Pinball Wizards

World champions gather in Big Apple to flip their way to fun and fortune

GLENN WILSON was a bit short coming up with the down payment for a house. Then he won a shining new pinball machine at a pinball tournament, sold it, and bought the home.

``It's the only reason I was able to afford a house,'' says Mr. Wilson, a Lansing, Mich., pizza-delivery man. ``Pinball has made a huge difference in my life.''

Wilson is one of several hundred pinball enthusiasts from across the globe who gathered in Manhattan this past weekend for the world's pinball championship, a three-day affair that crowns the ultimate master of the silver ball.

This weekend's games took place in the ballroom of a midtown Manhattan hotel temporarily graced by 80 pinball machines divided into different sections to allow top adults, children, women, and doubles to participate in different divisions. The big prize: $2,000 and the pinball game of your choice.

``It's really a test of grit and fortitude,'' says Steve Epstein, a New York arcade owner who organized the contest. ``You really have to be on top of your game to win.''

The contest is now in its fifth year and is a sign of the recent popularity of pinball, which nearly met with extinction thanks to the spread of video games in the 1970s and 1980s. In recent years, sparked by a new generation of technology that has made pinball more exciting, the industry has caromed back to life. It now generates about $2.2 billion in US revenues, according to Vending Times, an industry publication.

``Pinball is popular with adults right now - 18- to 40-year old males,'' says Nick Montano, Vending Times' managing editor.

Many who attended the contest are legends among the pinball crowd. Lyman Sheats, for example, is enviously known as the guy with eight pinball machines in his small Chicago apartment. ``The goal isn't to have the most number of games,'' says Mr. Sheets, who has spent about $13,000 amassing his collection. ``They're games that I really, really enjoy playing.'' He has done well in championships.

Cameron Silver, a computer-science student and part-time pinball arcade worker from Australia, is another noted name, thanks to his active presence on the Internet that connects pinball wizards worldwide via computer. He spent $2,000 on a plane ticket to the United States, scheduling a three-week trip around the tournament.

Danish pinball champion and pool hall owner Frank Scott Mikkelsen also traveled from afar, but he was lucky enough to find a corporate sponsor. Traveling with Mr. Mikkelsen was New Zealander Richard Smith, whom he introduced as his coach.

``I'm a psychological coach; he was getting nowhere in the championship in Denmark,'' Smith says, but then ``positive thinking made him win.''

The game's renewed popularity may even give bowling leagues a new rival. Mike Field, a University of Wisconsin graduate student, plays regularly in a Madison, Wisc., pinball league.

Still, not all is fun and games, Mr. Field says, unconvincingly. After vigorous league sessions his knuckles often ache. Then there's the tale of Field's friend, who got his finger stuck in a pinball machine for half an hour when the flipper button collapsed.

Mr. Silver says that because women ``have more of a life,'' they are a distinct minority amid the legion of pinball fanatics. ``It's hard to play against the men because they have so much upper body strength,'' says Jacki Hays, a young dance teacher and player from Pittsburg. Such strength, she says, allows men to bump and move the machines - without tilting them - and score more points.

Glenn Wilson has only one hand and plays by leaning low above the machine and powering the second flipper with his shortened arm. ``I'm as good as anybody here and they know it,'' he says.

Even so, many say the real object of pinball, even at the world championships, is not whether you win or lose. It's whether you have a good time. ``I'm here just for a bit of fun,'' says Simon Adonis, an Australian fitness trainer who was already traveling in the US when he found out about the tournament. ``I'll tell friends of mine back home that I was at the world pinball championships.''

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