Long Live Pinball
The resurgence of pinball has allowed one lapsed fan to return to the classic arcade games of his youth—and the sense of euphoria they once inspired.
By Steve Almond
Sometimes at night, after everyone else in my family had gone to sleep, I would lie in bed and pretend I was a pinball machine. I would press the knobs of my hip bones as if they controlled the flippers and kick my legs as if they were bumpers and imagine the silver ball careening through spinners and up ramps and into the drop targets of my favorite machines, the layouts of which I had memorized. Inevitably, I played brilliantly enough to light up the cherry-red circle marked “special,” at which point I would fire the ball into the illuminated kick-out hole (otherwise known as my belly button) to win a free game, an event commemorated by a muffled but distinct crack, the sound of which, even 40 years later, is enough to set my heart aflutter. I thrashed around, playing this imaginary game, until I fell asleep. I would then dream of pinball.
That’s how much pinball meant to me as a 10-year-old kid.
I spent every quarter that came into my possession on pinball. I rode my bike up to 10 miles to play a new machine. I owned three books on pinball technique. And, of course, I loudly condemned The Who’s pinball-themed rock opera Tommy to anyone who would listen, arguing that no deaf, dumb, and blind boy could master the game using his sense of smell.
Growing up in Palo Alto, California, in the pre-Silicon Valley era, I had a regular rotation of pinball spots. Shakey’s Pizza Parlor was home to my all-time favorite game, Cleopatra, with its lurid Egyptian artwork and rainbow of drop targets.
At Fiesta Lanes, where lesser mortals squandered their afternoons knocking down bowling pins, I played Centigrade 37, Captain Fantastic, and the mind-blowing Fireball, which featured a whirling orange disc that sent the ball skittering hither and yon. Jacks Open was my game of choice at the 7-Eleven on San Antonio Avenue, until they replaced that classic with a snazzy Evel Knievel machine.
I can still remember the jolt of adrenaline that coursed through me when I set foot in any of these establishments—it’s the feeling I’ve spent the rest of my life chasing.
As I recall the pinball-centric nature of my childhood, it occurs to me that there are some people reading this who might not know what pinball is, or why someone would become so pathetically obsessed with it. So, before we go any further, a brief tutorial.
The pinball machine is the common ancestor of all video games, a dazzling cabinet of wonders that once dominated the arcades of America. Players score points by using a pair of rubber flippers to send a steel ball zooming into assorted targets, scattered across a brightly decorated wooden playing field.
This playing field has a slight downward grade, so that the ball inevitably rolls back to the bottom of the machine and toward the flippers. When the ball slips between the flippers, into a space called the drain, your turn is over. (At this point, the player in question often curses.)
Skilled players can win free games, or extra balls, by earning enough points or by completing a complex set of tasks.
The machines themselves, especially the vintage models I played as a kid, are gorgeous, with a scoreboard, or back glass, that rises above the playing field like an illuminated mini-billboard.
The games also make a lot of noise, which, to the trained ear, represents a kind of improvised symphony: the percussive pops of the jet bumpers, the jaunty chimes of a spinner, the dulcet dings of bonus points piling up. Even more alluring are the kinetic and tactile aspects of the game, the vibrational thud of a well-struck ball, the thrill of watching that ball sail off your flipper and up a corkscrew ramp, or into a chute that activates multi-ball mode.
(Oh, didn’t I mention multi-ball mode? That’s when you play well enough to release three or more balls onto the playing field at the same time. It’s the pinball equivalent of a flash mob.)
But if I drill down past the visceral experiences of pinball, what I truly loved was the feeling of testing my skill and guile against a particular machine, the human quest for mastery that afflicts the competitive and masochistic. To make a particularly tough shot under pressure, to save a ball that appeared headed for the drain with a strategic nudge or a brilliant bit of flipper work—these were feats that would draw gasps from fellow players. During hot streaks, I would become vulnerable to the audacious notion that I could somehow beat the machine by winning extra balls and free games.
It never worked, of course. In pinball, as in life, you can never escape the inevitability of death. Sooner or later, even the most accomplished player is going to suffer the indignity of watching his or her last ball drain.
That’s the eternal fantasy that drove me into the embrace of pinball: a garish mechanized yearning for immortality, a peculiar greed for sensation that marked my childhood.
The year I turned 11, in 1978, I arrived at Shakey’s one afternoon to discover that Cleopatra had been ditched in favor of a new game called Space Invaders. Gone were the flippers, the silver ball, and the ornate artwork, replaced by what amounted to a television screen with row upon row of pixelated aliens. A year later, Asteroids arrived. Then Missile Command and Galaga and Defender. By the mid-’80s, pinball culture had been gobbled up by Pac-Man and his pals.
