Pinball is dying, most experts will tell you, but it's a slow death.
When Chicago's Williams Entertainment, the largest U.S. manufacturer of pinball machines, shut down its pinball production line in October 1999, it was a blip on the pop-culture radar, a 30-second story on the evening news. Only one other pinball manufacturer—Stern—remained to carry the torch, a task it has continued without much real innovation for the past decade. For instance, its forthcoming Iron Man 2 machine, despite its big-budget license, boasts a dot-matrix display—only slightly more advanced than the one you'd find on the front of a TriMet bus, and similar to the one Williams introduced in 1991.
In a 2008 story, Stern President Gary Stern told The New York Times that half his new machines (which, these days cost between $4,000 and $6,000 each) went to people's homes, not bars or arcades. In most American cities, machines are disappearing fast, and many machines still standing are in disrepair. Hardcore players often must play on private machines or travel to the last remaining specialty arcades or museums to get their fix. The New York City Pinball League, for example, lists 59 machines in 43 NYC locations.
But in Portland, the game is a little different. Local website portlandpinballmap.com lists 343 machines in 158 locations, the vast majority of them in Portland proper. Pinball, in short, is cool here. Classic, collector-quality machines are commonplace in the city's hippest bars, and a well-organized tournament scene—including this weekend's big Pin Brawl tournament—turns regular players into internationally ranked pros. The sport's influence is growing. But to find out why, you've got to start in Bellingham, Wash., where native Portlanders Sam Soule and Brinda Coleman spent their summer in 1993.
YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS: Sam Soule and Brinda Coleman at Bellingham's 3B Tavern, 1993. IMAGE: M S Day
"There was an Addams Family pinball machine in the basement of a [Bellingham] bar, and pinball just seemed to be a very attractive world," Soule says from the back room of Slabtown, the Northwest Portland bar he owns with Coleman. "It became a silly obsession." The next year, Soule (an occasional WW freelancer) followed Coleman to Boulder, Colo., where she would attend college. He took a job at Kinko's, and Multiball, an irregularly released compendium of short stories, pinball articles and randomness, was born as a way for the then-couple to give their pinball obsession a healthy outlet. Not that they were obsessives. "We were also nurturing a fascination with Planet of the Apes, " Soule adds. But the pair was ambitious, with "agents" all over the country who distributed boxes of Multiball to record and book stores. At its peak, Soule and Coleman printed about 4,000 copies—and the zine landed all over the world.
Soule and Coleman brought Multiball back to Portland with them in 1995, and the magazine expanded to accommodate more music. Before long, exclusive 7-inches were packaged with issues of Multiball—bands from Portland and beyond, all playing songs about pinball (the most notorious of these being a 1999 split between the Dirtbombs and fledgling Detroit garage-rock outfit the White Stripes, who contributed a spoken-word song about bowling-alley romance called "Hand Springs"). For kicks, Soule and Coleman began holding tournaments at clubs like North Portland's now-defunct Jockey Club and the east side's Chinese Tea House—occasionally mixing a pinball tournament with a local band's record-release party. A clear bridge had been built: Multiball had taken pinball back for the cool kids.
By the time Multiball fizzled out in 2004, the culture around it had already left an impression on guys like John Wray. Wray had spent the early aughts running with a loose Portland pinball crew called Team Rocket. They drank and played together—but mostly drank—often making new teammates of their worthiest challengers. As a sign of unity, the team's members would all enter the initials "RKT" on machines around town. A few members, including Wray, were hardcore enough to make a pilgrimage to Pittsburgh for the national pinball championship in 2003. But it was a far cry from the smoky bars of Portland.
"We realized we were the beer-drinking, hardcore pinball players," Wray says now, his bleached-blond hair falling out from under a black baseball cap to meet a beard of ZZ Top proportions. "We play in bars. We're not collectors, we're not techs, we don't own companies that service pinball machines. And that's who we were hanging out with [at the championship]. We couldn't even drink while we were playing pinball!"
