Players at the PAPA pinball convention/championships

As The Wizards Play Down On Pinball Way

Scenes from pinball’s biggest championship.

By Brian Taylor • August 15, 2012

Last weekend, the Professional & Amateur Pinball Association (PAPA) held its 15th World Pinball Championships in a warehouse outside of Pittsburgh. More than 450 players competed across eight divisions (some table-based, some age-based, some skill-based) over PAPA15’s four-day schedule, while many more attendees came just to play an astounding selection of machines. Keith Elwin of Carlsbad, Calif., took the A Division and was named World Pinball Champion 2012 for the fourth time in the past five years. Photographer Brian Taylor attended the PAPA show and put together this photo essay during the qualifying rounds of the event.

PAPA Tournament: Bally Wizard and other machines PAPA Tournament: Players at machines PAPA Tournament: Bounty PAPA Tournament: Concentrating player PAPA Tournament: Greatest Time Lord PAPA Tournament: No Fear PAPA Tournament: Friends look on PAPA Tournament: Spectator PAPA Tournament: Spectator on chair PAPA Tournament: High scores PAPA Tournament: Banners PAPA Tournament: Kid and dad PAPA Tournament: Score displays PAPA Tournament: Challenger PAPA Tournament: Argosy PAPA Tournament: Gay 90's PAPA Tournament: Getaway PAPA Tournament: Showdown PAPA Tournament: Buttons PAPA Tournament: I'm next on Jack-Bot

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1,175 Responses to “As The Wizards Play Down On Pinball Way”

  1. caspiancomic says:

    Is there even the slightest chance that the billion-and-a-half high score on the Doctor Who machine was anyone but the Oncoming Storm himself? I could definitely see the Ninth or the Eleventh being a pinball wizard.

    • George_Liquor says:

      There has to be a twist.

    • Bowen Kerins says:

      The only possible response to this comment…


      (Yo I heard you like Doctor Who so I put Doctor Who in your Doctor Who pinball…)

      “The Oncoming Storm” is pretty close to the nickname for one of the pinball players at PAPA, too.

    • Electric Dragon says:

      Nine? He’d have a breakdown in the middle and start going on about the Time War. Ten would be more plausible.

      Some seriously weird art there though. Five hasn’t had a haircut in at least three months, Seven has been replaced by an imposter, and Three looks more like Four than Four does.

      I have to say I’ve never seen one live but according to the TARDIS Eruditorum blog, it’s “a thoroughly charming piece of work that manages a perfect blend of nods to fans and broader reinterpretations that capture a vague iconography of Doctor Who, and combines it with what happens to be a damn good pinball machine as well.”

      • caspiancomic says:

         See, I saw them the other way around. I figured Nine had enough of a fun-loving goofball streak to enjoy a bit of pinball now and again, while Ten was the more the self-flagellating “a million people are going to die if I don’t help!!” type. In any case, as @google-b689fbc84ccf0fb8282d29bfda4d8296:disqus happily demonstrated, Eleven is on that shit like a Teselecta on a historically unpunished war criminal.

        Oh Jesus almighty, sometimes I’m such a dork I want to steal my own lunch money.

  2. DonE says:

    So… much… pinball…

    *passes out*

    • fieldafar says:

      12-year-old me would have died after seeing this place.

      • Aaron Riccio says:

        Remember when pinball machines only cost a quarter? Remember when there were actual local arcades that cost the same? (That is, not Dave & Busters-type affairs.) Perhaps there still are arcades that specialize in Dance Dance Revolution, and I just don’t know how to find them in Chinatown any more, but the twelve-year-old me is tilting hard with nostalgia right now.

        • Girard says:

          Personally, 12-year-old me is thanking God he doesn’t have to wait until his mom’s bowling night to play an arcade quality game.

          I loved arcades as a kid (when I was really little, we lived down the street from a bunch of arcades, and it was a weekend tradition for my dad to take my brother and I down to them and play tons of late-80s-era arcade games). But I think what I mainly enjoyed was the games themselves, rather than the atmosphere of the arcades (which were often kind of noisy and overwhelming).

