-An Historical Survey-


by Russ Jensen

Almost from the beginning of pinball in the early 1930s (there were a few pinball-like games before that, but we'll leave those to Dick Bueschel) a recurring problem encountered by the "pinball industry" has been anti-gambling forces. This was partly due to the fact that a major product of the coin machine industry in the Thirties was the "bell slot machine", which was certainly a gambling machine, and many people opposed to gambling were suspicious of all coin operated devices.

As a result, for many years to come, pinballs had to be defended as being "amusement" and not "gambling" devices. But, as we shall see, many pingames were made to be used for gambling, others made so they could be used for gambling, if desired, and some made to minimize, as much as possible, their potential gambling uses.

Before we look at the characteristics of various types of pingames, and their relation to gambling, lets consider what is meant by the term "gambling" and its connection to "games" in general. My dictionary defines a "game" as "an amusement or pastime", and also as "a contest for amusement in the form of a trial of chance, skill, or endurance, according to set rules." Pingames certainly fit these definitions because they are used for amusement, have both the elements of chance and skill, and are played to a "set of rules". Gambling is defined as "playing a game of chance for stakes" or as "to stake or risk money, or anything of value, on the outcome of something involving chance".

As you can see from these definitions, "chance" is a key element of gambling and can also be present in many games, and this was the connection used in most anti-pinball legal hassles. In many legal cases the fate of pinball in a particular jurisdiction was determined by how a court ruled on the degree of "chance" (usually versus "skill") which was present in pingames.

As a sidelight to this discussion of pingames and gambling, there was an "editorial" on the subject appearing in the July 4, 1936 issue of BILLBOARD magazine which presented some interesting comparisons between pinball "awards" and "skill awards" connected with other popular recreations. The column was titled "Pinball Perils", with the byline of "Silver Sam" (this was obviously a pseudonym, but that name appeared frequently in the coin machine section of BILLBOARD).

This article was written in the form of a conversation between the writer (Sam) and a lawyer friend of his (a pinball "fan") supposidly precipitated by an article appearing in a local newspaper about a "crusader" trying to outlaw pinball games as gambling devices. The lawyer defended pinball "awards" by comparing them with "skill awards" given in everyday games such as golf (for making a "hole in one"), and bowling (for a "perfect game"). He said that in these games, which were certainly not considered gambling games, as well as pinball, the player paid a "fixed fee" to participate in the game and that the special "awards" were given for extremely skillful play which he likened to "high score awards" provided by some pingames.

He went on to say that the only difference between the golf or bowling "awards" and pinball "awards" was that the former are quite difficult to obtain, while the latter are quite a bit easier for a skillful pinball player. He stated "any judge who rules against games is saying in effect 'it is illegal to play pingames because the skill awards can be won too often'". This lawyer even compared receiving a "skill award" for pinball to a lawyer taking a lawsuit on a "contingency basis" and being paid ("awarded") a percentage of the court award if he was "skillful" enough to win a judgement.

I thought that article had some interesting points when it came to the anti-pinball gambling furor prevalent, especially in the 1930s. One thing that he failed to mention, in connection with games such as golf and bowling, was that "side bets" often occur in games such as these which is also another type of gambling that can, and sometimes does, occur in connection with pinball. But, I guess that was a "negative" connection in the context of the article.

In the early Thirties, when mechanical, mostly counter-top, pingames began to appear they were probably not often used for gambling. Side bets might have occurred between players, and in a few instances, I suppose, establishments having these games may have given "awards" of merchandise or cash for high scores. Right off hand, however, I do not know of any early mechanical pingames which had a form of direct payout mechanism, although there may have been a few.


Then, in 1933, at around the same time as Harry Williams was working on his first pingame using electricity to provide playfield "action", Bally came out with a new type of pingame which was to have a major impact on the pinball industry and result in much legal controversy for many years to come. This game was called ROCKET and it used electricity (from "dry cell" batteries) to power a mechanism which paid out coins directly to the player if he shot a ball into the proper holes on the playfield.

At that point pingame design began to split in two directions, "payouts", and "novelty" games. Many manufacturers including Bally, Gottlieb, Western Equipment and Supply, Keeney, and the slot machine firms Mills and Jennings, began to put out a good many payout pinballs in the Thirties, in addition to their "novelty" games. Payout pinballs were indeed a big business in those years. Other pingame manufacturers, such as Genco (I dont believe I have ever heard of a Genco payout pingame), Exhibit supply, and Chicago Coin made relatively few payouts, sticking more with the "novelty" games. Many of the payout games only offered the player one ball per game and became known as "one- balls".