I played my share of video games over the years. But I never felt the same buzz pinball had provided. So I turned my attention elsewhere: sports, girls, journalism. I eventually found my way to Boston and a life devoted to writing, teaching, and raising kids. I thought nothing about pinball.
And then this past summer, my friend Michael mentioned that he’d started playing in a pinball league and asked whether I might want to tag along some night.
I put him off for a couple of months, telling myself I was too busy. In fact, I was kind of terrified. It was sort of like being asked to go out for beers with an old flame whose loss you never quite processed.
“A pinball league—how crazy is that?” I kept telling my wife.
“Just go already,” she said, sighing, around the 50th time I mentioned it.
“If you insist,” I replied.
And so, on a chilly autumn night three months ago, Michael and I drove up to Nashua to play in a weekly tournament at the Southern New Hampshire Pinball Club, located in a warehouse I’ll generously describe as unfurnished.
Despite the derelict vibe, the club itself was enchanting: 15 mint condition machines lined up beneath gray plasterboard walls. They had Aztec! They had Strikes and Spares! They had Charlie’s Angels! The last time I’d played these games, I hadn’t even hit puberty.
And yet, the moment the tourney started, the old instincts came whooshing back into my fingers. I didn’t remember the rules of any of the games. But I was able to beat a few guys on the strength of those instincts and dumb luck. I wound up placing third out of 12 and winning back my $20 buy-in.
The tourney ended at 9 o’clock but I kept going. By the time Michael pried me away from Space Shuttle, I’d played pinball for 2 1/2 hours straight without paying a cent, a feat that struck me as nearly miraculous.
I arrived home at midnight, still elated, my fingertips swollen from slapping at the flipper buttons.
I now officially had what Michael called “the fever.” He certainly knew something about this malady, having purchased his own pinball machine shortly after our road trip.
I proceeded directly to his home to test drive his new acquisition: a 1977 classic called Jungle Queen, which I played until Michael gently evicted me from his basement.
“You should come to Chuck’s place,” he said. “You’re ready.”
I didn’t know who Chuck was, but a few days later, I found myself parking in front of a home in the quiet suburb of Wakefield, Massachusetts. The only unusual feature was a sandwich board perched on the snow-crusted lawn. It read: “Wicked Pissa Pinball Pit,” with an arrow pointing toward the back of the house.
I ducked through a tiny door and descended a set of stairs into what I can only describe as The Man Cave of My Dreams: 22 pinball machines crammed into a basement about the size of 23 pinball machines. There were 30 other pinball freaks on hand, along with a couple of folding tables upon which sat a Crock-Pot full of chili and an ungodly supply of candy.
The games were cleverly curated: a quartet of Star Trek machines in one room, another full of rock-themed machines (AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses, Metallica), a third with classics such as Captain Fantastic and good old Evel Knievel.
As league play commenced, two things became instantly apparent. First, the newer machines were far more elaborate. Along with the basic elements—bumpers, flippers, drain—came a Rube Goldbergian blizzard of ramps, chutes, electromagnets, special effects. Some included a miniature pinball game within the larger playing field.
Second, and somewhat predictably, I was way out of my depth. I tallied 2 million points in my first game, which sounds impressive until you consider the scores of the league veterans in my group: 46 million, 37 million, and 21 million.
Still, the enchanting thing about pinball is that even scrubs like me can go on unexpected runs, as I did a few matches later, when I triggered two multi-ball modes and racked up a final score of 84 million, more than quadrupling my nearest competitor. Overall, I came in third in my group, just beating out a guy named Derek, who, by the way, had just won a statewide tournament. To say I was satisfied with my visit to the Wicked Pissa Pinball Pit doesn’t quite capture my state of mind. I was something closer to euphoric.
I had long associated pinball with a certain strain of loner nerd. But the folks at the Pit were hyper-social. They cracked jokes and talked trash. They also presented a pretty wide demographic mix, from bearded hipsters to aging baby boomers. Half a dozen of the players were women.
And nearly everyone I talked to invited me out to another pinball event. There were weekly confabs at local “barcades,” league nights, and more informal gatherings in the homes of hardcore collectors, such as our host, Chuck Webster.
Chuck had the sort of thick Boston brogue and solid build one might associate with a Winter Hill mobster. But he was quick with a smile and even quicker with a gentle word of encouragement. Like me, Chuck had played pinball as a kid in the ’70s. He had participated in pinball’s brief resurrection in the ’90s, with the rise of lavish movie-themed games such as The Addams Family.