          If I were more of a pinball fan, I’d probably have more of a nostalgic twinge, though.

      • Matt Kodner says:

        so lucky: my dad took me to Chicago’s pinball expo every year from ages 0-18

  3. Barnitosupreme says:

    Pinball Championship, you say? Hmmmmm….I’ll just leave this here.  

  4. Some missed opportunities here.  Tron’s playfield in particular is really photogenic.

  5. Aaron Riccio says:

    There’s a local bar I just started hanging out at that has some old-school pinball machines (Harlem Globetrotters and Star Trek; how’s that for an odd pairing?), and I have to be honest, playing these generally frill-less tables made me realize how spoiled I’ve been by the bells-and-whistles models of today. I want my multi-ball, I look forward to the obstacles, and I enjoy the pretense of a “story” to my random caroming. The tables within tables, the hydraulic lifts, the puffs of smoke, the “saved” ball springs in the gutters, etc. Anything to disguise the fact that no matter which model I’m playing, all I’m ever *really* doing is moving two flippers up and down at varying speeds.

    • Basement Boy says:

      I can relate… tho the older machines have their nostalgic charms, they can feel considerably less-action-packed than some of the newer whiz-bang tables. I’m old, so I consider 1997’s “Medieval Madness” to be a “newer” model, and one of my favorites ever!

      P.S. A silly side-effect/trend with the electronic modernization is the arbitrarily Jacked Up scores… back in the day, you’d be lucky to score in the tens of thousands, while today’s games you’ll get MILLIONS of points without even trying. Is that some kind of inflation?

      • Aaron Riccio says:

        I sense a dissertation in the works. “Charting the Course of Inflation: A Study in Pinball High Scores and the Correlation of Self-Worth and Personal Satisfaction.”

  6. Spacemonkey Mafia says:

    These are fantastic.  That’s all.

  7. El Zilcho says:

    Anybody have any favorite tables? I always loved The Addams Family and Star Trek: The Next Generation.

    • bee1000 says:

      I haven’t played real pinball very much, but I love the virtual versions of Taxi and Whirlwind in Wii Pinball Hall of Fame (Williams edition). If I’m ever stuck in Las Vegas I’ll try to get to the pinball museum to play some of the Wii tables for real.

    • Fluka says:

      The arcade near the beach my family went every summer managed to have a pinball table for all of my major childhood obsessions, primarily Simpsons, Star Trek TNG, and Jurassic Park.  Star Trek was the best (Q made a visit and everything!).  The Simpsons pinball game was good but somewhat overshadowed by the Simpsons arcade game 10 feet away.  The Jurassic Park one seemed fairly disappointing and sometimes buggy.  It was truly a glorious time to be a quarter-bearing geeky child.

      • Predator Handshake says:

        The Fuddrucker’s here used to have a Jurassic Park table and it’s really fun when everything works.  I mean, a T-Rex eats your ball to lock it.

    • The Sputnik Sweethearts says:

       It sounds dumb, but the arcade that I went to my whole life ever since I was like 5, had probably 16 or so machines (though only 12 let’s say would be functional per year), but the only machine I played every year and got somewhat competent at was the South Park pinball machine. I’m not even a big South Park fan; I was just a kid who thought he was getting away with doing something adult.

      I always wanted to get good at the Star Wars cabinet, but every time I tried to play it ate my quarters so I eventually stopped trying.

    • Basement Boy says:

      My teen/young adult faves were The Black Knight and Gorgar (tho upon revisiting them years later, they’re definitely feeling old-school)… my current fave is Medieval Madness, and there were a couple of different Elvira machines that were alotta fun.

      • bee1000 says:

        “Will you. Challenge. The. Black. Knight. again?” Black Knight and Gorgar are both in the Wii game. Neither is a favorite of mine, but when I play enough to get my timing down it’s so easy to get multi-ball on Black Knight that it becomes fun.

