Blog: The Pinball Experience - A Beginner's First Tournament


This weekend I was able to attend my first pinball tournament. Being I have not been playing very long (about six months now), it was a new and interesting experience for me. The event, dubbed the "Fairfax Fall Classic Open", was held over the course of two days (Friday/Saturday, 12/2 and 12/3) at John's Place Restaurant & Bar, in Fairfax, Virginia. Pinball collectors normally store some of their pinball machines here at John's Place, and they also hold a weekly league there on Monday nights. Occasionally, like this past weekend, they hold major tournaments as well.

The turnout for this event about 30 people total, well under what was expected from what I can tell (accounts from the bartenders stated that in the past, the pinball room was nearly shoulder-to-shoulder, which was hardly the case this weekend). Still, there were plenty playing, and plenty from all over. Some of these guys (and gals) were local, while others came from an hour or two both North and South of Fairfax. Some came from Maryland, and even a handful of people made the trip all the way down from Pittsburg, PA, which can be a four or five hour drive from here!

The main draw of the event, asides from socializing with other fellow "pinheads", is the main tournament that was held on Saturday. Qualifying tickets could be put in by players for either the A (Pro) or B (Novice) divisions, and the proceeds accrued from the entries was to be split and handed out to the winners of the tournament. There was also a "Classics" tournament that was held on Friday night, to add to the competitive feel. More on those later!



I personally arrived shortly after the place opened on Friday afternoon (around 1PM). The first thing I noticed when I walked in the door was the brand-new, limited-editionTron: Legacy game by Stern. Now, I know a lot of people aren't fans of Stern's latest offerings, but I personally enjoy them, and I have to say, this one (the Limited Edition, anyway) just looks beautiful. The playfield has some cool, unique icons on it instead of the typical arrows, and the heavy dose of neon lighting, including the lighting not in the standard cabinet, is right up my alley. It sounds great, too, using some of my favorite parts of the musical score from the movie, with the ending theme (for those that have seen it) as the main backing tune in the game. Simply awesome!

There were also quite a few other games that were brought in just for this event, ones that are not typically at this bar. They included the Twilight ZoneMonster BashSpace StationSwords of FuryEight Ball DeluxeJoker Poker (solid state version), Captain Fantastic (electro-mechanical version), and a working Star Trek: The Next Generation (the one housed at John's Place has several issues, unfortunately).

As this is the first event like this that I have attended, I spent the first hour or two trying to get familiar with how things work. Apparently some machines were off-limits, for use only in submitting qualifying entries for the main tournament. The Tron machine was one of these, and I made the mistake of starting a game on it without buying a qualifying ticket. Oops, bad idea! The second I started the game, three people were on me fast, almost as if I had killed someone (not that I would know). I quickly backed off the machine and said I was sorry, just going along with what they were saying. I was completely oblivious to these rules as they were not listed on the web site.

Afterwards, I did purchase my first B Division (Novice) entry and played three games--Tron, Monster Bash, and Skateball. Someone important-looking (holding a clipboard) watched over me as I performed rather poorly, and they wrote down my scores after each game. When I was finished with all three games, I had to give them my signature to verify the scores were correct and that I would put the entry through. My scores were submitted then to the head-honcho who entered them into a database via a live computer set up they had running. The neat thing about this is that players like myself could then go up to an active monitor screen to see the then-current qualifying rankings. This also showed whether you were above the line or below the line, i.e., nested for double-elimination play, or single-elimination play.



To keep this from being too boring to the videogame-only people that may be reading this blog, I took a break a couple of hours in on Friday to take a trip to eStarland. They had a buy-two-get-one-free sale going on, so I ended up walking out with nine games, three of which were free, all across a variety of platforms. These include Contra, Millipede, Bump 'n Jump, and Super C for the NES, the Gottlieb Pinball Hall of Fame collection and Ridge Racer for the PlayStation Portable, Taito Legends for the XBOX, Alien Front Online for the Dreamcast, complete in the large box with the microphone, as well as Dave Mirra's Freestyle BMX for the Dreamcast (I am trying to acquire a complete US Dreamcast collection, so don't say anything). I am now officially up to 212 NES cartridges, and 113 CIB Dreamcast games! Continuing ooon..

I came back just in time on Friday for the "Classics" tournament that started around 7PM. It was a quick single-elimination tournament that featured games of the pre-dot matrix display era. Players were randomly paired together, each having a pick of what machines to play, best two-out-of-three. I was paired up with one of the guys that came all the way down from Pittsburgh, and naturally I got knocked out fast. Actually, our first game on Space Station (a very cool table, by the way) was pretty close. Like a lot of the new tables brought in, I was unfamiliar with this one but managed to control the ball well enough and nail some solid ramp shots. Of course, I didn't know what anything else did, so I was just hoping to nail something good. Our second, Skateball, if I remember correctly, was a little more lop-sided. This is too bad actually, as I am more familiar with this one. I think I may have actually tilted the game on one of my balls though, which is not a good thing in tournament play.

For the rest of Friday night, I practiced on varying tables that were open-game. Early Saturday afternoon I returned to practice some more, and to improve my qualifying entries (unsuccessfully).