Upon returning to Portland, Wray—now a bartender at Billy Ray's, a Northeast PDX haunt with five pinball machines—disbanded Team Rocket and started a new crew, one that better represented the marginalization he and his friends felt in the tournament world. Wray created a skull-and-flippers logo badass enough to match his new crew's name (stripped from the lyrics of the Who's "Pinball Wizard"): Crazy Flipper Fingers.
It's a drizzly Sunday night—Easter, as a matter of fact—and Jake "Rev Test" McGhee is the lone Crazy Flipper Fingers member at Slabtown, where the gang was supposed to meet at 8 pm. It's 8:15, and McGhee looks over his shoulder between balls on a machine called Whirlwind. Spotting no one, he refocuses, pulls back the plunger, and with just a few quick flipper slaps and a light hip-check, activates a new game mode. "FEEL THE POWER OF THE WIND," the game's dot-matrix display flashes menacingly, as a small fan built atop Whirlwind's backboard pushes a light breeze toward McGhee's head. Suddenly, he gets a hearty slap on the back. "Happy birthday, cocksucker!" Chris "OOO" Rhodes hollers. "Thank you," McGhee says calmly without looking up, his low-key pompadour unmussed by Whirlwind's feeble gusts. "HIDE IN CELLAR," the game warns.
Such are the hazards of life in a pinball gang: You pay your dues—a mysterious initiation process and lifelong sacrifice of your winning initials for "CFF"—to be a part of the team. But where Crazy Flipper Fingers once held a rep for being loud-mouthed and raw—more interested in getting drunk and talking shit than winning mainstream credibility in tournament play—many of its more recent members (42 of them in total, overwhelmingly male) are of a mellower stripe. The Fingers used to be run like a biker gang, John Wray says—it tested your character and dedication before extending an invite. Now he feels like CFF is relaxing its rules to draft some of the city's most talented players. "The Hell's Angels were the outlaw bikers, and we were the outlaw pinball players," he says. "It's not so much with us anymore." Wray takes a deep drag from his cigarette. "It seems like now the skilled players seek out other skilled players and say, 'Do you wanna be in?' But whatever. I'm CFF till death."
Noah Davis, CFF's latest recruit, is the tall 29-year-old silently kicking the shit out of Doctor Who in the back room. His wife, Emma, is at his side, playing a pretty respectable game of Swords of Fury (which occasionally screams the words "LIONMAN! LIONMAN!" in a gruff, Charlton Heston sort of way).
Davis, a Bay Area transplant, looks tough enough in his black CFF-logo hoodie and skullcap, but in conversation he's a nice, low-key guy and certainly not wasted. "I used to drive through the city, double park, then run in bars to see if they had a pinball machine," he says of his time by the Bay. "I'd say one in 10, maybe one in 20 bars had them." Moving to Portland saved him on both rent and pinball frustration. Davis, currently ranked 133rd in the world, competes in weekly tournaments and has seven machines of his own.
Whatever the Crazy Flipper Fingers' current DNA, even detractors admit the gang has played a sizable role in keeping Portland stocked with well-maintained machines. "We took a proactive look at pinball," says CFF's Josh "DDT" Brake, who sports a friendly, big-brotherly demeanor beneath pinball-themed sleeve-and-hand tattoos. "Somewhere on the machine, there's gonna be an operator card. So we'd just start dogging them with calls. We didn't know any of these guys, but if 30 people call them and say, 'Hey, your machine sucks, it's like playing in mud,' they're gonna listen." That, Brake says, sets off a chain reaction. "Bar owners want 15 dudes who each drink $100 worth of booze in their bar, and operators are stoked there's 15 dudes shoveling in quarters. Bars would have two machines, and then pretty soon they'd have three."
"Bar of the Gods has four machines because of us," Wray adds. "Ship Ahoy has four machines because of us…the Vern on Belmont, because I used to work there and the owner asked what it would take to get us to have meetings there, the Clinton Street.…" The list goes on. Crazy Flipper Fingers helped make pinball machines worth having.
