shop is always the same, but other places are different from place to place.
You had a mentor early on. Are you mentoring someone to do this work? I should. I feel like when I die there will be no one else. I should have a talent contest: win a low-paying job for the rest of your life (laughing).
Do you have a favorite game? I get asked that a lot, but no, I don’t. I have a soft spot for Bally’s games because they were the games I played when I was growing up, but it changes. You play a game for a while and get tired of it and go to the next one.
Sometimes you don’t think about a particular game, and then you work on it. It’s like you bond with it. You put enough work into it that you appreciate the engineering and rules and you can see what the designers were doing there.
Do you have pinball machines at home? I have a couple—not many. I come here and can play whatever I want.
Do you play video games? Yeah, but not home-console games. I play video games here. I like black-and-white video games. There are a lot of archetypes from that era. … Pac Man is an archetypical maze game. A lot of the ideas we use now come from those early games.
Do you like video games or pinball machines better? I won’t say one is better. They’re different experiences. It’s like asking if pinball or lasagna is better—they are completely different things. If you’re hungry, you’re going to pick lasagna every time.
I was born at the right time to appreciate both. But pinball is more real. It’s not like there’s some software working against you. It’s real; it seems like a fair fight.
At the core, I guess there’s not a difference. … There’s a lot of similarity in terms of what is going on in your head. You’re having fun.
If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing for a living? That all depends on what people would have come into my life. I might be at some tech company writing software. I could be in graphic design because that’s what I went to college for. Customers have offered me jobs. One was writing software. Another was fixing the machines that test the purity of silicon wafers and you got to travel all over the world.
My goal isn’t to keep the money flowing in. My goal is to have fun.