The IFPA’s Massachusetts Pinball Championship (who knew?) will be held Saturday in Cambridge, and if you are not well-versed in the sport (most of you?), the governing body is the International Flipper Pinball Association.
Flipper Pinball may be redundant, but remember, it’s pinball, a game founded on shooting a steel ballbearing over and over and over and then calculating, countering, and ofttimes cursing the ensuing chaos. Bells. Whistles. Boinging springs. Dastardly bumpers. Flashing lights. Oh, and the odd word or two from Morticia — a favorite feature of Bally’s once mass-produced Addams Family pinball game.
Reporter’s aside: Gomez tells me it still drives him totally bonkers when Morticia speaks French. In her pinball domain, Madame Addams is strictly an Anglophile. C’est triste. Relax those arching eyebrows, Gomez.
“Pinball is infinitely variable and random,’’ said Joe Lemire, the No. 1 seed in the upcoming championship to be held at Lanes and Games, barely a flipper shot from the Alewife T stop. “That’s what I like most about it. There’s no other sport with its randomness.’’
Lemire, from Worcester, is only 30 years old. He didn’t live through decades upon decades of Red Sox variability and randomness, such as Bucky Dent’s pop fly in ’78. He is also too young to remember the Bruins trying to rig the Montreal Forum’s arcade with too many men on the ice. Or the Patriots with a convict at the controls of a tiny snowplow. Or, say, the Celtics with Jim Ard.
Here in Titletown, we sometimes forget the infinite, random ways that tipped the tilt mechanisms of our games. Over and over and over.
Bowen Kerins, a bright guy who once won $32,000 on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?’’, is the area’s pinball wizard and among the world’s few elite players. He has a degree from Stanford (1996) and five pinball world titles, including a pair from the IFPA and three others from the PAPA (Professional Amateur Pinball Association). It’s a little like the boxing world in that way, with multiple governing bodies, just minus Don King’s crazy hair and the multimillion-dollar pay-per-view contracts.
Kerins grew up in Newport, R.I., and has played pinball since childhood, introduced to it by his father. Aaron, his five-year-old son, has a particular love for the Dragon pinball game, mostly because of the spooky sounds it emits. The Kerins home in Salem is festooned with Bowen’s many trophies and a pair of pinball machines.
“Owning a pinball machine is kind of a disease,’’ noted the 38-year-old Kerins, a former math teacher in Newton and Swampscott who now authors math textbooks. “You get one machine and it spreads. We’ve kept the disease in my home confined to one room.’’
Chuck Webster, fellow competitor and good pal of Kerins’s, lives in Wakefield, where he keeps no fewer than 16 pinball machines in his basement. One of them is the Bobby Orr Power Play pinball machine, the print ads for which featured the star Bruins defenseman playing pinball while standing in full hockey uniform — the one he wore for the Chicago Black Hawks. Again, let the gut-wrenching randomness of Boston sports be duly noted.
By trade, Webster sells bicycles to shops all around New England. By nearly every other waking hour, he collects, trades, and restores old pinball machines, competes in games, and helps organize leagues and tournaments, some of which he stages in his basement. At the age of 49, he is so into pinball that his nose nearly lights up, “500 points!’’ when he shakes a visitor’s hand.
“Do they think I’m crazy at home?’’ said Webster, pondering the obvious question. “Could we say eccentric, maybe?’’
Pinball is enjoying a revival, after nearly getting wiped out of arcade rooms, bowling alleys, and barrooms across the land in the ’80s and ’90s with the emergence and saturation of video games. Most manufacturers, including Williams Bally, threw in the plunger around the turn of the new century. Pinball machines in the game world were the typewriters of the newsroom world.
“Absolutely true,’’ said Mike Engel, operator the last three years of the Lanes and Games Arcade, where he has increased the number of pinball machines from five to nine to accommodate increasing demand. “From 2000-05, the whole business went straight downhill. But these last 8-10 years, it’s really come back strong.’’
There are a number of elements at play in the resurgence, beyond simply the migration of the video games from arcades to home consoles. According to Webster, an avid collectors market has stoked great interest, along with an increasing number of tournaments on the local, state, and national levels. On Saturday, Massachusetts will be one of 28 states holding championships, with winners advancing to the national championship in Colorado in May. A third major factor, noted Webster and Kerins, is burgeoning interest among hipsters, especially in Portland, Ore., and New York City.
“More and more,’’ said Webster, “you find kids who think pinball is cool and retro.’’
Saturday’s main competition, with 16 players aiming for the nationals, will begin at 5 p.m., with spectators welcome, although be prepared for a tight squeeze because the Lanes and Games Arcade is approximately only 800 square feet. There also will be a charity tournament, to benefit Kids Fight Cancer, beginning at 2 p.m. The entry fee is $5, with cost per game 75 cents or $1.
“Machines today cost $5,000-$8,000 or more,’’ said Engel. “The days of 25-cent play are long gone.’’
Meanwhile, pinball itself endures and looks to be gaining momentum. For the accomplished players, the game is more than just shoot and react. It blends technique, strategy, guile, stamina, and even a physical element, the ability to apply just enough of a nudge factor with hand or hip to help steer the ball (diameter: 1 1/8 inches) in the preferred direction. Many newer games have players, if they are skillful enough, trapping, cradling, and shooting three or four balls at a time.
“Sometimes you have to resort to just shooting at flashing lights,’’ said Kerins in the thick of a game of X-Men, four balls at his command. “It can be just pretty much chaos.’’
Chaos. Infinitely variable and random.
Oh, we understand that here in Pinball Nation.