This new type of pingame, the "payout", opened up new opportunities for the coin machine operators in the mid 1930s. As I said earlier, the bell slot machine was a popular money- maker for operators of that period in areas where they were either legal or "tolerated". The payout pinball gave the slot machine operator another type of game to operate in those areas, probably bringing in some new players who wanted to gamble but felt that the slots were too 'fixed' in the operator's favor. These people probably thought "at least with these pingames I have a chance to use my skill to increase my chances of winning."

Secondly, operators could, in some cases, operate payout pins in areas where slots were not tolerated but where pinballs, with their "skill" features, could get by under the local ordinances, at least until these laws were tested in the courts. So this opened up new "gambling territories" for some operators, at least for the time being. In other areas, with stricter anti- gambling laws, the non-payout "novelty" pins had to be operated exclusively.

An "off-shoot" of the "payouts" were the "ticket venders" which dispensed tickets (in place of coins) to the winners. These could be used in some territories where cash payouts were strictly forbidden by redeeming the tickets for prizes of merchandise. In many cases though these tickets were redeemed for cash "under the table".

A few payout pins even had "mint venders" attached, in the same manner as many slot machines of the day, in an attempt to get around anti-gambling laws by claiming that the player was paying for merchandise, and that the playing of the game, with it's possible monitory award, was only "secondary". This idea had been used many times in the past with other gambling machines, even around the "Turn Of The Century" when music boxes were added to "upright" slot machines.


Another important event, which affected the pinball/gambling connection, occurred early in 1935 with the introduction of "free games" to pinball design. As I have stated, in the early Thirties pinball games were essentially divided into two types, "payouts" and "novelty games". In an effort to come up with a way to award pinball players for their skill, without direct payouts, a young man invented a new device whose concept was to have a lasting effect of the pinball industry, even today.

This man, as the story goes, was a young assistant to pinball pioneer Harry Williams named Bill Belluh. The device he invented and patented, and which harry helped him perfect, was the "free-play coin mechanism" which allowed a player, making a certain high score in a game, to restart the game without inserting a coin; thus awarding him with a "free game". This idea was introduced in mid 1935 on Rockola's FLASH and then began to appear on pingames by most manufacturers. "Free-game pinballs" became the most common type of pingames from that time on and are the only type generally in use today.

These new "free-play" pingames became a third class of pinball game which could be operated legally in most territories where "payouts" were strictly forbidden. These games gave the players something to "shoot for", namely a "free game". But, as we shall see, even these "free games" came under attack by the courts and eventually were outlawed in certain jurisdictions.

As "free play pinball" developed in the mid to late Thirties, most had the capability of awarding more than one free game (or "replay", as they became known) during a given game, and the machines contained some form of "totalizer" mechanism to keep track of, and indicate to the player, how many replay "credits" he was entitled to. In early 1937 Bally came out with a game called SKIPPER (a new version of their hit game BUMPER) which combined "free play" and "payout" features in one machine.

SKIPPER had a free game register on the backboard which showed the player how many "free games" he had accumulated. The player could either play these games one by one as "replays" or, by pushing a button hidden underneath the game's cabinet, cause the machine to subtract his "free game" credits from the indicator and pay him one coin for each credit by means of a payout mechanism which would dispense coins through a hole, also located underneath the cabinet. This game could thus be operated as a "payout" in "payout territories" or as a "free play" machine (by disabling the payout mechanism) in "free game territories". I also imagine that SKIPPER was even occasionally operated in areas where payouts were illegal, by paying out secretly using it's hidden mechanism.

Even though few games (SKIPPER may even have been the only one) were made with both payout and free game features, the idea of installing a button underneath the cabinet for subtracting free game credits became a standard feature on most "free play" pinballs until the early fifties, but more about that later.

This button allowed free play pingames to be used for gambling, either in territories where it was allowed, or "under the table" in other areas. In both cases a player earning replay credits would approach the owner of the establishment where the game was located, who in turn would pay the player a certain amount for each credit indicated on the replay indicator (usually a nickel, the price of one play) and then erase the replays using the concealed button. A player could, of course, play some or all of his credits as "free games" if he wished, as was done by players in locations where payouts were not offered.

