Put a steel ball and a couple of flippers in the hands of deceptively gentle looking Bowen Kerins and you've got a killer pinball player.
Kerins can pass the ball from one flipper to the other like a soccer player juggling a ball, lining up the best shot. When he has multiple balls shooting around the pinball table, sometimes he hits one off another like billiard balls. He often taps lightly on the top of the machines, nudging the ball in the right direction without "Tilting" or defaulting. And, if he times it just right, he can pull off a "death save" or a "bangback," Incredibly resurrecting the ball after it has dropped below the flippers.
In 1994, Kerins shocked the coin-operated game world by winning the Professional and Amature Pinball Association championship on his first try. After 20 years of pulling the plunger (the trigger that starts a pinball game), Kerins says he only spends $2 a week on his hobby, since two quarters can last him from 15 minutes to more than an hour on a single game.
Now the world champion is working on a new trick: starting the Boston Pinball Association.
Last month at Salem Willows arcade in Salem, Kerins met with 12 pinball players of all skill levels and passed out copies of the rules for the first Boston Pinball Association tournament. Players Competed in each of five rounds on a pinball machine of their choice. There were three ball to a game: if players earned extra balls, they had to be plunged not played.
"plunged only - not played?" said Jeff Pennisi, one of the players. "this is tough!"
Pennisi learned about the event via rec.games.pinball, and internet newsgroup for pinball aficionados, and brought his girlfriend, Chrystal Feeney, and friend Doug Chaput. Pennisi use to repair the pinball machines at Canobie Lake Park in Hew Hampshire, waxing the playing fields every two weeks and cleaning all the ramps. Now he and Chaput repair pinball machines, installing new parts and rewiring circuits.
Kerins, who works at Math Works in Natick, has started pinball leagues before. After his suprise victory in 1994, he founded a league in San Francisco that is still going strong. He attempted to start one in boston two years later, but it fizzled when he couldn't find anywhere he liked in the area to play.
That was long before Kerins heard of the Salem Willows, witch he calls "the best place to play pinball in Massachusettes."
"We've always had a lot of pinballs," said Troy Campbell, general manager of the arcade, but he said that in recent years the number has shrunk from 30 to 14.
Pinball, which has been a staple of bars, bowling alleys, and arcades since the 1930s, has lost ground to today's state-of-the-art videogames. In the 1990s the number of commercial pinball machines in the United States dropped from 1 million to 300,000 and three of the world's four pinball manufacturures closed shop.
Pinball however is far from dead. High-tech theme machines such as "Austin Powers" and "Playboy" are designed to draw new players, and vintage games are still cherished, and even collected by pinball connoisseurs.
George Carroll, winner of the first Boston Pinball Association tournament, counts himself among old-school players. "I was born in an arcade," he said. "Today, with all the bells and whistles, they just don't make them like they use to."
Ironically, Carroll won the tournament on "Monopoly," the newest machine in the arcade. While complaining that the jarring electronic noises of newer games should be replaced with old-fashioned bells, He beat his final opponent Gadi Reinhorn by 8 million points.
The night was not just for old hands: 12-year-old Caroline Colombo, who came with her entire pinball-playing family, won third place, and almost did better. She was poised to beat Reinhorn on the "Twilight Zone," witch she owns at home, but at the last minute Reinhorn racked up 50 million points by spinning his ball around a magnetic platform.
After the tournament, which is planned twice monthly, it was kerins's turn to spend his quarters.
He chose "Creature from the Black Lagooon." Far from just a confusing jumble of metal ramps, bumpers, and flashing lights, th machine, like all pinball games, represented a puzzle that had to be solved, bit by bit.
First he had to buy a movie ticket, open up the snack bar, and get a kiss from the girl - all by hitting the right targets at the right time - and then the movie would begin. His next tasks would be to search for the girl,, rescue her, and, finally, hit the jackpot, sending multiple balls skittering across the table. At one point, a three-dimensional hologram of the creature loomed from beneath the board as Kerins's score continued to skyrocket - 100, 150, 175 million points while the machine beeped uncontrollably.
Pinball's "a good release," said Kerins, in between balls. "It creates the same sense of satisfaction as any other sport played well"
How a Tournament Works
1. Entry fee for the tournament is $5.00 per player, due before the tournament begins.
2. In the first round, players are paired randomly.
3. For later rounds, players are paired accoding to record; if possible, players with identical records will play one another.
Example After three rounds, two players are 3-0, four players are 2-1, four are 1-2 and two are 0-3. in the fourth rounf, the players at 3-0 will square off, as will the players at 2-1 (in pairs), ect.
4. As an exception to rule #2, players will never play each other more than once, regardless of their records.
5. After five rounds, the tournament ends. Prizes will be awarded as follows:
First place: 40% of prize pool
Second place: 20% of prize pool
Draw winner: 40% to winner of random draw among all players who completed all five rounds (win or loose) but did not win first or second.
How a Match Works
1. Find your assinged opponent.
2. Flip a coin. If you can't decide who calls the toss, the shorter person calls it
3. The winner of the coin toss can either: A. Pick any game in the arcade to play for the match, or
B. Choose the order of play for the match. Note To encourage variety, Players may not select a game more than than once. You may end up playing the same game more than once, but you can't keep selecting the same one yourself.
4. The loser of the coin toss makes the remaining selection.
Example Beavis and Butthead flip, and Beavis wins the toss by calling tails. He Chooses to play the match on "Scared Stiff." Butthead then gets to choose the order of play, so he makes beavis go first.
5. Play the game. Some common issues:
A. Games last three balls regaurdless of the setting of the machine.
B. If a player earns an extra ball, it is to be Plunged only, not played
C. If you play out of turn of tilt your opponrnt's ball, you lose the game.
D. A Ball "drain" when it hits an outlane switch or drops below the flippers, While it is possible for the ball to bounce back from below the flippers, a player may not try to nudge a ball back into play after it has drained.
6. When the game ends, come back to have the score and results recorded.