A Journey Into Seattle’s Flipping Rad Pinball Scene

‘I am having some profound thoughts about pinball. It’s about the relationship between choice and fate.’

“So this is your first tournament?” says a woman in a black hoodie. She hands me a cigarette and a light. “Welcome. Are you having fun?”

We are at Add-A-Ball, a bar and arcade—mainly pinball—just south of North 36th Street in Fremont. The space, industrial, subterranean, is packed; the patrons, mixed in gender and diverse in appearance, overflow out the entrance and onto the patio. Not unusual for a weekend evening in Fremont—except it is Wednesday night, and most of the revelers are here to play pinball for money.

“It’s the biggest weekly pinball tournament in the world,” the woman explains. “Usually we get 50 to 60; today we only got 47. How are you doing?”

“I’m 2 and 1,” I answer.

“Good for you!” That I’ve won two matches bewilders me; it delights her. “Did you play a lot before?”

“Kind of.”

In the past week I have gone to the Pinball Museum, Shorty’s, and Add-A-Ball, several times. The people I’ve met, the in-person generosity that runs so retrograde to contemporary gaming culture, make me believe her when she exhales her last drag and declares: “Seattle has the best pinball scene in the country.”

I am a gamer. I played StarCraft for seven years, made a living through poker for one, and have traveled to Europe to play Magic: the Gathering. All these games consist of extremely cutthroat head-to-head competition and competitors. How are pinball and the people who play it different? With the help of friends Alex, Haylee, and Dan, I set forth to find out—and to see if pinball was cool again.

I am with Haylee and Dan at the Pinball Museum in the International District, and I cannot figure out how to launch the ball.

I ask Robert the doorman for some help, and five seconds later I’m playing “The Texan.” At 56, it is the oldest machine at the museum.

“Our mission is to preserve pinball,” says the owner, Charlie Martin—and the machines, spanning six decades from “The Texan” (1960) to “Wizard of Oz” (2013), outline a long history.

The Pinball Museum is a family business; Charlie runs the show with his wife, Cindy, and son, Michael. “We’re all in 12 days a week,” he says. The machines, prone to physical deterioration, are in good shape. “I’m scared to think of how long we spend on maintenance.” Each machine bears a short description, and its rating from the Internet Pinball Database (IPDB), along with a QR code for more info.

The genius of the Pinball Museum is to pair history with participation: After the cover of $13, each machine is free to play. This serves an important purpose, says Charlie: “Otherwise, who would play the old machines?”

You can experience the evolution of pinball. Games made by Gottlieb give way to those by Williams, then Stern; mechanics and shots go from simple to complicated; digital score displays roll over into dot matrices. When you play, though, you notice the main change is that pinball, like video games, has grown more forgiving over time to appeal to a broader audience.

The Pinball Museum has space for 40 games, a fraction of the 5,973 listed in the IPDB. A virtual machine, which projects hundreds of games onto a computer screen shaped like a pinball machine, covers a number of those missing, including my favorite, “Star Trek: the Next Generation” (1993). But the physical element can only be emulated so convincingly; it feels as phony as the J.J. Abrams reboot. But then Robert comes by, turns up the volume, refills the free-play tickets, and I know there is no way to lose.

Typically there is some incentive to play well—draining three balls necessitates another infusion of quarters; a high-enough score can earn a free “replay”—but this afternoon we are playing terribly because we can.

Haylee and Dan leave; I wanted to finish my beer and play “The Champion’s Pub” 17 more times.

On Wednesday we head to Shorty’s. I rarely go there anymore—most games are 75 cents and the surrounding area has been swallowed by Amazon. Shorty’s was supposed to be the latest victim of New Seattle’s yuppie blight when the building around it was razed to make way for condos. But the city’s preservation board gave Shorty’s an indefinite reprieve last fall when it granted the building historical landmark status.

To Seattle pinball culture, Shorty’s itself is the same. “In 2007, Shorty’s was the only location in the area with more than four pinball machines, and everyone pretty much knew each other and hung out there,” says Gordon Ornelas, founder of Skill Shot, a local pinball zine, in an e-mail.

Tonight we play round upon round of “Medieval Madness” (1997), rated fifth-highest on IPDB. I can play any game of pinball and try to not die, maybe shoot some flashing lights, but this is the only game I remotely understand in any depth. You just shoot the castle over and over. You can also sink the ball in “Merlin’s Magic,” a kind of glory hole with randomized rewards.

The place has cleared out by midnight.

“Where is everyone?” says Haylee.

“At Add-A-Ball, for the tournament,” says Dan.

We show up to Add-A-Ball a week later. Registration begins at 8. The bar gets fuller, and I get drunker, until the tournament starts an hour later.

Pinball tournaments are head-to-head. You’re paired against opponents with the same amount of losses, on random machines, and try not to lose three times—like pinball itself.

When the organizer, Sergei, calls my name, I hear “Eight Ball Deluxe” (1980) and have no idea what it is.

I ask my good-natured opponent for some tips. He obliges: “Shoot the numbers on the left to multiply your score.” Everyone I’ve played at a tournament has tried to help me beat them, with mixed results. We “coin in”—put in 50 cents apiece—then flip another quarter to see who goes first, press start twice, play pinball. By some miracle I win.

The next round starts quickly. I’m playing against “Dave” on “Whoa Nellie” (2015), and the machine’s mammary theme (“Big Juicey Melons, Ripe ’n’ Ready”) make it look old enough for me to think I have a chance. Dave crushes me. Strike one.