Since this method of "paying out" on free play machines involved the location owner as the "paying agent", a method had to be devised for keeping track of how many replays were redeemed for cash so that he and the game's owner (the coin machine operator) could determine their split of the "profits" from the machine. This was accomplished by the manufacturer installing a "payout meter" inside each game which tallied (on a odometer-like counter) the number of free games erased using the under-cabinet button (or "replay knock-off button", as it came to be called). It was this "knock-off button", and that "meter", that made possible the use of free play pingames for gambling purposes.

So, by the mid to late 1930s there were essentially three types of pingames being produced: "direct payout" machines, always used for gambling; "free play" or "replay" machines, which could either be used for gambling (using location owner payoffs and the "knock-off button") or for strictly free play operation; and the so called "novelty" games which neither awarded cash nor replays.

Many of the games manufactured in the late Thirties and early Forties could be "switched" between "free play" and "novelty" modes of operation by the operator changing a "control plug" inside the backboard. Even "novelty" games, which had no internal mechanisms to support gambling uses, could still be used for gambling either by "side betting" between players, or by high score payoffs made by the location owner. Lets face it, if people want to gamble on any game, they will.


During World War II no new pingames ("payout", "free play", or "novelty") were manufactured, the plants being devoted to "war production". Some pre-war games were "converted" to "new" games using the old parts and cabinets. The only "payouts" converted during that time were some of the "one-ball horserace" type machines manufactured prior to the war.

When pingame production began again after the war many of the pre-war pingame manufacturers had dropped out of the business. About the only company which began producing "payout" pinballs after the war was Bally. Gottlieb, which had produced many "payouts" before the war, made their last payout machine in 1947, a game called DAILY RACES, which, incidentally, was the name of one of their early "one-balls" produced back in 1936.

By the late Forties many jurisdictions had passed anti- gambling laws, many of which focused on pinball, especially the "one-ball" multiple coin machines. In fact, many of these laws specifically mentioned "one-ball machines" as one type which was outlawed. In an apparent effort to get around "the 'letter' of these laws", Bally (the producer of most of the post-war "one- balls") tried a gimmick which probably, I would think, met with only limited success.

They introduced an optional feature on their "one-balls" which they called the "skill lane". At the upper left hand area of the playfield (at the location where the rubber "rebound pad" was normally located) a trough was installed just long enough to hold four balls. On top of this area was a cover labeled "Skill Lane". Five balls were used in these machines, in place of the normal one, and the instruction cards were modified by adding a statement such as: "player must shoot the first four balls into the skill lane in order to qualify the fifth ball for scoring". An electrical contact located below the trough disabled the scoring mechanisms of the machine until the fourth ball landed in the "skill lane".

In case you haven't guessed already, the main idea of this was that a "one-ball game" (specifically outlawed in many areas) now became a "five ball game" which were not outlawed in most areas. The other part was that "skill" was now supposed to be involved. It turned out, however, that the only "skill" involved was being able to pull the plunger all the way back (or even close to that) because a moderate force applied to any ball would send it directly into the "skill lane"; but the card said "skill", didn't it? The card also said "5 balls 5 cents", so between these two maybe the "five ball one-balls" could be operated for awhile in a few areas where "one-balls" were outlawed, at least until the matter was taken to court. I really don't know how good this idea worked, but I doubt that it was very successful. But, it's a good piece of pinball history trivia anyway.

As I said, by the late Forties Bally was almost the only manufacturer of payout pinballs. These were all in the form of "one-ball horserace" machines, most of which were built in two models, one "coin payout" and the other "free play". These were often released in pairs with similar names, such a s JOCKEY CLUB and JOCKEY SPECIAL, with the term "special" in the name normally used to signify the "free play" version. Of course, even the "free play" versions were used mostly for gambling, with the location owner paying off for "free games" and using the "knock- off button" as described earlier. But, as we shall soon see, the day of the "one-ball" and of the "knock-off button" were soon to come to a close.

In the late Forties there were also a few "one-balls" made by manufacturers other than Bally, Keeney made a few, and another outfit, Universal Industries (which was actually a subsidiary of Lyn Durant's United Manufacturing set up to manufacture console slots and "one-balls") also made some rather sophisticated one-ball horserace machines.

