The Secret History of Plinko

miniature toy car on monopoly board game
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on

Plinko began its 37th trip around the sun in 2023, making it one of the longest-running games in any entertainment category. This simple experience, which has been popularized by the TV show The Price is Right since 1983, involves a circular chip falling into a peg board and (hopefully) one of the prize pots at the bottom. It’s a bit like a pinball machine – if the player had no control over what was going on.

Pop Culture

Since its debut, Plinko has been spoofed and experimented on in all sorts of weird ways, including as a luck-based game at the Paddy Power Casino. In the latter example, Plinko Go from 1×2 Gaming lets players wager on the outcome of each chip drop. Only, instead of prizes at the bottom, there are bet multipliers. The game otherwise plays just like its TV counterpart. 

As a concrete piece of American pop culture, Plinko has also appeared as a non sequitur in season five of Family Guy, with the character of Cleveland taking over the role of the chip. That particular episode featured the Mountain Climber game from The Price is Right too, albeit with a disastrous outcome involving an overpriced microwave. The game show has been seen or mentioned more than ten times in Family Guy’s two-decade run on TV.

Plinko’s extended history on America’s screens (it was cancelled in the UK in 2007) means that it has also developed its own canon. For instance, the game’s name comes from onomatopeia, specifically, the sound of the chip on the pegs as it falls – “plink”. This particular bit of trivia was revealed by original host Bob Barker on the day Plinko was introduced to the TV audience. 

A Time Capsule

Most surprising of all is that each Plinko chip is sacred. Only ten of them exist according to broadcaster CBS and they’re kept protected under lock and key when they’re not being used on The Price is Right. This gives Plinko chips the same modern mythology as Coca-Cola’s secret recipe or Colonel Sanders’ eleven herbs and spices, both of which are kept in a vault and revered like holy artefacts.

CBS has reportedly buried a Plinko chip in a time capsule at Los Angeles’ CBS Television City as well. While it’s unknown if it’s the same one, a Bob Barker-themed capsule was buried at the same location, containing a microphone, a t-shirt, and a golf ball. The latter box is due to be opened in 2032. All that might seem a little over-the-top but Barker’s – and Plinko’s – longevity on the screen is a rare thing.

One of Plinko’s other claims to TV fame is its prize money. Even on day one, Plinko had a huge prize to offer of $25,000 (approx $76,000 in today’s money), a figure that broke records back in 1983. This piggy would balloon in size to $1m a few decades later, during a special prize week in season 43. However, the contestant ultimately went home with a mite less to spend – $600. 

Plinko and its handful of chips might seem like an odd thing to have become a cornerstone of American life but it’s hard to argue with something that has held the public rapt for nearly forty years.

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