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Full tilt

Edited version published in Inside Sport #88 (August 2007)

For most of us, pinball is a machine tucked away in the corner down at the local, a whiz-bang-pop reminder of a youth spent in gaming arcades. For others, it’s a home-based hobby of machine collecting, maintenance and loving restoration.  And for a growing community of players it’s a competitive sport - a structured system of international tournaments and conventions, where self confessed pinball geeks meet to battle it out, flipper style.

American based organising body the International Flipper Pinball Association (IFPA) has a database of 960+ players from all over – the United States and United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, Sweden, and Brazil, to name a few - who compete at one or more of 70+ annual tournaments for the prestigious title of World's Greatest Pinball Player. Current IFPA President (and world no.6) Josh Sharpe says that on any given weekend, there is usually at least one tournament being held somewhere in the world where people can compete. The IFPA oversees the World Pinball Player Rankings (WPPR), which issues monthly rankings based on the results of the previous month’s tournaments, and at year’s end determines who will be crowned the year’s reigning pinball king – or queen – although most of the pinball hardcore are men, women are welcome to compete.

Keith Elwin is the man to beat.  The current world champion, Keith has a string of tournament titles under his belt, including the Pinball Expos of 2004, 2005 and 2006, the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association (PAPA) Classics 7, 8 & 9, and the AMOA tournament of 2006. 35 year old Keith hails from Carlsbad, California, and has been playing since the age of eight. ‘My brother is 10 years older than I am so he used to take me to the arcade to “babysit” me. I was never really into video games. I thought pinball was the coolest thing ever!’

Keith started competing in 1994, and won his first PAPA Tournament in Las Vegas in 1998.  This victory is still his sweetest – he cleaned up in both singles and doubles, and went unbeaten in the finals - a PAPA pinball first.  When Keith has a tournament coming up he trains on his home machines for half an hour a night, and incorporates leg and shoulder exercises into his gym routine.  ‘Staying the distance is all about getting used to standing on your feet all day.  I usually play with all my weight on my right leg - you can imagine after playing 10-12 hrs straight it can get pretty sore.’

Keith is considered the zen wizard of keeping your pinball cool. Comments Josh: ‘Keith is great at finding the weaknesses in game rules and exploiting them to his advantage. Like facing an opponent in basketball, football, boxing, etc, there are certain strategies you can form that will give you a better chance of winning the game. He's excellent at finding that strategy out and adjusting when he needs to on the fly. His strongest attribute is that he is also a well rounded player. Keith is also an excellent player when it comes to all 3 generations of pinball. His accuracy keeps him out of trouble of losing the ball more often then anyone else I've ever seen.’

Josh has pinball in his genes. His Dad Roger Sharpe co-founded PAPA in the late seventies, and helped legalize pinball in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles, was a pinball designer, and has written a book about pinball. ‘Each game is vastly different,’ says Josh. ‘If I learn of an upcoming tournament game list, I'll either try to find an example of the game to practice on, or just read over game rules on the internet and develop my strategy before the event. The biggest thing besides overcoming nerves when stepping up to a game is to have a game plan in mind. Depending on how the match is shaping up, I may need to be a little more risky, or play more conservatively. Another thing is patience. Like any sport, you can't make up all the points in ten seconds. Getting deep into a game takes time, and it's important for me to gain control of the ball and collect my thoughts, see where I'm at, and continue to execute or adjust my strategy.’

It’s love, not money that keeps players like Keith Elwin and Josh Sharpe going. While there is some prize money associated with bigger tournaments - Pittsburgh’s PAPA World Pinball Championships boasts a total prize package of US$36,000, for example, players aim to break even on travel expenditure, not get rich. Often, proceeds from tournaments go to charity, and more often than not, prize packages include pinball machines.  Hence players like Elwin and Sharpe have impressive home collections – Sharpe has a games room with eleven games, and Elwin has twelve.  Another major perk of peak pinball performance are tickets to international competitions like the Dutch Pinball Open, the Stockholm Pinball Open, and the European Pinball Championships.

Pinball events are not always about serious competition.  Some events, like Chicago’s Pinbrawl, is a team pinball event, featuring four person teams and four different skill levels, opening it up to all and sundry, from experts to first timers.  Pinbrawl is popular with old schoolers, as it uses games from all eras, whilst the more serious tournaments are strictly played on post-1992 DMD (Dot Matrix Display) machines.  The Zen tournament is another option for off-beat play, enabling two players to form a team and play at the same time.  One player takes the left side of the machine and the other takes the right.  They’re allowed to play any way they like - as long as only the flipper buttons on their side of the machine are used.

For a time there, when computer based gaming began taking over the world like an alien invasion in the 1980s, pinball’s future looked bleak. The introduction of sophisticated, computerised DMD pinball machines in the 1990s breathed new life into the industry, and the growth of the competitive international pinball community over the past few years means that pinball is most definitely still in play.

And while Australian players aren’t yet making any waves on the international pinball scene, the game’s profile is on the rise in Australia, with a pinball renaissance, Oz-style, just around the corner. In 2005 Victorian-based, Australian-owned company The Pinball Factory purchased the rights to one time heavyweight Bally/Williams’ pinball portfolio, and is one of just two pinball makers in the world today. They’re gearing up to release three twenty-first century grade games later this year. Pinball Factory spokesperson Wayne Gillard reckons that one will be the most advanced pinball game ever released, with 4.1 channel surround stereo sound, an interactive video screen, state of the art electrical architecture, and a special shaking mechanism that kicks in when the croc gets you. Did someone say croc? Yes, the new game is more Australian than prawns on the barbie - The Crocodile Hunter Outback Adventure features the voice of Steve himself (recorded pre stingray), and has the full endorsement of the Irwin family. Crikey!