    • Predator Handshake says:

      Addams Family is a great table; my local bar had one until a couple of months ago and the bartender and I were the only ones I ever really saw playing it.  He replaced it with a Barb Wire table that I’m not as familiar with, but I found out that he knows a guy with a bunch of tables that he splits profits with. Hopefully he’ll get a Doctor Who table in soon, because I’ve always really wanted to play that one.

      I’d say my favorite is Bride of Pinbot; there’s a bar in Asheville, NC that has a table but that’s an hour away from me so I’m glad the DLC finally launched on Xbox Pinball Arcade.  Next time I end up there I’ll actually know how the table works.

      I was also surprised by how much fun Funhouse is when the fieldlights work and you can actually see what’s going on.  I wasted many a quarter at a laundromat next to a local bar on that thing and I’m amazed that I never broke the glass open to bash Rudy’s stupid face in.

  8. stakkalee says:

    These photos are great, but I wish there was sound.  I can just imagine what that room sounded like, with hundreds of games and hundreds of gamers, the beeping, the alarms, all the rattling and rolling of those little metal balls and the flapping of the paddles, far-off laughter, having to shout so your friends can hear you over the ever-present hum of activity.

    My family used to take trips up to the Massachusetts coast in the summers back in elementary school, and there was this arcade/fun-center type place.  I don’t even remember the name now.  Each kid got $20, and off you went (back when games were a quarter, $20 was some serious scratch.)  My brothers would split up, one to the fighting games, one to the skeeball (to win some tickets, donthcaknow.  How else are you going to get that moustache comb, or the candy cigarettes?)  I’d usually hit the driving-sim games, but sometimes I’d wander into that separate room, where all the pinball machines were, and however loud the rest of the building was, that room was always louder.  There weren’t many kids in that room, kids my age.  Sure, there were some surly teenagers, but they might as well have been adults for all the difference it made to me; the rest were real adults (guys who were probably younger than I am now), and they were serious players.  It was less about having fun (not that they weren’t having fun) and more about beating the machine, being better than the other players.  It was the 80s, so the room, in addition to being loud, was full of cigarette smoke, absolutely full.  And sometimes, even though I knew my mother didn’t want me in that room, sometimes I’d wander in there and drop a few quarters in one of the machines.  I had to drag a chair over so I could see what I was doing.  Of course I was terrible, and I’d get frustrated real quick, but for a few moments I could pretend to be a grown-up, playing a grown-up game.

    I got my first kiss at that place, too, from the daughter of my mother’s high school friend, as we wandered off one time to get some fried dough.  Part of me wishes I could remember the name of that place, and another part knows it’s best left in the past.  Still, thanks so much GS for letting me wallow in nostalgia this Wednesday morning. 

    • caspiancomic says:

       Stak, you’re alright. If I could, I would like this twice.

    • Bowen Kerins says:

      Salem Willows?  Sounds like Salem Willows, but it could also be Salisbury Beach.  Sweet story, and the place you went is probably still there.

      My first memories of pinball are from the basement of some hotel on Miami Beach, with what seemed like almost 100 pinball machines and even more video games.  It was completely dark except for the games, and somehow that made it all the more awesome.I took my 4-year-old to PAPA this year not knowing if he would love it or hate it, and he still can’t stop talking about the games he played and the fun he had.  “I hit the castle and it went BOOM!”

      • stakkalee says:

        Yup, that’s it, Salisbury Beach, holy shit.  Just did some Googling – Joe’s Playland (horribly ugly website, BTW.)  That’s awesome.  Thanks, Bowen.

        It looks so small in the pictures i found; it looks like a normal-sized business.  I remember it going on forever, city block after city block.

        • Bowen Kerins says:

          Awesome.  Yeah, it really is amazing how BIG things seem in retrospect, but I guess it was actually true — pinball machines, and everything else, were almost twice the size they are now.