Before we end our discussion of the late Forties, another significant event in pinball history, having a lot to do with the legal hassles over pinballs and gambling, must be noted. This was the introduction of the "flipper" to pinball by D. Gottlieb and Company in December of 1947.

The prevalence of the "one-ball games" at that time, which as we said were used almost exclusively for gambling, led to increased pressure by anti-gambling forces against pinball games in general. The increase in the "skill factor" in pinball play resulting from the introduction of the flipper gave the pro- pinball forces a new "weapon" to use to defend "amusement pinball" in the courts. It could now be argued that "flipper pinball" was more of a game of "skill" than of "chance", an argument that was much more difficult to support before the flipper came along.

So by the end of the Forties we had the "one-balls" as the primary gambling pins on the one hand, and the new "amusement flipper games", with their increased "skill factor", on the other. Of course, the ever present "knock-off button" still remained on many flipper machines allowing them to also be used for gambling, if desired.


By 1950 gambling machines (slots, "one-balls", etc.) were quite common in many parts of the country despite massive efforts by anti-gambling forces over the years to outlaw them. Slot machines were operated in many states and localities; in some places legally, in others illegally, but they were there nevertheless.

Then, probably the biggest single blow to the "gambling industry" in the U.S. came about in 1950 with the passage by congress of the Johnson Act. That law banned inter-state shipment of "gambling devices" (including repair parts, manuals, etc.) except to states in which the device was legal. So, it now was a federal offense to ship slots, "one-balls", etc. into any state which did not allow them. This, as you can imagine, was quite a deterrent to the manufacturers and distributors of such devices to providing them to illegal, or even questionably legal, areas.

As I previously stated, at that time about the only pinballs used mostly for gambling were the "one-ball horserace games" manufactured primarily by Bally and Universal. The advent of the flipper had made "amusement pinballs" less likely to be outlawed as gambling devices due to their increased "skill factor" and therefore not a problem under the Johnson Act.

But the "one-balls" were an entirely different story. Many ordinances specifically mentioned "one-ball games" as a type which were outlawed and therefore, in most jurisdictions, their shipment was definitely banned by the Johnson Act. So at that time the one-ball manufacturers could clearly see that production of this type of machine was impractical. Something had to be done if they were not to suffer a severe loss of profits.

So, in 1951, a new type of pingame came into being to replace the "one-balls". One story, which was told to me by industry personage Bob Jonesi a few years ago, regarding the beginning of this new type of game goes something like this.

Lou Walcher, owner of the large San Francisco coin machine distributorship, Advance Automatic Sales, had an idea for a new type of pingame which used 5 balls ("one-ball" was definitely out) and scored replays by lighting numbers in a given pattern. He then challenged the industry to design games using his new idea. As a result the first "in-line" or "bingo" type pingames came into being

United's initial entry into this new field was a game called A-B-C which had a circular playfield (much like a roulette wheel) and three 5 by 5 number "bingo cards" on the backglass. Universal, actually a subsidiary of United, came out with 5-STAR, having a short rectangular playfield containing numbered holes and five 3 by 3 cards on the backglass. Bally's entry into this "derby" was BRIGHT LIGHT, which had a playfield about the size of a "one-ball" and six 5 by 5 cards. Well, Bally's format (as for playfield configuration and card size) finally won out, and games of that type became the new addition to the pingame industry.

Bally and United became the chief manufacturers of these new "in-line" games as they were first called, with a few being produced by Keeney, and even one by Williams. At first there seemed not to be much of a problem with shipping them under the Johnson Act, after all they were clearly not "one-balls" as five balls (and up to eight, as most allowed the player a chance to use up to three "extra balls") were actually used in each game.

But, before very long, these games were also being challenged in court as being "gambling devices" primarily due to the fact that they had no flippers (not much "skill factor") and because a player could win large numbers of replays which, in most locations, were paid off in cash by the proprietor of the establishment in which they were located. Indeed, I am sure "bingos" (as these games came to be called) were used for gambling more often than not.

