From a purely physical standpoint, the best way to describe Bowen Kerins is “unassuming.” He’s balding and bespectacled, a 40-year-old father from Salem who favors dad jeans and baggy T-shirts, and who, for a living, writes the content for high school math books.
But put him in front of a pinball machine, as he was on Saturday for the IFPA Massachusetts State Pinball Championship at Cambridge’s Lanes and Games, and there is nothing tame about him.
In the world of competitive pinball — and yes, such a world exists — Kerins is a rock star, an icon, a man whose very presence at a tournament is enough to strike fear in the flipper fingers of some of the world’s most accomplished players.
“He’s known in the pinball community as ‘Bowen Kerins, awesome god,’ ” gushed Derek Karamanian of Billerica, one of the 16 individuals who competed in the state championship.
“Some people don’t even come because they know Bowen’s playing,” added Noah Fiedler, another competitor.
Said Anthony Radzicki, who had the misfortune of being paired against Kerins in the tournament’s opening round: “It’s an honor.”
Indeed, his resume certainly seems to warrant the hyperbole. Since discovering the game as a child at a Florida arcade, he has developed into a three-time world pinball champion. Kerins entered the weekend ranked among the world’s top 20 players, according to the International Flipper Pinball Association. His skills are so renowned, in fact, that he hosts online pinball tutorials, outlining the game’s many particulars (his viewers, in fact, include some of those competing at the state tournament).
And on Saturday, he would be shooting for his third consecutive state title.
That is, if he made it on time.
For more than an hour before the tournament’s noon start time, competitors had been wandering the arcade at Lanes and Games, a bustling bowling alley. Typically the domain of shaggy-haired children toggling between racing games and toy-grabbing claw machines, the space had been commandeered by a collection of mostly middle-aged men wearing T-shirts and jeans, warming up on the room’s 10 machines and talking strategy amongst themselves.
Kerins, on the other hand, was nowhere to be found — although this, it was explained, was not a particularly unusual occurrence.
“Bowen always shows up at the last minute,” said Chuck Webster, a fellow participant and the event’s organizer. “That’s sort of his thing.”
Indeed, with about 15 minutes to spare, Kerins finally strolled in, stopping to hang up his coat and, after some brief chit-chat, proceeded to display exactly why he is counted among the world’s best.
To watch him play is to watch a master at work.
Though he can be animated at times — kicking out a leg, getting his whole body into it — he is mostly a model of concentration, ding-ing and ching-ing along in silence. Pinball can be a surprisingly taxing game mentally, and a player’s success can often come down to his ability to manage things like stress and adrenaline in the thick of battle.
“I find that many of the best players are strong thinkers — scientists and engineers and other professions where there’s lots of logical thinking,” Kerins said. “Because you have to be able to break down the machine, and say if I do these five things, I will win.”
“It’s just enough of the competitive juice that you feel like you’re a professional athlete for those weekends [you’re competing],” he said, “without having to stay in shape all year.”
To open Saturday’s tournament, Kerins breezed past Radzicki in a best-of-seven series, 4-1, then followed it up with a second-round win, giving early credence to Webster’s assertion that, “pretty much everybody going into this tournament knows they’re going for second place.”
Still, a victory Saturday wouldn’t come without its challenges. For one thing, Webster himself finished second to Kerins in last year’s state tournament and earned the No. 1 seed in this year’s competition. The games also represented something of a twist: A 1970s-era Evel Knievel machine had been brought in for the occasion, to go along with a relatively new “Game of Thrones”-themed machine that Kerins had yet to fully master.
What’s more, Kerins carried the burden of the hunted, and significant thought was being put into how to topple him.
“With a player as good as Bowen,” explained Ed Giardina, a 36-year-old software engineer from Belmont, “you pick games that are more luck-based — like the Evel Knievel game.”
As Saturday’s competition wore on, things grew tense. Outside the noisy arcade, families streamed in for bowling and birthday parties, and 20-somethings gathered at the upstairs bar. But inside, pinballers stood in front of blinking machines depicting “Spider-Man” and AC/DC, jabbing at buttons and freely voicing their frustrations.
Though pinballers are typically a cordial group — “There’s nobody as nuts as the ‘Donkey Kong’ players,” Kerins assured — those in the heat of battle weren’t immune to the occasional bout of competitive posturing.
It was not uncommon to hear a four-letter word or two emanate from the arcade. And one high-seeded player, after losing in the opening round, left the building in frustration.
For the most part, though, it proved a friendly affair, and by the evening, as the field narrowed, a number of players gathered around to offer encouragement to those remaining.
Kerins was cruising. After his success in the first two rounds of the bracket-style tournament, he looked even better during the semifinals, shooting past Augustus Eustis to advance to the finals against Matt Wenger, a talented 41-year-old from Norwood.
Alas, the challenger proved no match.
In the final, Kerins jumped to a quick lead and never looked back, leaving a collection of impressed, if not exactly surprised, competitors in his wake.
Afterward, there was no confetti. No Gatorade shower. Just a trophy, $100 in cash.
Asked about how he planned to celebrate his victory (even though it was a relatively small one in the big scheme of things) Kerins said that he would be taking his wife to dinner on Sunday night — though, he quickly added, that had been the plan even before his win.
“But now,” he said, “we can go to a nicer restaurant.”Dugan Arnett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @duganarnett.