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The Ballad of "Robert Jones": Arcade Tickets Were His Currency

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Click to viewI started thinking about this story, which is four years old and never told, because later today I'm going to a party at the Dave & Buster's in Milpitas. I've never been there before, but I think I know someone who has. I promise every word of this is true to the best of my recollection, and if you believe me, well, it'll be an intriguing way to begin our Sunday. Back in Denver in April 2004 my friend David, also a writer at the Rocky Mountain News, had eloped with his fiance to Belize. He and Tanya held a big celebration after the fact with all of their friends at the Dave & Buster's in Englewood. Everyone had a good time. Late in the evening, I noticed a guy sitting on a bar stool at an arcade game - Drill-o-Matic was its name. There was, literally, an ankle deep pile of tickets on the ground. Every so often a D&B employee would come by, politely stack them up, open the machine and check on the ticket stock, replacing it if necessary. This machine was this man's livelihood.He was a short white guy in his early 40s with a perpetually plaintive expression on his face, hailing from suburban Atlanta. He reminded me a lot of William Sanderson - Larry in "Newhart" or J.F. Sebastian in "Blade Runner." I won't divulge his real name because I don't even know it. And if I did, I can't be sure he's not still out there, doing this, making his living off this machine. Let's call him Robert for now. Robert worked for an independent grocery store his parents owned. Past the checkout aisles they had this very same arcade game, configured to dispense prizes instead of tickets. Drill-o-Matic involves moving a drill bit along an upright grid, lining it up with a target, and pressing a button to send the bit forward into a tube, hopefully striking the target inside of it dead center and awarding you your prize. It takes a lot more precision than it sounds. Robert played it obsessively, eventually learning a muscle-memory secret to getting the top prize. He knew exactly how long to move the stick raising the drill on its X axis and exactly how long to send it left along the Y axis. Then it was just a question of pressing the button and getting his loot, which he gave back. Robert just enjoyed the challenge. A bit of a perfectionist, he delighted in being able to do one thing absolutely perfectly. Of course his parents were elderly folk. First his father passed away, and then his mother became very ill - cancer, I think he said - forcing the family to sell the business, as much for medical bills as it was because they couldn't manage the operation anymore. Robert found himself without a job. Single, no attachments, nothing keeping him in Georgia, he wondered what he could do to provide for himself.

He decided to do the only thing at which he was exceptional: Drill-o-Matic. He'd seen it in arcades elsewhere as a ticket-awarding machine. Those arcades had prize huts with extremely valuable merchandise offered for exorbitant, almost unreachable ticket values. Robert knew how to get them. He knew how to line up the drill to get the 100 ticket payout every single time, as the top prize target was always located in the same space. Doing research that wasn't fully explained to me, he determined every location that had this machine and, investing in a plane ticket, set out there to empty it of its tickets for as long as they would let him play. He'd redeem the tickets for the most valuable items and sell them on eBay. Believe it or not, this worked. Some locations were friendly to him, I guess regarding him as a moneymaking sideshow who kept customers in the building, ordering drinks or food or whatever. Other places were more hostile, asking him to leave after seeing that he knew how to exploit the game. In Memphis, Tenn., Robert saw the Dave & Buster's had a Harley Davidson parked out front, offering it as a prize to anyone who racked up some astounding number - one million tickets, if I recall. He marched up to the manager, asked if that was a serious offer, and was told yes. Over the next three days he proceeded to compile that staggering total, boxing up the reams of red cardstock. When he went to claim the prize, he was refused and thrown out. Robert learned how to walk the line, attracting attention, but not enough to threaten his effort to extract maximum profit. He had to feel out a place to see if he could play the game straight up nonstop or more gradually. The tickets claimed prizes like Xboxes, DeWalt power tools, guitars, DVD players and televisions. He'd ship the stuff back to Georgia and put it up on eBay. He told me his entire story, spread out over an hour, as I watched him hit that target with perfect precision, dead center, every single time. As a newspaper writer at the time, I pleaded with him to let me tell his story in the Rocky. Nope, he said, that kind of publicity would certainly ruin his drilling days for good. I offered anonymity, guaranteed no pictures, told him I would wait until he was done plundering the Denver D&B prize hut, everything. Nope, nope, and nope. He was very polite about it, but pretty firm on the point. He would not even tell me his name.


After I wished him well and walked off, I circled back to a waitress and gave her $20 if she would find out his name somehow, either from a credit card slip or whatever. She said he was paying in cash, which was pretty shrewd of him. I got her to walk up, introduce herself and chat, in hopes that would get his name. She came back with an obviously fake name, "Robert Jones," that he'd written on a bar coaster. Anyway, the people finder searches we had couldn't do anything with that in an area as large as Atlanta. He'd told me he was flying out early the following Sunday, not to Georgia, but another D&B's he wouldn't name. I woke up at 5 am to get out to Denver International Airport by 6, hoping to catch him waiting at security, impress him with my dedication, and make one last appeal for his story. There was no sign of him when I got there. After an hour I left. I went looking for eBayers selling both DeWalt tools and Xboxes, but that turned up nothing. Eventually I gave up. After more than four years, I think it's OK to tell his story now. I have no idea where he is or if he's still making money doing this. It's hard to imagine his run lasting this long. But when I do think about this soft-spoken, uncomplicated man from Georgia, it's one of the few moments when I actually feel like I have any faith. If we have any innate talents - God-given, you could say - we certainly didn't get to pick them, only develop and hone them. We might have weird, esoteric, highly specific skills with no apparent purpose. Yet. Because maybe they were put there for a reason. This man found his.