Around 4:30 PM, the main tournament hit! In it, players were placed into either double elimination or single elimination brackets, depending on how well they did with their qualifying entries. Because I performed below-average on my entries, I was placed into the single-elimination bracket. Much like the Classics tournament, I was knocked out first. I played three games against the first person I was paired with, but because his best qualifying entry was worse than mine, he got a choice of two tables, and I got one. Here is the breakdown on what happened:

The first game he picked was Swords of Fury, one I had never played, and one he was clearly familiar with. I was able to catch on to the table pretty quickly though, and despite him knowing it better, his score wasn't too much higher than mine. I tried to continually make calm, educated shots, going for the various ramps, and getting the ball to the mini playfield at the top-left of the table. All in all I really like this one. It's very reminiscent of games like the 1980 Black Knight, with the medieval theme and the separate playfield up top. It's definitely one I will look out for to try again.

The second game we played was the 2011 Rolling Stones by Stern (my pick). This is one I am very familiar with, being it's one of my favorite games to play at this bar, and one with a ruleset I know very well. I demolished him on this one, getting a couple of times-two multipliers on ramps (basically, scores permanently doubled on those ramps until the end of that ball), and focusing on activating the massive-points modes on top of the obligatory multiball modes, modes that I am pretty good at managing in that game.



The last pick (back in my opponent's court) is an older Gottlieb game called "Volcano". This is another regular table at this bar, but I generally try to stay away from it as it seems to have issues whenever I play it (the biggest one being that the ball gets stuck under the playfield, thereby ending the game as it never reappears). He ended up beating me on this one as well, but I was playing well on my one real ball of play. Two of my balls were drained simply because of being unfamiliar with the game. The first ball immediately landed on the right flipper after the plunge, only to roll behind the slingshot and down the unique outlane before I could realize it was a different kind than usual. The other failed ball went down the left-side outlane, in which I thought the kickback would activate and pop it back up into play. Nope, it didn't--apparently it's a manual kickback with a button on the left side of the cabinet that triggers it.

So, with the tournament officially over for me, I mainly just played various machines for the rest of the night. Which wasn't really a terrible thing, actually. I ended up beating my old The Getaway: High Speed II score, nailing a nice 226 million! Granted, it was only two-million points above my last personal record, but still, and improvement is an improvement, and a score like that in The Getaway is great to me, a killer game. My scores in that game generally average between 50 and 100 million, as it's a game with very short ball times unless you are extremely accurate and disciplined with your shots. Throughout the event I also had some great games on the Rolling Stones, much more than usual, actually (there must be something about playing around people, it seems like I do better!), and I also learned a few new tricks on Jack*Bot.

During the tournament, all of the initial tournament-qualifying machines went up for play for anyone already knocked out. At that time I was finally able get my grubby hands on Tron, as well as spend some time with Monster Bash and the Twilight Zone. My favorite part of the weekend actually came right at the end of the tournament though, where a couple of the guys and I played several four-player games of Tron. We each put up a dollar for each game played (not much, but enough to make it fun), and the winner got to take the pot. We played about five games, and I won three of them! It was actually very liberating, as one of the guys came in 2nd in the A Division tournament, another was a B Division champ at one time, and another owned a couple of the machines in there, whom by default had more experience than me. My balls lasted long, I had some great last-second saves, and I was able to nail some of the trickier ramps without a lot of trouble.



With that, I learned quite a bit this weekend, and I was able to put everything I absorbed to great use by the end of the night, adapting like one should in this scenario. For the person that isn't familiar with the competitive end of pinball, here are a couple of the things I learned this weekend that may be useful for a newcomer:

  • Be ready to play in a calm, disciplined manner. Stressing will not help you focus better. Remember, this is supposed to be fun. Have fun with it, focus, and you will likely play better.
  • You are going to be playing some games you are completely unfamiliar with. Do not flail the flippers wildly. Catch and cradle every ball you possibly can and make educated shots!
  • If it's a new game (to you), examine the table before playing. Take a minute or two to see what the outlanes look like, and look at the cabinet itself to see if there are any extra buttons on the machine itself (for instance, buttons for magna-saves, manual kickbacks or lane changers).
  • If it's a new game (to you), examine the table while playing. Catch the ball, take a breath, and look around the table to see where you need or want to shoot next.

So, in the end, despite losing, I learned a lot in the process and had fun at the same time. I got some great practice in an active environment (something I am not used to), and I was also able to fufill my intentions of gauging where my skills stand (i.e., am I better than I expected, or am I worse than I expected?). I have to say that I am very comfortable with where I sit right now, and I am already looking forward to the next tournament in February!

For those that would like to see some photos I took of some of the machines at the event, please refer to the PhotoBucket links below. Please disregard the quality, they were taken on a smartphone with a low-end, 3.2 megapixel camera:

Anyways guys.. Thanks for reading!

Oh, and I am looking forward to this as well....



Throughout my life I have been an avid gamer. My early years in particular consisted of growing up with platforms like the Atari VCS/2600, NES, and Master System. Naturally, that led into platforms like the Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, Sega CD/32X, Sega Saturn, Virtual Boy, etc. In the mid to late 1990's, I realized (as a fledgling teenager with little disposable income) that I could obtain those systems that I once thought were completely out of my reach as a child (Neo-Geo, Atari Jaguar, CD-i, 3DO, etc.), and it was from there that I went into a long-term phase of discovering, experiencing and collecting consoles--just about anything I could get my hands on. While I enjoy the occasional modern game, these days time is limited outside of my many hobbies, so I tend to hover towards quick pick-up-and-play types of games, via generations I truly grew up with: Shoot 'em ups, arcade style beat 'em ups, platformers, light gun shooters, and racing games. Not to mention pinball games, something new (to me) that has become a main focal point of interest. In addition to the podcast with Kris, I also create a variety of content on my own YouTube Channel, including video game reviews, Long Plays, and Let's Plays. Many of these you will be able to find here at IMPLANTgames!