          Especially if you played the Hercules pinball machine!

  9. boardgameguy says:

    Is that Gay 90s machine based on the Minneapolis club or are they both inspired by something else I’m not familiar with?

  10. derpseid says:

    I was there on Saturday for a couple hours, it was a whole hell of a lot of fun.  

  11. derpseid says:

    Also, it sounded a lot like walking into a casino, but with less despair.

  12. Zack Handlen says:

    I got to go to an in-house tournament here in Maine a year or so ago; it wasn’t anything super official, just this guy who fixes pinball machines who likes to get a bunch of people in his house and let them have at for a couple hours. It was a lot of fun, though. The host must have had something in the area of twenty working machines, and half a dozen or more busted ones stuck off in the corner of his basement. People came in from all over, including a group of pinball enthusiasts from Massachusetts–some of them even had national rankings, although I have no idea if any of them were good (apart from the fact that they all kicked my ass, which is, given my skill level, essentially meaningless). Most everyone was nice, although as with seemingly every geeky subculture, you had some social dysfunction, some guys who talked to the floor in half-sentences, and at least one dude who was really, really upset when a machine went tilt on him. He yelled like he thought the flippers were going to argue with him. I thought he was going to punch someone. 

    As for the tournament, if you’re curious, the host ran it like a golf game: he picked out eighteen machines, and set a point goal for each one. We were arranged into teams of four, and each member of each team had four tries to hit the score that was set for each particular pinball game. If it took you more than four times, you just put down “4” on your score card, because otherwise it would have taken the whole damn night. The older machines were very tough, in a way that reminds of me early video games; there was  no effort to make them user friendly, no automatic “free ball” to start, and you had to be able to lean on the machine effectively to keep it from tilting if you wanted to stay in play long enough to get the points you needed. The players on my team, all of whom were much, much more experienced than I was (and pleasant enough, for the most part, although one of them was weirdly arrogant; I guess if you’re really good at pinball, you take your excuses to be arrogant where you can find them), made it a point to eye out each machine before playing, and try and figure out where the big point multipliers were. As some who liked pinball, but had never had much chance to play outside of video games, I found it fascinating that there really was a strategy, however minimal–it wasn’t just a matter of keeping the ball going as long as possible (although obviously that’s important), but of trying to aim for certain spots on the board. There were dead zones, and sweet spots, and even if you knew where all the best places to shoot for were, you had to keep in mind that, on a lot of machines, the order of when you hit those spots would have a significant effect on your score.

    It was a lot of fun. Because I was so inexperienced, I got paired off with a high-ranking group, and we actually won the tournament, which meant twenty bucks and a severely footnoted kind of bragging rights. Really, though, it was worth it just to play endless pinball without ever having to worry about quarters. I stuck on a Fellowship Of The Ring machine for must’ve been half an hour; it wasn’t in the tournament, and I never got all that good at it, but it’s hard to resist the lure that this time, I’d do better. This time, I’d have the perfect shot. 

  13. HobbesMkii says:

    Analog arcade games are just awesome. There’s a lakeside beach not too far from where I live and (when I was a child, at least) it operates an arcade. It’s a long lakehouse cottage like building, split into two halves. One half is your traditional 80s & 90s arcade, with computer screens and games where you’re a race car driver or a space pilot or a man with a gun in a haunted house or a street fighter or what have you. 

    The other (better) half is an arcade from the 50s and before. And some of these games are quite old. To give you an idea: the pinball machine has actual metal pins that make up the obstacles on the field. It’s one of the hardest machines you’ve ever played. Man, I loved that thing.

    • caspiancomic says:

       Man, what is it about pinball that kicks up so much boardwalk-at-sunset nostalgia around here? I think I’m a little too young to have had pinball (or the allure of pinball) play any significant role in my growing up, but it seems like memories of smoky pinball rooms is for us what sun baked baseball diamonds were to the next generation up. Maybe the way pinball is so much more physical than standard computerized arcade cabinets gives it a heavier presence and sense of gravitas in people’s memories?