Well, after many legal hassles, the 1957 "Korpran Decision" of the Supreme Court ruled that these "bingo pinballs" were "gambling devices" and thus subject to the Johnson Act. This severely cut back the use of these machines except in a few states, such as Tennessee and South Carolina, where they were legal. Bally continued to manufacture bingos, however, for many years to come to supply these states and foreign markets, even making improvements in the games, such as the popular "OK bingos" of the early Sixties, until the early Eighties when Tennessee (the largest U.S. user of these machines) outlawed them.

The Johnson Act also had its effect on "flipper games". Two characteristics used to define "gambling features" in coin machines, which showed up in many laws, were "a button to 'cancel' Free game credits" and "a meter to indicate the number of free games so canceled." In 1950 almost all flipper pinballs had these two features, so when the Johnson Act came along pinball manufacturers knew these features had to be eliminated from flipper games lest their shipment be banned by the new "law of the land".

Therefore, by 1951 or so, the infamous "knock-off button" was eliminated from most flipper pinballs. Incidentally, the "bingo pinball" manufacturers had found a clever way of getting around (at least for satisfying the "letter of the law") the "knock-off button" problem. The circuitry in these machines automatically ran the replays, indicated by the replay counter on the backboard, down to zero whenever power was applied to the machine. So, locations "paying off" replays would simply turn the game off and back on again, and the replays would be "reset" to zero without the use of a "button".

So, as you can see, by the early Fifties the Johnson Act had severely curtailed shipment of gambling machines such as slots and "one-balls", caused a new type of pingame (the well known "bingo") to be produced, and made it much more difficult (by the elimination of the "knock-off button") for people to gamble using flipper games. But this was not the end of the attack on pinball by the "crusaders", as we shall see.

It was also in the early Fifties that some people in the coin machine industry decided it was time to "clean up their act" lest their business be hurt by the still existent anti-gambling forces. An organization, "the Coin Machine Institute", was formed with harry Williams of Williams manufacturing as its president. Many of the manufacturers, such as D. Gottlieb and Co. (who got out of the "gambling business" in 1947 by eliminating "one-ball" production), etc., joined this organization and began a publicity campaign to show that "flipper pinball", and the other amusement machines they made, were strictly for fun and had no connection whatsoever with gambling. Others, such as Bally and United, continued to manufacture "bingos" and other machines with a "gambling flavor".


With the elimination of the "knock-off button", making it extremely difficult to use flipper games for gambling, one would certainly think that these games would be relatively free from "pressure" from anti-gambling forces. Well, there were still some "crusaders" who thought that pinball (probably because of its gambling connections in the past) was "evil" and should be outlawed no matter what form the games took.

Actually, there was still a way that a skillful flipper game player could make a small "profit" from playing pinball, other than of course, from "side betting". If he was able to "rack up" a large number of replays on a machine he could "sell" them to another player for him to play, instead of the second player actually putting coins into the machine. This could, in effect, make the replays earned by the player (and subsequently sold to a second party) "something of value" which he could "win" resulting from his initial investment ("bet") of the coin he deposited to play the game. Based on this concept, playing flipper games in this manner could be construed by some persons, and possibly courts, as "gambling".

Probably as a result of ideas such as this, and the idea that flipper games were closely related to the "bingo" gambling type games (which also gave replays), "free games" on flipper pinballs were eventually outlawed by some states (such as New York and Wisconsin), and some local jurisdictions as well. So again the pinball industry, even those companies making strictly "flipper amusement games", had to come up with a new type of game to try and recoup the territories lost by such laws.

Well, it was "Gottlieb to the rescue". In 1960 Alvin Gottlieb, son of D. Gottlieb and Co. founder David Gottlieb, who was now working at the plant, had an idea for a new type of flipper game which did not give replays at all, but still provided a "challenge" to the player and an opportunity to "earn" something for his skill at the game. His idea was to give "free balls", rather than "free games", for the player attaining certain scores on the machine. After all, it would be almost impossible for a player to "sell" an extra ball to another player.

Alvin's idea, after the design was perfected by Gottlieb's ace designer Wayne Neyens, became the first of the so-called "Add-A-Ball" games. The company decided to call this game FLIPPER to strengthen in people's minds its identity as a "flipper skill game" and further indicate that it had no connection with the infamous "bingo" machines which had no flippers.

This game, and the many "Add-A-Balls" which followed over the years, had a ball counter which could indicate up to 10 balls. At the start of a game 5 balls were indicated, one being subtracted as each ball was played. When the counter reached zero the game was over. If, however, the player reached one of the pre-set high scores, the counter was incremented by one giving the player an additional ball to play.