But he had also weathered the near extinction that followed, as gaming systems swept the nation’s living rooms and industry giants such as Bally and Williams converted their production to a more profitable sector: slot machines.
Chuck got his first pinball machine as a birthday gift from his wife, Nancy. She had no idea what she had triggered. Chuck soon taught himself how to restore machines by watching videos posted online by fellow pinball gearheads. Because machines include thousands of wires and specialized components, the dedicated restorer has to be a competent electrician, a solderer, and an artist.
In fact, a big part of today’s pinball subculture is made up of guys like Chuck who track down rare models—haunting estate sales and internet forums—and then refurbish and resell them to collectors.
Chuck isn’t so good at that last part, though.
“He spends so many hours fixing them up that he gets attached,” Nancy reports. “Then he can’t bear to sell them.”
And thus, over the past decade, his collection has become the unofficial clubhouse to a growing rank of would-be wizards like me. Pinball is back from the dead, Chuck says, because people are tired of sitting alone in front of screens. “You saw it tonight: Folks want to hang out, and pinball forces you to do that.”
More broadly, he sees pinball as a backlash against the digital world. “Pinball is analog. It’s a real, physical game, and for that reason, it’s totally unpredictable. Look at how you played on KISS tonight—you blew that game up!”
(Have I mentioned how much I liked Chuck?)
Of course, online games can also seem unpredictable. But veteran players eventually memorize the patterns, which are all based on preset computer code. You can’t code a steel ball. You can only try to manage its chaotic course.
Nicole Bernier, who drove down to the Pit all the way from Maine, had never even played pinball four years ago, when a friend convinced her to check out a local league night. The first game she played was Flash Gordon. She plunged her first ball and it drained almost immediately. Second ball, same thing.
She walked away with the lowest possible score that night—and a fierce determination to redeem herself. She now plays in three leagues and travels to tournaments all over the United States.
(She’s not alone. According to the International Flipper Pinball Association, there were 487 tournaments worldwide in 2009. Last year there were 4,827.)
Nicole loves the social aspect of pinball. But what got her truly hooked was the rules. She loves rules. And pinball is all about rules. Every game has a different rule set. You learn those and you know exactly what you need to do.
I heard this over and over again from experienced players. But I didn’t believe it myself until the end of the night, when Chuck and a few other hotshots coached me through a game. At each stage, they told me exactly what shots I needed to make. By ball three, I had collected all six of the game’s “bonus monsters” and activated the multi-ball setting.
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.
If you’re anything at all like me, you’re probably jonesing to play pinball right now. The good news: There are literally thousands of venues—from barcades to bowling alleys—scattered across the country. But a word of warning: Dabbling in pinball can lead to the full-blown fever. Lately, I’ve been cruising the various websites dedicated to pinball sales. And yes, I did recently bid on a vintage edition of the Cleopatra machine I played all those years ago at Shakey’s Pizza. I offered the seller $700. He wound up selling it for nearly twice that.
But that’s okay. My friend Michael, who got me into all this, has urged me to be patient. It can take a few months to find the right machine at the right price, given the surge in demand. He himself just purchased a second machine. He also recently won an educational grant that will allow his ninth-grade history students to design their own pinball machines based on the Cold War.
I, too, have been thinking about pinball in some of the same obsessive ways I did when I was young. So where does all this leave me? Am I harboring hopes of becoming a pinball wizard at the far side of 50?
For the foreseeable future, I’ll simply be another newbie to the New England Pinball League, spending my Friday nights amid the ecstatic clamor of Chuck’s Wicked Pissa Pinball Pit, trash-talking and trading tips, learning how to nudge the machine just so, how to control the ball, and, hoping amid all the mayhem, to keep myself alive.
The best places to play, from coast to coast.
New York City
Walk past the washing machines and dryers and you’ll find a back room stocked with machines. Then ask for tips from bartender Alberto Santana, the 48th-ranked player in the world.
Free movies and popcorn on Mondays, magic shows on Tuesdays… oh, did we forget to mention the pinball? Pick from 25 different machines, with new games arriving weekly.
Hopewell Township, Pennsylvania
The collection is daunting, with 400-plus arcade and pinball games. But look for just one: the last playable Thunderball table in the world.
Seattle Pinball Museum
Originally opened in 2010 as an ode to the game’s kinetic art, the museum has grown to become one of the Pacific Northwest’s pinball meccas.
Flippers Variety & Arcade
Grandy, North Carolina
You’re not in the wrong place: This is a gas station. So fill up the tank and grab a stack of quarters.
Lyons Classic Pinball
Work up a thirst playing nearly 40 games, then walk next door to Oskar Blues Brewing’s restaurant, where three more games—and beer!—await.