Las Vegas Sun

October 31, 2014

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One planet, under pinball

In an increasingly divided and chaotic world, advocates pin their hopes on unifying, but waning, game

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Steve Marcus

Bowen Kerins of Salem, Mass., hugs Neil Shatz of San Francisco after Shatz tilted the machine in the IFPA World Pinball Championship, giving Kerins the victory, at the Pinball Hall of Fame.

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“I’m not suggesting that pinball is going to bring the world together,” Roger Sharpe says, right before he explains how pinball can bring the world together.

Not just pinball. He allows that there are also video games, movies and music.

“Those are the things that are going to bring us together in times that are a little more politically charged. Take a look out there. It’s utter chaos,” Sharpe says. “Entertainment can bridge that gulf.”

Sharpe, though, is the author of “Pinball!” which “many people consider the quintessential pinball book,” and co-chairman of the International Flipper Pinball Association, and so it is to pinball that he turns. Pinball is universal, he says. “Everybody has a story. Everybody has a part inside them that’s pinball. It’s comparable to a first kiss.”

It’s an odd moment to champion man’s salvation through pinball. Come to that, it’s a hard enough moment to be championing man’s salvation of pinball. More than 60 years after the introduction of the flipper, pinball is in trouble.

A decade ago there were maybe 2.5 million pinball machines in commercial operation. Now there are maybe half that. Only one company still makes pinball machines. But, Sharpe says, there are still millions of players.

It’s those players, Sharpe says, who will keep pinball alive. They’ll encourage bars and pizza parlors to buy new machines. They’ll do it by making pinball a social activity and a sport.

Sharpe turns his attention to a match in progress. It is the title bout in the IFPA World Pinball Championship, and Neil Shatz is deep in a hole on Cactus Canyon, the fifth table in a first-to-win-four series. Shatz is down 3-1.

“Oh my! It’s a showdown,” the pinball machine says.

Shatz hunches over the table, sweating, his head still, his thick glasses secured with a strap and his ankles crossed as he thrusts and leans into the table, slapping buttons.

“It’s like being a chess master and Tiger Woods all at once,” Sharpe says. “Think of the endurance — 30 hours over the last three days.”

When the tournament started Friday, Shatz, a 40-year-old statistical analyst from San Francisco, was one of 64 players who paid the $150 entry fee. Some players had traveled from as far away as Poland, Brazil and Japan. (Not that you could necessarily tell by looking at them, as the pinball fashion sense crosses all borders and would be at home in a high school audiovisual club of any of the past three decades.)

By Sunday, Shatz was one of only four players in the tournament. His first face-off is with Keith Elwin, 2007 player of the year and the No. 1-ranked player in the world.

But here, on the blue convention carpet inside the Las Vegas Pinball Hall of Fame on the corner of Pecos and Tropicana, where the air is thick with the tang of pinball sweat and players quaff chocolate Yoo-hoo from cans out of the soda machine, Shatz is beating the bumpers off Elwin. He goes through three eras of pinball machines: the electromechanical, the solid-state and the dot-matrix display, represented by Quick Draw, Captain Fantastic (an Elton John-themed table from the ’70s), The Amazing Spider-Man and the Theatre of Magic, racking up high scores, multiballs and replays. Elwin keeps triggering the machines’ tilt sensors and losing his balls.

“This is Neil’s kind of game,” says a member of the crowd as Shatz swings through Spider-Man. “Of course, they’re all Neil’s kind of game.”

There’s a slight stall, a small pothole on the road to victory in Cactus Canyon, when Elwin manages to win the table by some 34 million points. Still, it’s more of a technicality, since Shatz has already won the four games he needs to advance. Shatz recovers and goes on to win the sixth and final table.

(The rules governing the tournament, all 10 single-spaced pages of them, are somewhat elaborate.)

But now Shatz is in the finals against Bowen Kerins, a 32-year-old writer of math textbooks from Salem, Mass., and is back in Cactus Canyon, sweating. And he tilts it. The machine goes dark and dead in his hands. His ball bounces off lifeless bumpers and slides into the hole. The match is over. Shatz backs away from the table. Kerins comes over and hugs him. “Good game,” he says.

Later, the players gather in the parking lot for the awards ceremony. Elwin is crowned player of the year with a crown from Burger King. The trophies, big and small, all sport identical giant silver balls.

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