      Or maybe for us, pinball is more analogous to jazz? If original arcade cabinets and 8-bit home consoles are the blues that evolved into today’s FPS heavy rock and roll, pinball could be seen as jazz: an offshoot from the main evolutionary branch that was hugely influential in its day without directly evolving into any broadly recognizable modern equivalent. Even the free form nature of pinball is jazzy, the way there’s an internal logic that dictates the sound (or play), but every individual instance of that song (game) is always going to be experimental and new, and impossible to truly predict. Plus, and I don’t know all that much about jazz so I could be wrong, but both pinball and jazz remain much the same as they were at their approximate inception, right? In new pinball machines you can stick on as many extra bits as you like, but the rules, goal, and controls are always the same. Same with jazz: not to say that it doesn’t evolve, like any musical genre does, but you could go to a bar in New Orleans and think for all the world you had stepped back 50 or even 100 years in time, right?

      Or, hmm, maybe I’ve just been watching too much Treme.

      • Fluka says:

        Yeah, a large part of the nostalgia for me is the association with childhood and the boardwalk.  You actually have to *go* somewhere to play pinball and get that experience again.  Like you say, the physical give and take of the machine makes it impossible to reproduce fully with a computer, and owning a pinball machine mostly just seems like cheating (plus, if you go to a hall, there are tons of different themes that you can play!).  There’s also the extra-added nostalgia factor if remembering (for me) all the early 90s intellectual properties represented in those machines.  So everything is very heavily tied a single time and place.  I also like your jazz metaphor very much.

      • Merve says:

        “Jazz” as a whole is very, very, very different from where it started. 20s-era big band swing is a rarity now; most jazz ensembles are small combos. It might not seem as if jazz has evolved much since the seventies, but that’s because it has split off into so many distinct subgenres, incorporating everything from worldbeat to folk to electronica.

        That being said, there is a lot of nostalgia among people who listen to jazz, and very often, bands will just play “the hits.” (Or at least that’s my experience with live jazz in Southern Canada / Northeastern USA.) I was at a bar with live jazz last night, and what did the band play? “Chameleon” and “Green Onions,” among other familiar tunes. It doesn’t get any more standard than that, at least as far as modern classics go.

        Not having been to the South recently, I can only assume that there’s a similar nostalgic appreciation for Dixieland. It’s not at the forefront of today’s jazz music, but there’s certainly a big audience for it.

        So your comparison is apt, at least to the point that both pinball lovers and jazz lovers have an appreciation for things from an earlier era. I just wanted to point out that jazz has evolved a lot since its beginnings, and it continues to evolve, contrary to what musicians like Wynton Marsalis might have you believe.

  14. DjangoZ says:

    “Let’s do a photo-essay of a pinball tournament!”

    “Great, lots of shots of competitors, the intense look of concentration on their face as they play, their leg wrapped around the leg of a machine, the victor hoisting their trophy, parking lot strategy sessions, maybe if we’re lucky some crowd shots cheering or two of the top players staring at each other with a steely glare, that kind of thing?”

    “No, no, mostly wide shots of pinball machines just standing there, it’ll be fantastic!”

    • HobbesMkii says:

      Can you smell what the Snark is cooking?

    • John Teti says:

      Parking lot strategy sessions…?

      • HobbesMkii says:

        It needs to tell a distinct linear narrative, John! Even if that narrative makes no sense and may not actually occur! Screw all this “enjoy the sense of the atmosphere and environment” created by these pictures nonsense–I want this to be a comic strip in photos.

        • DjangoZ says:

          I thought the photographer did a poor job. There are a few nice close-ups of machines, but his shots of people are distant and it looked to me like he was afraid to get up close or cover the human aspect.

