Pinball Wizards: A Visual Tour of the Pinball World Championships
Take the 376 West through Pittsburgh, then go down 279 South five miles or so, out to the sleepy suburb of Carnegie, Penn. Cruise down the four-lane Main Street, past the abandoned used car lot and the Wheel and Wedge sandwich shop ("Foot-long sub special: $3.99 + tax"). Hang a left across the Hammond Street Bridge to the industrial park on the other side of Chartiers Creek.
For 360 days out of the year, the big white building next to the Clark-Fishman Flooring Solutions warehouse looks like just another underused industrial property. But for four days in August (and a one-night charity event in February), the warehouse opens its doors to reveal over 30,000 square feet of immaculate space, housing over 400 pinball machines and classic arcade games. Welcome to the annual World Pinball Championships, put on for the 12th time in 2009 by the Professional & Amateur Pinball Association (PAPA).
It's a sign of pinball's recent tough times that the game's premier tournament has to take place in such a remote and seemingly inauspicious setting. But it's hard to feel gloomy about pinball's fate standing inside the sprawling PAPA headquarters, listening to hundreds of pristine, playable pinball tables dating back to the '40s fill the air with their clanging. There's a nervous energy as hundreds of attendees mill about the wide aisles, feed tokens into random machines, gently jostle cabinets to avoid gutters, talk strategy with old friends, or simply look on respectfully as the best of the best show off their skills.
For the 2,000 fans and nearly 400 competitors that will stream through the doors over these four August days, this obscure warehouse is the center of a vibrant, competitive pinball subculture that is far from dead. This is the story of just some of those people.
Plainfield, Ill., petroleum engineer Mark Henderson, 48, leans over a "24" table with his 11-year-old son, Joshua, during a split-flipper mini-tournament, where one player controls the left flipper and another controls the right.
Despite his relatively small age and stature, Josh is currently ranked 111th out of the thousands of players tracked by the World Pinball Player Rankings. While most kids would probably be thrilled to be that good at something, Josh's goal is to work his way into the top 100 by age 13.
To that end, Josh travels with his dad to 10 tournaments a year, from Maine to California, trying to qualify for a spot in the top division finals and a chance to compete directly with the pinball legends ranked ahead of him. "The schedule and stress can be hard for an 11-year-old," Mark says, "but I don't push him. He's just driven."
Mark says his son faces unique challenges in competitive pinball because he has "different sensory perception" and lacks the "upper body strength to move the machine around" to affect the movement of the ball, a crucial skill at this level of play. But he hasn't let these problems stop him, Mark says. "He really does have the skills ... every time he plays he builds his skill set. People don't understand the concentration involved [in pro-level pinball]. It only takes a split-second to lose a ball."
But Mark says Josh also has an advantage because some opponents "write him off as a little kid." In fact, Mark says, some competitors have thrown tantrums after losing to Josh. "For a 30- or 40-year-old guy, it can be emotionally difficult to lose to a kid," Mark said. But more often these days, Mark said, most people see him coming. "They say 'The kid's gonna be trouble,'" he said.
Molly Atkinson shows off the muscles that she says let her "compete with the big boys" at pinball's premier competitive showcase. "I think part of the reason I do OK is that I'm not afraid to get physical with the machine," she said.
A 30-year-old costumer and tailor from Los Angeles, Atkinson said she was instantly attracted to pinball at a young age when her neighbors forbid her to play their machine for fear she would break it. When she actually got to play pinball for the first time in her early teens, she found the constantly moving silver ball matched her nature.
"I'm the kind of person that's very emotional, very stressy, always bouncing around," Atkinson said. "I have a super-frenetic lifestyle ... but it calms me right down when I get up there. I have to focus, I have to snap into it, I have to let all my craziness go, but I still get my bells and whistles; I get the lights flashing, so that keeps me going."
After playing casually for years, Atkinson said she got into competitive pinball when she heard about a nearby tournament while attending a wedding reception in Las Vegas a couple of years ago. "I walked in there and my eyes almost fell out of my head just to see all the people who actually love it ... for a long time I thought I was the only one." There, she paired up with a stranger, a woman who came over from a roller-derby convention next door, and won her first trophy in a split-flipper tournament.
Since then, Atkinson has taken to the pinball scene in a big way, attending eight to 10 tournaments a year and obtaining five pinball machines that have crowded out the tables and sofa in her small Los Angeles apartment. She's helped in her obsession by Keith Elwin, now a two-time PAPA World Champion, who comes in from nearby Carlsbad to coach Atkinson on her game. "You'd think after a decade or so of playing I would have figured out all the tricks, Atkinson said. "But every time I play with him I learn something new, and every time I leave his house after playing for a couple of hours, I'm significantly improved."
