I’d like to tell you that I fell into handicapping pinball just like I did everything else in sportswriting – gradually and by accident. But the truth is that my experience in covering bumpers, flippers, and drains feels even more spontaneous. Almost like a ball, zipping from Point A to Points B and Z. Gaining rapid bursts of momentum just when everything appeared to slow down.
Heck, I almost “tilted” the wrong way on a prediction, and got away with it.
A website owner from Europe, where pinball is a big deal in a few locales, asked me to handicap a recent tournament in which players were getting action at sports betting sites. As per usual, a new topic seemed boring at first. I like pinball, used to own a machine, and still play (badly) every chance I get. But what unique information do I have to give anyone about the professional circuit?
In a genre in which “circuit” quickly becomes a double-meaning, no less.
But irascibility gave way to nostalgia, and a reality-check. I realized that it makes all kinds of sense for sportsbooks to include Pinball Futures markets along with novelty odds on movies, current events, and holographic combat.
We think of esports as something gamers can do without nurturing their physical health at all – of course that’s not true at all in present-day. A slovenly life leads to losing in any mental-reflex competition because the mind and body wear down together. Think of how the wine-and-song chess grandmasters of the early 20th century have been replaced by the Karpovs, Kramniks, and Carlsens of the world, bright-eyed and calculating King-hunters who treat wood-pushing as an endurance test.
Yet the game of pinball is not an entirely unsporting one even by an old-fashioned standard. “Pinheads” stand, flip, lean, and put their whole body into shots for hours on end.
Quite a few field sports and pub games don’t involve nearly as much “athletic” activity as all of that. Pool certainly doesn’t. Minnesota Fats probably couldn’t have been a pinball champion.
I posted a meek little preview with a random photo. It was a hit. Pinball enthusiasts shared it far and wide. That’s not supposed to happen to nickel-and-dime betting stories.
The Pinball Scene: Modest, Growing, Grateful
There’s an excitement around the game of pinball that I recognize from my days covering Junior College sports. You know that compared to the competition, the pool of people who actually care about your event is small. But it helps the journalist appreciate feedback when the feedback is special to get.
And when you’re one of the only people covering an underrated sport, the gratitude felt from those who do care is warming to the old soul.
Growing a fledgling sports (or gaming) scene is all about cooperation and trust, both of which abound in the pro pinball community.
You wouldn’t see a high-stakes World Poker Tournament in which a player was allowed to show up with a deck of special cards that she made, and no World Series contender is allowed to show up with communal balls and bats crafted to their preferences. But world-champion pinheads are often full-time arcade employees too, and are known to show up to compete in tournaments having designed the pinball machines that are in regulation use.
There is in fact a direct parallel from pinball-to-baseball in that sense. Within certain restrictions, ballclubs do get to design their own fields, parks, and walls for others to play them on.
Actually, make that a pair of parallels. Nintendo’s Baseball and Pinball cartridges were 2 of the most addictive video games of the 1980s. Baseball’s appeal was its representation of skilled 3-dimensional hardball in bits and bytes for the first time ever, but Pinball’s popularity was more practical. The all-consuming flurry of flippers and portals and pings no longer cost kids a quarter per play – a single purchase equaled years of free balls.
Still the Nintendo version of pinball left a lot to be desired in the strategy department:
Compare that to a bad boy from Stern Pinball’s The Simpsons line of machines, a modern classic series with “layered” adventures for ball and player. This one has a version of the TV show’s theme song that…let’s just say I’d be surprised if Devo had nothing to do with it.
Professional tours? World titles? Layered gameplay? It seems like there’s a lot our readers should know about 21st-century pinball…especially before they start betting on it.
Here’s a crash course. Try not to tilt your device, it’ll get us disqualified.
Top Pinball Professionals of the Last 5 Years
The current #1 pinball wizard in the world is Washington native Raymond Davidson. The reigning champ of the IFPA World Pinball Championship tourney leads the worldwide rankings with 1142.75 WPPR (World Pinball Player Rankings) points. The 26-year-old pinhead has been active for 11 years and has racked up close to double-digit 1st-place finishes in “Main Tournaments” which steer the rankings.
The software developer took home a “Ghostbusters” pinball machine after his victory at the 2017 World Pinball Championship in Denmark. Here he is taking home a slightly-smaller trophy for winning a state championship in Washington…replete with ‘tude-flashing pals in the background.
Carlsbad, California native Keith Elwin is acknowledged 2nd-best player in the world and has been eclipsing Davidson in key stat lines. The 47-year old is a wily veteran who has played competitively for 2+ decades and has 8 recent wins currently boosting his rank.
Elwin is a designer for Stern Pinball, the company which has made a fresh splash in the scene by attaching its name to a late-winter gala in Chi-Town.