THE DOCTOR'S OFFICE: Chris "The Pinball Doctor" Nash at Billiards Plus Family Arcade in Vancouver, Wash. IMAGE: Tom Patterson
More demand for pinball means more demand for pinball repair. The machines are complicated, and no two are exactly alike. Slide the glass off a machine and pull out its playfield, and you'll find its underbelly to be a mess of colored wires (which come unsoldered), metal coils (which lose elasticity), fuses and bulbs (which burn out). The speeding metal ball itself, over time, destroys a machine's paint, breaks rubber stoppers and gets lodged in strange places if a machine isn't properly maintained. These problems are exacerbated as parts for '90s games—widely considered the golden era of pinball—get harder to find. While local vendors like Mountain Coin and Quality have "route operators" who maintain the machines the companies rent or sell, a bustling secondhand market means that many of the repair and rebuild jobs go to guys like 50-year-old Chris Nash, Portland's "pinball doctor."
Nash, a self-taught pinball whiz with a well-trimmed mustache atop a giddy Leave It to Beaver smile, used to steal money from his mom's purse to play pinball. His first game was Capt. Fantastic, based on the Elton John album of the same name. By the time he was 20 years old, Nash had a house full of games he knew how to fix, a skill he'd put to use later in life. For most of the past 30 years, Nash has avoided day jobs: A family inheritance and his knack for fixing and reselling machines (as a hobbyist, he says—he buys broken machines, flips them and makes a modest profit—but the fun for him, he says, is in the work itself) has kept him afloat.
Nash represents the old school of pinball repairmen: He avoids computers like the plague ("That's why I do pinball," he says). But between knowing everyone involved with the local pinball economy and building a word-of-mouth reputation, he could have plenty of work. Only he doesn't want it—the Portland pinball-flipping market has "gone sour," he says: "There's just too much competition." These days, Nash is in semi-retirement. "I like pinball as a hobby, but I don't want to die being on the hook for somebody," he says. "I'd love to be buried in a pinball machine, I just don't want to die doing it."
As the old guard retreats, new opportunities arise for people like Jeri Ellsworth. Ellsworth, the co-owner of upstart Portland pinball distributor Ricochet, discovered pinball at age 14, when she was working in a bowling alley. "I've always been fascinated with electronics and mechanical things," she says from a table at Voodoo Doughnut Too, which carries five of her machines and a custom-made hockey table. "So this pinball machine—as this oddity with flashing lights and mechanics—was really fascinating to me." She built her own machine shortly thereafter, wiring its bumpers to an electronic calculator to keep score. This is the kind of project Ellsworth undertook when she should have been doing homework. She wouldn't graduate high school.
Still, Ellsworth's fascination with mechanics has led her to an equally fascinating life: At just 35, she's already owned and sold a chain of computer stores, designed a best-selling toy (the Commodore 30-in-1 Direct to TV, a videogame system retrofitted into a controller that sold 70,000 units—at $29.95 a pop—the day it went on sale on the QVC Network) and co-hosted a Web TV show (The Fatman and Circuit Girl, in which Ellsworth explains "how to drive solenoids with variable strength by pulse-width modulation" and builds a 52-inch Etch A Sketch out of a high-definition TV). Her latest venture was going to be opening a pinball-centric arcade with Ricochet co-owner Trish Hess. The pair rented out a storefront at Northeast 60th Avenue and Glisan Street, and began collecting machines. But the downturn in the economy made them rethink their strategy—the storefront became a workshop, and Ricochet became a distribution company instead of an arcade.
What makes Ricochet special is Hess and Ellsworth's attention to detail. They buy custom-colored flippers to fit each machine. They added a man-eating mechanical dinosaur to the top of Voodoo Too's Jurassic Park machine. Most importantly, Hess and Ellsworth—both avid players—are plugged in to the Portland pinball scene, and communicate with local players via message boards and Twitter. "I think some operators take it personally when people criticize their machines," Ellsworth says. "We try to just listen."