Despite finishing 32nd in the lower C Division at this year's tournament, Atkinson said she was still the unofficial "female champ" for the event -- not an incredible feat given the general scarcity of women there. Still, she's glad PAPA doesn't split the few women off into their own division. "[Having a women's division] is a good way for me to win," Atkinson said, "but I want to be on an even playing field with everyone. The thing I like about pinball is that everyone is in on the same level. The guys here don't really treat me like a girl. It just doesn't matter what you look like, it doesn't matter how much money you have, it doesn't matter what you're wearing. None of that matters; it's all about your love for the game, and I don't know of any other arena where that's the case."
Adam Lefkoff, 42, takes a picture of the Fish Tales score that will help earn him a trip to the semifinal round of the mid-level B Division tournament. Lefkoff caught the pinball bug early, when he was five years old and in the midst of what he calls "the age before arcades. ... I went to a guy's house once when I was little and I still remember he had three machines. I was like, 'Oh my god, you have pinball machines in your house? I want pinball machines in my house when I grow up.' [Eventually] I bought one, then I bought three, and the next thing I know..." Today Lefkoff houses 19 machines in his basement, a collection he estimates is worth $100,000.
Since joining the competitive scene five years ago, Lefkoff and his fellow Boulder, Colo., league players have traveled as far as London, Dallas and California to attend tournaments. Despite the competition, though, he calls PAPA "the absolute mecca of pinball ... it's the best facility in the world, the best machines in the world." Lefkoff also appreciates PAPA for its unique qualification system, which averages out scores from qualifying attempts and makes it impossible to "buy your way in," in effect. "It rewards consistency, and that's the hardest thing to do in pinball," he said.
Lefkoff compared pinball to poker, where the results are seemingly driven by luck but it actually takes a lot of specialized knowledge to do well. "The more skill you have, the more consistent you are," he said. "It seems like there's a lot of randomness [in pinball] until you watch the pros. They cut down on the randomness. The same guys win every year, the same guys qualify every year. It's not luck."
Despite his appreciation for pinball skill, Lefkoff seemed willing to leave his fate in the tournament to more supernatural forces as he waited to hear the final results of his quarterfinal match. "If the pinball gods feel that I am not worthy to move forward to the next round because I missed three opportunities to win games ... it's not in my hands," he said.
Justin Bath, 34, poses next to one of his favorite pinball games. An electronic technician from Baltimore, Md., Bath has been playing competitive pinball going on 15 years, ever since he got effectively "scouted" by a competitive player in College Park, Md. "I was playing in a mall one day, just racking up the usual replays," Bath said, "when a guy comes up to me and he says, 'That's a pretty good game there. Not bad, sir. You know, we're having a pinball league...'"
Bath stuck with competitive pinball, he said, partly because the competition always remains friendly. "It's a great community," he says. "Even the best guys -- like this guy Bowen [Kerins] -- even the best guys are humble enough to give you a hand and answer questions about a game. Even in a tournament, you want to see other people do good."
In fact, Bath got a chance to show off pinball's spirit of camaraderie during the tournament, when Adam Lefkoff accidentally launched Bath's ball during a semifinal match in the B Division. Lefkoff quickly realized his mistake and handed the game off to Bath, who, according to the rules, had the option to force Lefkoff to take a score of zero for the game. "Ultimately, they said it's up to you, to give the guy a zero or let him go and play again," Bath said. "I was fine with [letting him play], and I'd do that again if I had to. I got no problem with that. ... There's gonna be some people that would have done the same, and some people that wouldn't have, but overall it's a great community."
Unlike most other players I talked to, Bath said he actually likes traditional videogames, playing racing games and Call of Duty regularly on his Xbox 360. While the general perception is that these games helped kill pinball, Bath thinks casual players who come to a tournament would be surprised at the vibrancy of the scene. "It never really died," he said. "It'll keep going. We'll never let it die."
Tournament Organizer Dave Baach (left) preaches the gospel of pinball to a fellow player. When he's not delivering vegetables part-time, Baach acts as PAPA's only paid full-time employee, fixing and maintaining the collection of 400 machines throughout the year. "The philosophy is a game a day," Baach says of the repair schedule.