These new games won acceptance in many states and localities where "replays" had been outlawed, and states such as New York became known as "Add-A-Ball territories". Many players, who have grown up in such areas, say that playing these machines is "the ultimate challenge in pinball play" because an extremely skillful player can make one game last for quite a while. So, once again, the pinball industry made another step in winning acceptance of pingames in areas where they had formerly met with "legal resistance".


Before leaving the subject of local laws, and their effect on pinball, I would like to briefly mention one other situation I have heard of. It seems that some jurisdictions, such as the state of Indiana I am told, decided that "replays" themselves were alright as long as it was not indicated by the machine how many replay "credits" were available on the game at any given time. It was felt that if a person could not easily ascertain how many replays had been earned by a player, then a player could not "sell" his replays to another player.

So, in these areas, in order to operate a replay pinball, the "free game window" on the backglass had to be covered up. To accommodate this type of operation some manufacturers started putting a "credit light" at the bottom of the playfield which only indicated if one or more replay credits were available without indicating how many. So, if any of you were wondering what the little white light in the lower area of the award card holder on your game was for, the mystery is solved!

Before concluding this article on pinballs and gambling one final note on the subject of "side betting". In the late 1970s, when pinball was finally getting a "good name" after so many years of "identity problems", the film industry almost cast a shadow on pinball in the form of a motion picture whose theme was based on, of all things, "pinball gambling". This film, titled TILT, was one of Brooke Shield's early movie roles. In it she played a young teenager, known affectionately as "Tilt", who had great skill when it came to playing pinball. In the story she travels across the country with a young musician and earns money for the trip by "hustling pinball"; playing against local "champs" for money, ie "side betting".

I had heard about this movie being produced and was anxiously awaiting another "pinball movie", "TOMMY" being the only one at that time. Then someone told me it had been initially released in St. Louis but pulled back after about a week (a story which I have never been able to verify) due, I believe, to pressure from the coin machine industry. About that time I talked to Harry Williams on the phone and he told me of being invited to a preview showing of the film, because, as the "inventor of the 'tilt'", the movie makers wanted his endorsement. Harry told me he thought the film was "horrible", a statement I attributed to his fear of the harm it might do to the "public image" of pinball at a time when it was finally in pretty good shape.

"Tilt" was never released to the general public, but several years later it began being shown on cable T.V. I now have the film on video tape and it is a good movie showing pinball being played with some excellent "special effects"; and the story is rather good too, if you discount the "negative" aspect of "pinball gambling".

Well, there you have it, "what you always wanted to know about pinball and gambling, but were afraid to ask." As you can see pinball has not always been "lily white" when it comes to gambling, but neither has it been as "black" as many "crusaders" of the past would have had us believe.

Pinball had its beginnings in an era when gambling was fairly widespread and many pingame manufacturers "jumped on the bandwagon". Some players enjoyed "playing for money", while others got just as much enjoyment out of playing a good game "just for the fun and challenge of it". Still others got, and still do, as great a thrill from obtaining a "replay" (or "free ball" in "Add-A-Ball territories") as many did from winning cash or merchandise. That "knock" of the replay knocker gives the player a real inner feeling of accomplishment.

Finally, as we all know, if a person wants to gamble on a game, whether it be pinball, golf, bowling, bridge, or tiddly- winks, he will find a way. So be it! Games are for amusement and enjoyment so let each "enjoy" in his or her own way.


Will there ever be "gambling pinballs" in the future? Could be! On a recent trip to Las Vegas I visited with my friend Marc Fellman, currently general manager of the recently "revitalized" Hotel Nevada, hotel and casino. Marc, in case you dont know, is co-owner with Wade Wright (now of San Francisco) of probably the largest pinball collection in the country (around 500 machines) which, incidentally, is up for sale if any of you have those "big bucks".

Marc mentioned to me that he had some ideas about designing a "gambling pinball machine" for use in legal gambling areas, such as Nevada. So, when his hotel/casino revitalization project is complete, it is entirely possible that such a machine might be designed and produced. Who knows? If so, all those people who enjoy a gambling game with a real "skill factor" may again be able to enjoy such play in areas where it is legal to do so. Lets wait and see!

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