Voodoo Doughnut owner Tres Shannon, who switched over from another distributor to go with Ricochet, says they are perfectionists. "I just couldn't be happier with these two," Shannon says. "I mean, look at them!" Ellsworth and Hess look up quizzically from scrubbing the playfield of The Bally Game Show, a machine they recently drove to Southern California to pick up. "They do this all the time." Business-wise, Shannon says of stocking pinball games: "You make a little extra money without it being too much of a pain in the ass. And I like the flashing lights." He explains that in the early '90s, burned out on rock 'n' roll while running the now-legendary X-Ray Cafe, he started a pinball tournament between the cafe and Ozone Records. "I think it's always been a part of Portland. I don't think it'll ever go away."
Two kids enter Voodoo with their mother, and are immediately drawn to the colorful pinball game in the corner, Red & Ted's Road Show. Mom inserts quarters, but Ellsworth has to show the kids how to use the flippers. "They've never seen a pinball machine before," Mom says. Ellsworth helps show them how it works—she smiles brightly even as they slam their hands against the buttons at full force. Ellsworth, too, envisions a long future for pinball—even if hers looks a little different. She met with a group of like-minded enthusiasts at an event called Pinhack. They wanted to see if they could build a simple, full-sized machine of their own. They did it in a week. "It might take Stern dying to make someone step up and do it," she says. I ask if it could happen here, and Ellsworth smiles slyly. "The Portland Pinball Company? Why not?"
There are four pinball machines in the darkest corner of Slingshot Lounge, a three-year-old bar near Southeast 55th Avenue and Foster Road. It's holding a pinball tournament in a couple of hours. At the table closest to the machines, 22-year-old Zoe Vrabel and 25-year-old Aaron Nelson—both CFF members, though neither are flying the logo tonight—watch as Logan Bowden, a route operator with Portland upstart Quarterworld Vending, labors over a malfunctioning Indiana Jones machine. As Bowden twists his final screw, he asks Nelson whether the machine has any other problems. "Yeah, my balls keep going down the outlane," he says. "Can we stuff a sock in there or something?"
If Crazy Flipper Fingers is responsible for the proliferation of pinball machines in Portland, Nelson is the man snapping local players into shape. After moving to Portland four years ago, Nelson—a contractor and finish carpenter by day, barfly by night—started noticing "CFF" on many of the city's machines, mistaking the gang call sign as a person's initials. "I thought, 'If this person can do it, I can do it,'" he says with pride. "My goal was to get really good at pinball so I could take down this guy."
That competitive spirit permeates most aspects of Nelson's life—he's currently ranked 57th in the world, making him the highest-ranked pinball player in Portland. When hanging out with friends, he bets on everything, he says, so organizing pinball tournaments just seemed a natural thing to do. He's held ranked tournaments once a week at various bars for the past nine months. At these tournaments, Nelson runs a computer program that places the evening's competitors (anyone can play) into random brackets. Once the brackets are completed, he uploads the results to the International Flipper Pinball Association's World Pinball Rankings, which is accepted almost universally as the standard in pinball-player ranking. Sweden's Jorian Engelbrektsson is the current No. 1-ranked player. At first, Nelson had to bait friends to come, but now he consistently gets 20 or 30 players a week, and receives angry emails when he cancels. Nelson has a clinical way of explaining the tournaments, with traces of his Minnesota upbringing surfacing in his vowels. "No death saves, no bangbacks and no extra balls." I ask him what the crowd is like. "Tonight, we'll have lawyers show up, we'll have construction workers, we've got a grad student at OHSU. We also have sober people."
By 11 pm, most of the evening's remaining contestants will be somewhere between buzzed and tipsy. But at the tournament's onset, the safe money may ride on Kyle Poquette, the baby-faced 38-year-old Sysco Systems employee whose initials (KYL) currently grace top spots in eight or nine machines at Ground Kontrol.