Baach found out about PAPA when he was recruited to help clean up its original location after it was decimated by a flood in the summer of 2004. "I was like ... how did I not know this place existed?" Baach said. "I'm just a young 20-something guy playing in the back of [Pittsburgh coffee shop and pinball hangout] The Beehive, [and] once I found out this place existed, I thought that everybody in the world needed to know about it. So I go about telling them."
Baach is effusive about the power of pinball, and can get rather intense when talking about the game. "I get sick of the games that people play, but I still have the urge to play games," Baach said. "But I'm f***ing done with people. Pinball is a socially acceptable way to walk into a room full of folks and just turn my back on everyone. And I have a game to play, art to look at; it's a full-on interactive experience. ... It's the grandfather clock of the arcade, the first machine that kept score for you."
For Baach, the appeal of pinball is a bit zen. "[These competitive pinball players] have all fallen in love with something outside of themselves that isn't human," he said. "They have absorbed themselves in a world that we share, but we don't have to talk about. Action is the conversation ... just go play." The physicality of the tables is also big part of the appeal for Baach. "When you're holding a PS3 controller in your hand, and it shakes, it's like 'Ooh, that's what it'd feel like if it was really real.' But pinball's really real! It's a physical game."
With PAPA attracting its biggest crowd ever this year, I asked Baach if competitive pinball is set for a resurgence. "It doesn't need to explode," he says. "I think more people just need to grab onto it, because it's solid. ... It's going to stay solid and stay true and people are going to come to it. A pinball machine, it doesn't go anywhere ... it has legs but it doesn't walk. You have to go to it. It doesn't go to Wal-Mart and find a way to your house. You have to go to a bar or go to an arcade and seek it out. The Internet, everything ... you don't have to leave your room, and, like, f***, it's too convenient, you know? Pinball is a reason to go out. It's a reason to go find a game to play. It's something to do."
PAPA President Kevin Martin tinkers with a Taxi machine that was randomly tilting during the Division A finals.
The owner of Web hosting company pair Networks, Martin gives about 30 of his employees comp time to help run the four-day tournament each year. "It wouldn't exist if we weren't crazy enough to put the work in," he said. While the tournament pays for itself, Martin says he sinks thousands of dollars into maintaining the PAPA location throughout the year, as a way to share his love of the game. "When we get people here, they're turned on to it, and that's the key," he said.
While Martin says he'd love to be able to keep the PAPA warehouse open to the public year-round, he doubts the remote Carnegie location would bring in enough regular players to make up the costs of running the facility. Martin says it would take heavily increased exposure, likely through poker-style television coverage, to make pinball popular enough to sustain a location like PAPA year-round. "The biggest challenge [with televised pinball] is, the rules are hard to understand," he said. "People can understand basically, yeah, you have to keep the ball in play, hit the targets; but the deeper strategy, they just won't get it. Maybe it can be one of those weird sports on ESPN3 or something, but I don't know..."
Still Martin is working hard to put the facility to good use by shopping it around as an event location for local corporations and charities. But while Martin said he's heartened by the continued success of competitive pinball events like PAPA, he thinks the game might be on the way out with the general public. "Videogames dealt a strong blow in the '80s ... and now there's competition from videogames, satellite TV, Tivo and the Internet... In another generation, what's going to happen? I don't know if it'll ever recover."
Two-time PAPA Champion Keith Elwin (right) receives a check for $10,000 from PAPA President Kevin Martin. A graphic designer for a pinball operator in Carlsbad, Calif., Elwin has been playing pinball competitively since the early '90s, when he heard about a tournament in Arizona on the nascent Internet. "In 1993 I went out there... I didn't win but I did pretty well. Following year I went out there and I won, and here we are now...."
Elwin says it takes some special skills to succeed at pinball. "You really need a deep knowledge of every game," he said. "You've got to get used to standing on your feet for four days straight... During the finals I was sitting down probably the first time all weekend. You have to learn the skills, nudging, shaking. I think that's what really separates the novice player who just kind of stands there from [a pro who's] really into it, ready to shake it."
While Elwin laments the dropoff in pinball's relative popularity in arcades, he thinks the market is growing for home use. "It's kind of hard for someone just getting into [pinball] to get good, because it's hard to find. But if they want to invest the money in a cheap machine and build their way up, they could get good real fast."
Elwin said he wasn't particularly surprised by the record turnout for this year's tournament, saying that competitive pinball will only get more popular as more people find out about it. "Plenty of people have been playing [pinball] for years and they just didn't know about [tournaments]," he said. "And now they go online, they see them, and they say 'I can do that.'"