“You know who that was?” says Dan. “That’s Dave Stewart! He’s top-20 in the world. You see all the initials ‘DBS’ on all the machines? That’s him!”

Later, Dave corrects me: “I’m top-30.” (But the initials are his.)

The next round starts quickly. I am again on “Whoa Nellie.” I try to become a third-rate Dave. It is enough. I am 2 and 1. I am a lucky fraud. I go outside and bum a cigarette from a nice woman in a black hoodie.

Round four is on “Stars” (1978). I attempt a slap save, but miss the flipper button entirely. I hump the machine to conduce bumper ricochets, but tilt my ball away. Strike two.

“Are you drunk?” says my opponent. “I am drunk. You have to hit peak drunkenness to excel at this game. If I am sober, I am bad. One beer, I am better. Two beers, I am great. After that, I get really bad, really fast. You know what it’s like? It’s like bowling.”

Round five, Sergei puts me on “Space Shuttle” (1984), which “celebrates NASA.” I am in a huge deficit and on my last ball when my foe sportingly says, “It just takes one ball!”

It is true. I can still win. I do not. Strike three.

Outside, Dan says, “I didn’t win a match. I’m glad this is my hobby, though. I was playing too much ‘Dota 2’ ”—the second-biggest competitive video game, or eSport, in the world. Ninety percent of the time playing “Dota 2” was miserable, he says. “There was too much pressure to win, and I didn’t make any friends.”

Back inside, I chat with the owners, Brad Johnsen and Travis Echert, who also run John John’s Game Room on Capitol Hill. I tell them I’ve become a junkie.

“What makes you like pinball?” says Brad.

“The culture,” I say. “Compared to other games, pinball isn’t nearly as aspirational.”

This is truer for players, who compete for top prizes of four figures and not seven, than it is for entrepreneurs. Add-A-Ball got started at the end of 2011, and, according to Johnsen, has “grown a lot” since then. The business model makes sense: Gaming culture is now mainstream, and taxation has not kept pace. For $50 a year paid to the City of Seattle for an “Amusement Device” license, plus maintenance costs, you can tap into a stream of quarters. Plus, people will buy beer. There’s more money in gaming than ever before; why shouldn’t pinball entrepreneurs get in on it?

At the center of the Seattle pinball scene is Ornelas’ Skill Shot, which boasts a circulation of 2,400 and a fortnightly podcast. The day after the Add-A-Ball tournament I drive with Alex to Flip Flip Ding Ding! in Georgetown. As fate would have it, there is another tournament, and my round-one adversary is Kayla Greet, who runs said podcast. “We usually get 200 listens,” she says while disemboweling me at a game of “Space Station” (1987). “We talk to everyone about everything—the Pinheads guys, who do maintenance; nationally ranked local players reviewing new machines; even Todd MacCulloch,” a Bainbridge Island resident whose neurological disorder allowed him to retire from the NBA and focus on pinball.

Katie Janis, the owner, notes the result, “CML loses,” on an iPad.

Next I lose to a gentleman named Terrence, who tells me he owns the 8-Bit Arcade in Renton. Alex loses to Levi, who owns the machines in this very establishment.

Soon Alex and I are eliminated. We drink more. “I am having some profound thoughts about pinball,” says Alex. “It’s about the relationship between choice and fate.”

It’s like what Charlie Martin told me at the Pinball Museum: “There’s one thing that pinball has that single-player video games don’t: an element of randomness to it.” In games like poker or Magic, this is inseparable from the psychological element: You make decisions based on incomplete information. In pinball, it’s the physical element that ensures some randomness: “Even the best players drain three times,” Kayla tells me; nobody is perfect in real time. And that, along with the game’s difficulty, the man-versus-himself element, and the close-knit community, helps explain competitive pinball’s cheerful and open spirit.

Man need never walk alone, bowl alone, tilt alone, pin alone.

“I’ve never won the tournament,” says Kayla. Alex and I stay until the end. She wins.

“The popularity of pinball has always been cyclical,” Charlie Martin has told me, “and we’re currently in a resurgence.” Everyone, everywhere, corroborates this. Greet: “We have 140 people playing across Seattle in a bar league every Monday, plus 15 to 20 in the monthly women’s league. And Todd MacCulloch!” Janis: “We opened about two years ago. Pinball is getting popular again. It’s been great to watch the scene grow in such a short amount of time.” Ornelas: “In Seattle, there are over 10 locations with five or more pins, and more are on the way. I’ll probably increase Skill Shot’s next print run, because most of the popular locations ran out.”

At Nine-Pound Hammer, a block down from Flip Flip Ding Ding!, Kayla is celebrating her flawless victory with two friends, Alexa and Travis.

Alexa says: “If you want to get better, just play more. I play a lot of those weeklies.” (The calendar on Skill Shot shows nine tournaments in the next week, from Edmonds to Renton.)

Then she says: “I’ve been a nerd all my life. I’ve gone to comic conventions and had people treat me well only because they wanted a female body. But I really was there to find comics for my collection, and they couldn’t deal with it. You know what the great thing about pinball is? I came in as a beginner, and nobody treated me like that, I was just a competitor—I’m ranked number 995 in the world!—and that’s what I love about it.”

As I head out, Kayla says: “Make sure to put that I won!”

CML, a freelancer in Seattle, has written for Gawker, The Daily Dot, and several other publications. He maintains a website at cmlwrites.com and a Twitter at @CMLisawesome.

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