As I dove deeper into the New England pinball scene, I kept hearing about a guy named Bowen Kerins. His name was uttered with the reverence generally reserved for major religious figures.
Not only was Bowen a three-time world champion, but he also probably ranked as the most famous pinball player on earth, owing to a series of wildly popular online video tutorials. He also happened to live a half hour north of Boston.
So I figured, What the heck. I’d give the guy a call and see if he was willing to take on an aging apprentice. This was how I found myself at a barcade in Everett, playing pinball with the legendary Bowen Kerins. Actually, I didn’t do much playing. My average ball lasted approximately 15 seconds. Bowen’s lasted 15 minutes.
Pinball, he explained, came down to three skills: aiming, nudging, and control. I knew about the first two, of course. But the third, as practiced by Bowen, anyway, was a revelation.
Most pinball players operate on the assumption that the way to succeed is to keep the ball at the top of the playing field, away from the drain and the deadly “out lanes” on either side of the flippers. So they whack at the ball whenever it comes close to the flippers.
Bowen did just the opposite. He used his flippers to trap and stall the ball, over and over. This allowed him to study the playing field and methodically aim at whatever game element would garner the most points.
Most remarkably, Bowen did this even when he was in multi-ball mode. I watched, agog, as he trapped three and even four balls with his flippers, and then sent each of them whizzing at specific targets, one after another.
Whereas my average multi-ball session had the feel of an electronic firefight, Bowen operated like a sniper. He used a sophisticated arsenal of techniques, many of which I’d never seen before.
The Dead Bounce: Bowen routinely allowed balls to bounce off his flippers, deadening their momentum until they were slow enough to trap.
The Tip Pass: When a ball was moving too fast to be controlled by one flipper, he would raise that flipper like a drawbridge and the ball would sail up and over the drain, landing softly enough on the other flipper to be trapped.
The Live Catch: With a ball rocketing toward one flipper, Bowen would slap that flipper so that its momentum, at the precise moment of contact, canceled the momentum of the oncoming ball. This was the most astonishing and difficult of all his moves. It looked like he was putting the ball into a sleeper hold with his flipper.
A scrum of fellow players soon materialized around our machine, Twilight Zone. One filmed Bowen with his phone. Bowen’s final score, a shade under 2 billion, earned him four free games. As we retired to a quieter precinct, Bowen mentioned his personal best on Twilight Zone: 8 billion.
I had many questions, but they all boiled down to the same one: How in God’s name did you get so good at pinball?
Bowen told me his dad got him hooked early on. “I loved the free game aspect. You mean the better I get, the cheaper it gets to play? I liked that plan!”
He arrived at Stanford University, in 1992, with no real sense of how good he was. All he knew was that he was the best player in Newport, Rhode Island. Luckily for him, two of the world’s top players—Rick Stetta and Neil Shatz—lived nearby. He haunted local arcades, hoping they would show up. When they did, he played with them and studied their technique.
“They taught me how to shake the machine,” Bowen recalled. “Up to that point, I’d never seen anyone do that. I thought it was illegal. But to see the skill with which these guys used their body to manipulate the ball’s trajectory—it changed the game completely for me. Because in competition, your ball is your life.”
In 1994, Bowen traveled to New York City for the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association World Championships. He gave no thought to winning the event. He just wanted the chance to play alongside his idols and learn. Instead, he took the title, at the ripe old age of 18. “Here I am, a sophomore in college, and they hand me $4,000 and a new pinball machine. It was friggin’ fantastic. It was a dream.”
Unofficially, Bowen remains one of the top players in the world. But these days, he’s become more of an ambassador for the game. He organizes the world’s largest match-play pinball tournament, a Pittsburgh-based event called Pinburgh that draws 800-plus players from around the globe and offers $100,000 in prize money.
He offers free online tutorials, hoping to help young players in the same way he was helped. And he’s been delighted by the growing diversity in pinball, including leagues for women in more than a dozen cities. “For years, pinball was a highly macho, even sexist scene. But when you get a critical mass of Not White Dudes playing, you don’t see that crazy macho behavior. The larger goal is to spread the joy of the game to as many people as possible.”
Bowen struck me as something like the Saint Paul of modern pinball, eager to spread the gospel of the game that had electrified his life.
Playing alongside him had certainly inspired me. Long after he took off, I was perched before a machine, attempting to master the Live Catch. It took me an hour (and $10 in tokens), but when I finally nailed it, I let out a whoop of triumph that echoed all the way back to my childhood.