Pinball Machine Wizards

By Colleen Harper

On February 9th, 2014, Canadian pinball champion Robert Gagno of Burnaby, BC travelled to Bellingham, WA to compete in an International Flipper Pinball Association (IFPA) tournament hosted by local restaurant and rock venue, The Shakedown. It was Bellingham’s first IFPA tournament, and Gagno took first place among 34 IFPA registered competitors. Gagno is ranked 11th in the world, and 1st in all of Canada.  

PinballCollectiveFinal-1The tournament was planned by Collin Topolski, Heather Seevers, Josiah Cox, and Steve Prehoda (pictured far left). The four friends were drawn together by their fanatical love of pinball, and have spent many hours in each others‘ basements and garagestinkering away at machines. Moving eleven pinball machines twice in one day is no small feat, especially at 115–180kg apiece, but truly it was a labour of love. “We go play pinball and we want to make sure the machines are at the top of their game,” says Topolski. He chose not to compete because two of the five machines in the tournament were from his own collection, and a third had also spent weeks there. “I knew the machines too well, it just didn’t seem fair.” Playing a machine is only a small part of the allure of pinball for these enthusiasts, and they are not alone. 

A growing number of amateur players and hobbyist tinkerers are breathing new life into pinball. They call themselves ‘pinheads’ and ‘pinholics.’ IFPL-endorsed tournaments are happening, somewhere in the world, just about every weekend. Many pinheads grew up playing in arcades, so nostalgia is definitely part of the draw. “When I was a little girl, I had this friend named Jenny who had a pinball machine at her house. That was like the height of luxury to me then, owning your own pinball machine,” says Seevers, with a self-satisfied grin. In the digital 21st-century, pinball machines are refreshingly mechanical. As a player, it is your own skill versus the laws of physics, pushing a metal ball around a complicated play field, scoring points and unlocking surprises. A truly great pinball game can absorb a player into its story, with visceral action and rewarding sounds, until you run out of quarters to feed the machine. 

Shakedown Pinball TournamentThe rising popularity of video console games starting in the late 1970s took a big bite out of the market for pinball machine manufacturers. With all of their intricate moving parts, solid state pinball machines are significantly more difficult to maintain than arcade video games, and they take up about twice as much space. For Seevers and other vintage pinball enthusiasts, however, it’s exactly those intricate mechanics that make pinball machines so fascinating and fun to work on. Seevers describes herself as “infatuated with process.” A love of playing pinball is just the beginning. Deconstructing and repairing the machines is a whole other level on which to enjoy them. Many pinheads take it a step further, introducing “mods,” special customized modifications. Prehoda and Cox have replaced the all-incandescentlights in most of their machines with brighter LEDs. On Cox’s Monday Night Football table, he changed the lights to Seahawks football colours: “If I’m going to have a football-themed pinball machine in the basement where I watch football, it’s going to have Seahawks colours, period.” The machine has hundreds of blue and green LED lights. 

Shakedown Pinball TournamentSeevers, Topolski, Cox and Prehoda are forming a collective. Their goal is to bring high-quality and well-playing machines to the general public. The machines will have QR codes so that players can use their smartphones to track machines: where they have been and where they are going, as well as to send in repair requests and report cosmetic damage. As a group, each member brings their own enthusiasm and skills to the table. Seevers jokes, “I have the smallest hands.” In the tight mechanical landscape hidden underneath the polished play field, small hands are an asset. Each machine has hundreds of moving parts that must be cleaned, repaired, oiled, and sometimes replaced, to fully restore a machine.

“We’ll spend a whole evening taking one apart and just cleaning it. Then you have to wait for the parts to arrive, a week or more, and then another evening putting it back together,” says Cox. “I’ve probably spent 40 hours working on my No Good Gophers machine,” laughs Topolski.

Shakedown Pinball TournamentIt’s hard to follow the rapid fire references to specialized parts and acronyms when the four get together to play. They use acronyms for their machines, because the names are often long. EATPM is the official accepted acronym for Elvira and the Party Monsters, Seevers’ latest project, and a highly desirable machine in the collectors market. The Internet Pinball Machine Database lists every machine, its technical specs, accepted acronym, and known repair issues. The acronyms help out in internet forums, where the global pinball community goes to ask questions, find machines, and mingle with their fellow pinholics. Playing on a machine that has been lovingly cared for feels great. When I toured Cox’s basement, they levelled the playing fields as soon as I got there. “An un-level playing field can be a real bummer,” says Prehoda, carefully timing his flipper punches on Monday Night Football. “I think I liked this one better before it was levelled” he states as the last ball slips SDTM (that’s straight-down-the-middle in internet pinball forum lingo). 

These are not the rundown, forgotten pinball machines you find in dive bars and pizza joints, with sticky flippers and bumpy playing fields covered in decades of grit. Each piece is polished, and each ramp is levelled, checked, and adjusted for optimal play. You can feel the care put into a pinholic-tended machine when you play it. The cacophony of wild colors, smooth-coil springs, and trilling bells create a multisensory experience thanks to detailed preservation. They go by many names: pinheads, pinholics, and hobbyists, but I like to think of them as Wizards. 

By Colleen Harper

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