The current Portland pinball scene, he says, is a lot less nerdy than the one he found after moving to Portland from North Carolina in 2003. Back then, the biggest game in town was the Portland Pinball League, a tight-knit group of aficionados without a ton of cultural cachet. "It was, like, anti-hip," he says. "I think that first week there were three of us, and it kinda had that same feeling you get when you watch that show To Catch a Predator. You walk in and go, 'Whoa, what's going on here? I don't feel so comfortable here,'" he laughs dryly. "Even though everyone was perfectly nice."
Poquette, on a bit of a roll, is one of the few solo players around unafraid to talk trash about CFF. "I think that, if you got all 25 Flipper Fingers together, that's about one really good pinball player right there," he said, deadpan. "But they seem to have gotten lucky recently with this guy Aaron [Nelson]."
By 9:30 pm, Poquette isn't talking so tough. "I got beat by a girl," he confides of his first-round loss.
For my part, I've decided to enter the $5 tournament to see if, like Poquette suggested, "anyone can really win." I get slaughtered. The secret to winning, Chris Rhodes tells me upon my exit from our short contest, is saying "fuck" a lot more.
At the end of the night, 15 opponents have fallen by the wayside and Nelson and Vrabel are left standing. Nelson makes it look effortless, racking up an outrageous number of points on a single Indiana Jones ball: 40 million, 50 million, 60 million.... His first ball winds up at 90 million points after his multipliers add up. When they move to Lord of the Rings for a final game, the result is just as lopsided. The same animation—of a horseman unceremoniously slicing an Orc's head off—appears on the screen countless times as Nelson shoots the same ramps again and again. Vrabel, on a bad-luck streak and perhaps a little drunk, can't keep up.
Tonight's stakes were low, but the second annual Ground Kontrol tournament that Nelson helps organize, Pin Brawl, raises them quite a bit. The year's event has pre-registered all of its 120 players at $20 a head, including No. 1-ranked U.S. player and all-around pinball celebrity, California's Keith Elwin. The grand prize is a cherry Johnny Mnemonic pinball table worth around $4,000, with cash and prizes for runners-up. Winners get bragging rights, too: With a high placing, Nelson could move up a few notches in the national rankings, increasing his visibility (and Portland's) on the pro pinball landscape.
Back at Slingshot, Nelson and Vrabel hug, finish their drinks and make sly jokes at each other's expense. But for Portland—a town where pinball has long been taken for granted—things are starting to get a little serious.
Six PDX pinball destinations, found with help from our fave iPhone app, the Portland Pinball Map. (We liked the app's home screen so much, we used it for our cover!)
511 NW Couch St., 796-9364
With 27 machines (including classic games like Attack From Mars and White Water), it's a good place to find both well-maintained games and competition.
1033 NW 16th Ave., 223-0099
Since opening three years ago, Slabtown has steadily increased its pinball offerings—there are now 12 total. It's notable for having a handful of 25-cent machines (including the charming Bad Cats) and fan favorites like Medieval Madness and Twilight Zone.
211 SW Ankeny St., 220-4001
A nice central pinball option with four machines (including Medieval Madness and Ripley's Believe It or Not!).
Voodoo Doughnut Too
1501 NE Davis St., 235-2666
With five machines (including The Bally Game Show and a tricked-out Jurassic Park), Voodoo Too is a nice option for the sober, hungry player.
14 NE 22nd Ave., 233-4181
Fast becoming a favorite spot among local pinball scenesters, the Standard rocks an impressive six games, including the great Black Knight 2000.
Clinton Street Pub
2516 SE Clinton St., 236-7137
An old Crazy Flipper Fingers haunt that features five machines, including the pinnacle of basketball-pinball fusion, the 1997 masterpiece NBA Fastbreak.
Local pinball odds and ends, Pinbrawl information, extra interviews, etc.
The second annual Pin Brawl tournament takes place at Ground Kontrol, 511 NW Couch St., 796-9364. 11 am Sunday, April 18. Registration is closed, but admission to the tourney is free for bystanders. Grand prize is a
pinball table. The Slabtown Showdown, another major tournament, takes place July 30-Aug. 1.