34-year-old Daniele Celestino Acciari is the highest ranked non-American player in the world with 967.08 WPPR points. The Rocca di Papa, Italy native has excelled on the European scene in his 10 years on the pinball circuit. Acciari captured the IFPA World Pinball Championship in 2016 and placed 2nd in the 2018 competition. The 2019 World Pinball Championship is taking place in Assago (Milan), Italy, and Acciari is a threat to capture the World Title in his home country.
Johannes Ostermeier rounds out the worldwide top-5 rankings headed into mid-2019. The 17-year-old upstart could be a pinball “Mozart” – he’s been playing for 10 years and is one of the rising stars of the circuit, ranked 7th in the world with an efficiency stat of 59.57%.
Big Events in Modern Pinball
The recent Stern Pro Circuit Final on March 9, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois was noticed by odds-makers. #1 ranked Raymond Davidson was a slight odds-on favorite with a line of (+175) at MyBookie. But a handful of long-shot bettors were overjoyed as 36th-ranked Andy Rosa won the event at 75-to-1.
Just as importantly, the event was hosted by celebrities and streamed on YouTube and Twitch.
The IFPA World Pinball Championship held each summer captivates the pinball universe. 2019’s event features the top 64 wizards from many countries around the globe. Players from 22 countries will compete for the title and 17 players in the field have won past Major Championships. The championship is by far the most prestigious prize in the game.
North America’s pinball circuit will soon welcome some of the best players on the continent for another annual IFPA North American Pinball Championship. Winners from every IFPA State, Province, and District compete in a single-elimination bracket to determine the champion. The tournament is set in Las Vegas and features an assortment of cash prizes ranging into the $1000s.
The IFPA Women’s World Pinball Championship is an early-spring Vegas attraction as well, as 24 distaff pinball wizards compete for the biggest prize on the female circuit. Sunshine Bon was one of the few female pinheads to compete in Chicago and placed 2nd at the 2016 IFPA Womens World Pinball Championship. Here’s a shot of Sunshine in action.
The Diamond sponsors of the IFPA are Stern Pinball and Deeproot Pinball. In addition to sponsoring a Stern has released some of the most well-known games such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones, Shrek, Batman, Spiderman, and the Simpsons Pinball Party.
Studying a machine before playing it helps a player memorize bonus-multipliers and multi-balls to unlock among the layers, traps, and bonuses that a game has in store.
For example, when the song “Hell’s Bells” is played in the AC/DC game, the bell prop in the machine must be hit to activate bonus points.
While some gamers like to go where the machine wants to take them, others are satisfied to keep balls in play as long as possible while points are racked-up. Let’s look at the strategies and tactics of some of the most-decorated champions in modern pinball.
Strategy of Professional Pinball
Pinball wizards employ “rituals” to increase their confidence-level. Some rituals are simple. such as wiping down the lockdown bar to improve grip, and others are superstitious habits ingrained in seasoned veterans, like Wayne Gretzky leaving a side of his jersey un-tucked.
Once the ball is plunged, some players attempt to position themselves for a home-run shot with the left or right-hand flipper that can score big points. Conservative players search for particular shots they can always rely on. Whichever in-game strategy is preferred, it is wise for players to stick to a core strategy and not stray into another system mid-game.
Pinhead Roger Sharpe and his sons Zach and Josh (each among the current top-25 players in the world) have spoken out on the complexities of tackling a machine for the best results. Zach recently commented that his approach is comparable to a chess master’s, gaining step-by-step advantages and building up to a crescendo of smart and aggressive play.
Tactics differ on rescuing balls that are headed for the drain. Current world #1 Raymond Davidson recommends never pounding both flippers simultaneously to avoid an untimely lost ball, but golfers and pool sharks know just how much a subtle lean can impact the roll of an orb on a surface. Pinheads must delicately manipulate a machine’s equilibrium to try to steer wayward shots away from trouble.
It’s known as nudging, and it has served as a quasi-legal “cheat” in pinball for ages upon ages.
But if the nudging player applies too much force?
Well, we all know what happens next.
Bonus Ball: A Flippin’ Awesome Betting Tip on Pinball
Pinball is an anomaly in more than one way. For an underdog sport with a grassroots pro tour, the number of talented players is remarkable. I’m sure the bookies didn’t feel all too rosy when Andy Rosa bets paid-off at a premium in 2019, but for bettors, dark-horse “jackpot” picks are the name of the game whenever we can find them.
Look back at some of the scores from international hockey in the old days, or international soccer before media helped spread the best training techniques all around the globe. Typically, when there’s less money and less prestige in something, blow-away wins abound and the competitions always come down to a few expected favorites – such as “niche” or traditional folk sports in the Olympic Games which are are only ever publicized when the flame is lit.
The pinball scene is nothing of the sort. Successful “sleeper” picks in pinball aren’t relegated to the 3rd or 4th or 6th-best competitors in the field. Anything can happen. We saw that in the Windy City.
And the people in charge are doing a fine job of promoting those pinheads. I can vouch for that personally.
Now if I can just stop tilting the machine at the pub next door.