          Ultimately they just aren’t very compelling. I don’t think he found many surprises or shots that are visually interesting. So yeah, I snarkily riffed on a few ideas of what might be. “Parking lot strategy session?” I don’t know what pinball players do at a tournament, but if I had gone there or assigned it to someone, I sure as hell would have found out or had them find out.

        • HobbesMkii says:

          @DjangoZ:disqus I hear that. I got a different sense though, one that transferred the experience onto me, surrounding me with the colors and lights that were there, allowing me to feel transported there. It’s rare that there are photographs that do this for me–most people use them to tell others’ stories that don’t encourage viewers to become active participants. If the photos had been closer to people, I expect I would have been less taken with it.

        • Bowen Kerins says:

          @DjangoZ:disqus Here are some pictures from the previous PAPA tournament held in March, with some more player close-ups of the thrill of replay and the agony of the drain:


      • stakkalee says:

        “I thought I’d hit the left bumper first, and then the right one, and then the right one again.  What do you guys think?”

        “Nah, I think you gotta go left-right-left; that’s gotta do it, right?”

        “Well, for me personally, I always start with the right bumper.  Always.”

      • Merve says:

        They draw diagrams of pinball machines on the asphalt.

        • caspiancomic says:

          These guys have built 1:1 scale functioning pinball machines identical to the ones in the tournament, Ocean’s 11 style.

      • stakkalee says:

        They watch Tommy and TILT, all the while scribbling furious notes.

      • stakkalee says:

        Guys in beat-up station wagons selling “Finger-Exercise Secrets of the Pros”!

        I’ll stop now.

  15. Brainstrain says:

    So, this is a photo essay. Does that mean there’s some kind of narrative I’m missing? Or it there a general consensus that wide-angle shots passed through a random filter just spontaneously generate such things?

  16. Basement Boy says:

    Ever since I was a young boy, I’ve played the silver ball, so yeah, nice feature!! 
    This is my plug for The Pinball Hall Of Fame Museum in Las Vegas, south and east of the strip on Tropicana…  very lo-fi ambiance, place felt like an old dime store – remember those? – crammed with not just, but mostly, pinball machines from all eras… the best part of course is that they’re all playable, the older machines still costing only a quarter. 

    Anywho, it’s a pleasant off-strip diversion for any pinball aficionado, and has Drinky’s Approval, even tho there was no booze there…

    • caspiancomic says:

       I wish I had known about this when I was in Vegas, I mostly just wandered around the strip wondering why there were nine year old kids walking around at 2 am and getting sad about it.

    • Destroy Him My Robots says:

      I just caught myself thinking “Maybe going to Vegas would be nice” for probably the first time in my adult life.

  17. Basement Boy says:

    And *this* is my plug for the “Pinball Arcade” app; I play on my iPod Touch all the time. There are several tables available, all from the electronic era (so far). I was thrilled to see “Gorgar” in the line-up as I had wasted many an hour beating his ass at the SIU Student Center, back in the previous century. 

    Despite the tiny playing field, the physics “feel” remarkably lifelike, and you get adustable view angles, etc. The appmakers continue to add more titles (including “Black Knight” and “Medieval Madness!”) So for pinball players who aren’t accessible to the real thing (I know in *my* little neck of the world, they’re a rare commodity), this makes for a fun alternative… roughly the equivalent of comparing porn to the “real thing”. Yes, it’s *that good*!

    • duwease says:

      I played the hell out of the original Williams collection, but haven’t tried Pinball Arcade.  All my pinball urges get sunk into Pinball FX2, which is a different beast in that the games are longer and more complex (but I love it!)

    • WayofThePun says:

      It really shines on the consoles.

  18. WayofThePun says:

    Highly recommend anyone liking this post check out the documentary “Special When Lit”.  The pinball enthusiast world is as strange and dorky as you can imagine.

    • Bowen Kerins says:

      I felt that “Special When Lit” deliberately targeted the fringes of the pinball enthusiast world.  Most that I’ve met have been intelligent and well-spoken.  I felt that they came in looking for a particular story to tell, then used the people who helped their narrative.