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Balls of Steel 

With help of a ‘zine, a bi-monthly tournament and the indelible lure of the game itself, pinball is on a roll.

click to enlarge YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak

Pinball is one of the few things in the world that can convert a nonbeliever into a zealot with a mere two dollars’ worth of quarters. Everyone loves pinball, even if they don’t know it. All you gotta do is get them in front of a machine — the machine takes care of the rest.

This is Anthony Rice’s fervent belief. Rice (his initials are AWR on area pinball scoreboards) is the nerd behind the Pinheadz ‘zine and the “Flipper Follies” pinball tourneys which take place at the Lion’s Lair on the first Thursday of the month, and at Irv’s on the third Thursday. “My goal is to develop a community — to get people to play,” says Rice. “The tournament gives people a competitive feeling to make them try a little harder and make friends in the process.” The biggest tool in his arsenal of conversion is spare change.

Upon arriving at Lion’s Lair recently for a tournament, I told Rice that I was just going to watch — and without even breaking eye contact, he dumped a few quarters into my hand and pointed at one of the machines. After two balls, I was hooked.To the neophyte, pinball is visually stimulating — and physically stimulating — before you even know what the hell you’re doing. You’re just slapping and flapping, making noises, making shit light up. It all seems to work well enough, and you’re enjoying yourself.

Then, after a bit of practice, you shoot with purpose, moving the ball, touching the machine with gentle finesse or rough fervor to guide your tiny steel proxy through the inner workings of your labyrinthine conquest so that you may receive a glowing score or even a free game. And when it’s done, you smile in a daze as the machine’s ecstatic “DING!” alerts the entire room to your prowess. “When you beat the machine — when you cross that numerical threshold and the machine makes that loud popping noise — it’s semi-orgasmic,” explains a man named Greg (initials GAE on the leader boards). He’s been playing pinball his entire life.

Pinball’s virtues are many, rooted in the near-nostalgia of generations of kids who didn’t want to grow up. There’s a shared cultural history surrounding the game (see: The Who’s Tommy). There’s also the latent post-industrial desire to aggressively unite with a machine (see: Zappa’s Joe’s Garage, Luke Skywalker’s cyborg hand, Nine Inch Nails’ entire musical output).

Pinball has immediacy; it’s visceral. Unlike a videogame (the Wii excluded), actual actions are causing reactions in real time, and unlike a game of pool, the player is constantly engaged and constantly on their toes — the player is fully involved. “Peeing is the only thing that supercedes pinball — aside from that, there is nothing else but the game when you play,” advises a man named Steve (who goes by SLH on the scoreboards).

There’s also an odd kind of nuance created by all that physicality. Real moving parts create an infinite array of variables — which affects play and lends personality t0 individual machines. Any number of factors — dirt, gravity, the level of the machine, the green circuit spaghetti beneath the playfield — are what produce the personality of a particular pinball machine. “There are 10 to 12 Addams Family machines in town, and no two will ever play the same,” said George Zil (aka ZIL), a tech guy from System Amusement, who came in at the last tourney to fix the slingshots on Theater of Magic. “Arcade video games can be duplicated on a home console — [but] there is no true randomness with video.”


EAST SPRAGUE TRIFECTA

If you should ever find yourself on East Sprague, we humbly suggest this tight-packed crawl of classic pinball action.

1) Start at the Checkerboard Tavern (1716 E. Sprague) for the prestidigitory Theater of Magic pinball. Anthony Rice is a big fan: “It’s like a friend’s house. If I want to smoke, I just step outside. This is a cool place.” (And Checkerboard owner Keith Raschko can play some ball.)

2) Move eastward to the Rainbow Tavern, grab a beer and a shot, and mount up on Indy 500 pinball. Don’t look now, there are strippers to your starboard!

3) Walk east another couple blocks, and cross the street (when safe) to Zip’s, where they have the original Jurassic Park pinball in the vestibule. Oh, God! The T. rex ate the ball off the loading dock!


And this creates an intriguing paradox. Pinball’s greatest strength is exactly the thing that makes it a pain in the ass to keep up and maintain. The fact that stuff will go funny on a pinball machine is just a fact of nature — maintenance is a necessity. But the path to proper maintenance is paved with shirked responsibility. See, the bar doesn’t own the machine, the amusement company does. If the machine isn’t bringing extra business, the bar doesn’t care if the machine works — and the amusement company doesn’t care about the bar’s business, only about whether the pinball machine is bringing in the quarters. And you, you don’t know one way or the other — that is, unless you go play some damn pinball. Which is also the way to ensure that individual machines are maintained.

So Rice’s quest for pinball enlightenment has a selfish angle. The more pinball nerds he converts, the smoother his favorite tables will play.

For a game that is, by nature, either solitary or competitive, the fraternity formed around pinball is remarkable. Even two strangers playing each other for the very first time can bullshit and laugh and commiserate over the common sturm und drang of pinball. I find myself — more often than I would have suspected — running into folks I’ve played against. If there’s a machine nearby, we often throw down.

The attendance at the tournaments tends to fluctuate, though they’re clearly gaining momentum — at a recent Flipper Follies event at Lion’s Lair, I recognized only two of the staple nerds, but the place was packed. Anthony was delighted. Word’s gettin’ out. All 500 copies of the latest issue of Pinheadz have been snatched up, and people are talking about it. “Some kid from my work kept bugging me to come,” some guy I didn’t recognize said. Then he went off and got hooked on the hot pinball action. Told you: everybody loves pinball.

Double-elimination tournaments begin at 6 pm on the first Thursday of every month at Lion’s Lair, 205 W. Riverside Ave., and on the third Thursday at Irv’s, 415 W. Sprague. Cost: $5. Call 456-5678 or 624-4450.

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