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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Where Have All the Pinball Wizards Gone?

Joshua Henderson is a young boy, and he plays the silver ball. At a time when most of his contemporaries would probably rather play games on high-tech consoles like the PlayStation 3, Henderson is an expert player in a shrinking breed of gaming: pinball. Though only one major pinball machine maker remains, competition among the elite remains fierce.

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If pinball is going to come back, to regain rock-opera level cultural primacy rather than more pizza-parlor corner dust, it probably starts with scenes such as this.

In the foreground there is a father, petroleum engineer Mark Henderson. "My son's Joshua," he says. "He is 11 years old. He's a pinball wizard out of Plainfield, Ill."

In the background there is Josh, a tall, bespectacled boy, leaning into a pinball game with a NASCAR theme. His look is intent, his chest touching the table's end, his eyes over the top of the flippers.

When the ball heads up the table, nestling into some point-tallying nook or just rattling against bumpers, he takes the available seconds to remove his hands from the flipper buttons, roll the fingers, flex them, stretch them.

It is a move that is almost cocky. Josh, as he is mostly called, has been a champion before and is trying to be again.

The Last Pinball Maker

He is at a Woodfield Mall adjunct in Schaumburg, Ill., standing in a GameWorks, one of those places that is all flashing lights and pleas for more tokens. There are four games -- "Ripley's Believe It or Not," "Family Guy," the brand new "Batman" and "NASCAR" -- lined up on the center of the supersize arcade's main floor, liberated from their usual, much lonelier spot upstairs.

The games -- elaborately decorated battles against gravity -- are all made by Stern Pinball, a Melrose Park, Ill., firm that is the world's last manufacturer of pinball machines.

Gary Stern, who runs the company, will stop by later to offer support Linux MPS Pro - Focus on Your Business - Not Your IT Infrastructure. $599.95/month. Click to learn more. for this event. Nobody wants a pinball revival more than Stern, who had to lay off some key employees in October, as the economy accentuated a steady decline in game sales from the 1990s.

He has high hopes, though, for a new game based on TV's "CSI." "It's great because it's got a skull" that becomes part of the game-play, says Stern.

Meet the Champions

A group of young men, most in their 30s, is near Josh Henderson. They are trying to become champions, too, and many of them have credentials to back up those hopes: Three of the world's top 10 players, as ranked by the International Flipper Pinball Association, are on hand.

There's Trent Augenstein, ranked No. 6, from Ohio, who supports his competitive pinball hobby with a Pump It Up: The Inflatable Party Zone franchise and a tourist cave, the Olentangy Indian Cavern. He's 40 years old, soft-spoken, wearing a fleece hat shaped like a jester's.

And there is also the first family of pinball, Roger Sharpe and his sons Zach and Josh. Roger wrote the definitive book on the game, 1976's "Pinball!" Josh and Zach are ranked Nos. 4 and 7, respectively, and they're running the tournament as well as competing in it.

With his boys and a colleague, the Arlington Heights, Ill., resident founded the IFPA, hoping to promote the game, make some sense out of a hodgepodge of tournaments and ranking systems, and goosing "the public's interest [in] and accessibility to competitive pinball."

This three-day tournament, the first that the national GameWorks chain has sponsored, is one example, and it's big news in the pinball world.

Although Chicago remains the world's pinball capital -- because Stern is here, other manufacturers were, and because so many top players are -- "there hasn't been a major tournament in Chicago in about 15 years," says Roger Sharpe, a onetime managing editor of GQ who dumped print journalism for pinball in the '70s, a move that would seem logical now but back then was more whimsical. "The level of play has been exceptional."

'What Sport Is Your Kid Into?'

Sharpe is playing Josh Henderson in the first round of the finals, and for all his physicality with the machine -- he plays as if he's trying to load it into a narrow space on a moving truck -- he isn't having much luck.

On his style, "my sons call it 'spray and pray,' " Roger Sharpe says. "I like to think of it as 'gun and run.'"

"Nice ball," he says to Josh Henderson, after Josh tallies 5.59 million points on his first ball in the "NASCAR" game.

Roger racks up 2.57 million points before losing a ball, theatrically. "I'm not playing smart," he says. "The whole idea of pinball, you can't fight the machine."

As they play, Josh Henderson's mom sits in the background, just outside the cordoned-off area, handing her only child water but not advice.

Peggy Henderson describes Josh as a very good student with no animosity for that great modern rival of pinball, video games.

He likes and plays all the game systems, but he loves the holdover from the 19th century, pinball, she says.

"He's got trophies at home from Dallas, Pittsburgh," Peggy says. "You know how everyone always says, 'What sport is your kid into?' This is great. This builds his self-esteem."

And he does seem to have what his dad says he recognized early as "pinball intelligence" -- the ability to not just fight to keep the ball in play, but to work the flippers and target the ball.

"He memorizes the games," Peggy says. "He knows exactly what to shoot for, where the points are."

Josh Henderson is not effusive about the game, characterizing it as "really fun."

It's not so much fun for Roger Sharpe. He loses that game. They move on to "Family Guy," where a Josh win will eliminate Roger in the best-of-three series, an outcome the latter describes as "not an upset."

Shrinking, but 'They'll Always Be There'

What would be an upset is if pinball were to come back in any profound way. Sure, companies sometimes install pinball games in their offices to try to promote a sense of "fun."

And the collectors' market is hot, with used games commanding high prices and being installed in basement rec rooms, probably alongside vintage jukeboxes.

But out in the arcade world, the average number of pinball machines per operator is in modest decline, according to an annual industry survey taken by Play Meter magazine.

The machines take in about US$50 a week, the report says -- way below the $70 to $100 that various video game configurations take in.

"Pinball is a very historic segment, like jukeboxes, and they'll always be there," says Bonnie Theard, Play Meter's editor. "But as far as a resurgence, there were once [a number of] manufacturers making them, so I don't see that happening again."

And the whole world of entertainment options is conspiring against the game, everything from PlayStation to Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX) Latest News about Netflix to the increasingly powerful mobile Take the FREE Motorola AirDefense WLAN Security Assessment. Click here. phone.

Players can wax rhapsodic about the unpredictability of a pinball, the improvisation required, a machine's physical presence. But rhapsody doesn't put quarters in slots.

Even the Schaumburg tournament, which received a lot of advance publicity, drew fewer than five dozen players, when organizers had been hoping for double that.

'I'm Keeping the Games All Down Here'

In the end, Josh Henderson does knock off Roger Sharpe, easily.

In his first game against Trent Augenstein, a contest to reach the semifinals, Josh Henderson tallies a spectacular third ball on the "Batman" game, going from 5 million to 35 million points.

Augenstein, on his last ball, is in the low 20s when he nudges the machine too hard, it tilts, and he loses. ("Dude," says Josh Sharpe to Augenstein. "Dude? Dude.")

But the ranked player rallies and puts Josh Henderson away handily in the next two games. Josh Henderson, still learning to play two balls at once as the better players do, accepts their encouragement to keep at it, holding the game's future in the fingers he uses to push the buttons.

And there is, in an ending that also saw Josh Sharpe win the event, some very good news for pinball. Not only do the organizers think GameWorks will sponsor future tournaments, but the Schaumburg store's general manager, Jim Olson, has had an epiphany.

"After this tournament, I'm keeping the games all down here," he says. "They're going to skyrocket."

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