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Life after Pinburgh

April 16, 2013

This past weekend I attended the largest pinball tournament in the world, all the way across the country near Pittsburgh, PA.    It was a fantastic time in so many different ways and if you’ve ever thought about going you absolutely should.  Win or lose, the experience is worth it.


Sean Grant playing in the Finals.  Note the pennants hanging in the rafters honoring past PAPA Champions.

As someone who runs tournaments fairly frequently, I really admire how organized they keep it all.  For example, there were so many players this year that on many of my game banks there were two groups of four players.  It was never a problem because they ordered the games for each group for minimal wait times.  The tie-breakers ran a bit late on Day One but overall it was super-efficient.  With nearly 400 players in the mix, it’s just amazing how well it runs.

You also have to appreciate all the non-tournament things they do to improve things.  The bathrooms were much better and they had much better on-site food than last year.  The parking situation was also better with a satellite lot and hotel shuttle.  The hotel shuttle to Extended Stay saved me a rental car and made the trip more affordable.  More than any other venue, PAPA has that “get here, and we’ll do the rest” sort of feeling.

Of course, it’s always great to see familiar faces and friends in the mix and Pinburgh is definitely a who’s who of top competitive pinball.  I got to see Daniele Acciari, the Italian master, play in-person for the first time.  I played in a group with last year’s B Division Champion Johnny Modica.  I played in two groups with Special When Lit star Koi Morris.


The ELK was there in spirit.

I brought a few sci-fi books to StevenP – most of his collection got wiped out in Hurricane Sandy.  I met a cool guy from France who told me my recount of last year’s event inspired him to go this year.  That was quite flattering!

Several people asked me, “Are you Jonny O?” and then complimented my blog.  (To all those people, if you’re heading to the bay area for work or fun, drop me a line – there’s always something going on in pinball and we’ll plug you right in.)

So, how did it go?  I did terribly.  There’s just no getting around it.  Just horrible.  Let’s analyze my fail:

Last year I noticed two big problems with how I was playing.  First, my nerves really got to me.  After a weak round I went into the next round thinking I have to make up for that last round.  Too much pressure.  This year I told myself if I have a bad round, forget about it, it’s over, walk it off and focus on the upcoming rounds.

I was improved in this regard.  I put past losses out of my mind and focused on the next round.  Pinburgh is a very social tournament but also a very high-pressure tournament.  Your opponents are quick to congratulate you on a good ball or a “wow, you got screwed” when you received a house ball from the machine, but still, the competition is very intense.

The second problem with last year was my play style.  I’m more of a “control” player and I like to do lots of live catches, traps, bounce passes and so on.  The games at PAPA, generally speaking, are designed to make life very hard on control players.  Very hard.  Similar to how hell makes life very hard on snow balls.  They use super bouncy rubbers, powerful flipper coils, powerful pops, sensitive sling.  It all means the ball is screaming toward the flippers and often the best choice is to flip it away to hopefully somewhere safe.  (In fact, a minor criticism of how the games are set up: I saw the ball going a million miles an hour hop the flipper on a couple EMs – ouch!  Fortunately, not me.)

This year I decided to play more on-the-fly or loose, particularly on ball one of each game.  My plan was not to go for a trap or a bounce pass unless the game was clearly letting me have one.  Did it work?  oh hell no.  For one, it just threw me out of my game. Last year I might have been in control for only a ball or two, and sacrificed a ball trying a bounce pass or whatever.  This year I just flailed like a monkey riding an electronic bull while being beaten with a riding crop.  Live and learn, I guess.

I never really got to a point where I was playing my game.  I was clunky and confused, and my competitors were leaving me in the dust.  I was in the Indianapolis 500 driving a Dodge Neon.  As any competitive player knows, the absolute worst thing is when you’re playing someone and you know you’re better, but you just can’t seem to put a game together for the win.  

I went in with the goal of qualifying for Day 2 around mid-B Division or better, but not in A Division, where I really didn’t feel I had a shot.  After two rounds, that plan was going off the rails faster than a Lindsay Lohan rehab stint, so I focused on qualifying well in C Division.  I ended right in the middle of C for Day Two.

Day Two isn’t even worth recounting in-depth, it was so bad.  I was basically out of the running after Round 3.  I don’t want to talk about it.  Dejected, I went to the parking lot and some nice players from the northwest hooked me up with shots of Old Crow.  I didn’t play much better afterward but I was in a much better mood, that’s for sure.

Now that the tournament was over a few of us decided to take in some local art and culture at one of the finest pubs in Carnegie, PA.

But what happens at the Emerald Ice stays at the Emerald Ice.  Suffice to say, when we left I had trouble pronouncing my hotel name to the designated driver.  I got a lot of shit for it.


The Emerald Ice bar apparently really wants you to know their phone number.

Sunday was a leisurely affair for me since I was out of the running and nursing a hangover.  I played a few dollar games and some fellow bay area locals ran our own little mini-tourney.  My roommate did okay in D Division and won $200.  We watched some of the Finals which were very exciting.  We played lots of “revenge” games since most of the tournament games were now available for Casual play.  Again, how bad did I play?  I got 26,000 in the tournament on Hokus Pokus.  I played it after the tournament and got 96,000, 77,000 and 74,000 without even really trying.  And on a local one at Playland not at the Beach, I’ve scored 188,000 one-handed.

When I first arrived on Wednesday I walked down to the PAPA facility from my hotel and noticed the Carnegie Historical Society, so on Monday, with time to kill, I decided to drop in.


It was a cool little volunteer-run place.  Someone made a big miniature of what Carnegie looked like before World War II, and the place had lots of cool pop culture stuff as you can imagine – old signs, bottles, beer and soda cans and so on – all the remnants of history that a few people thought or by chance happened to save.  If you’re a baseball fan, they’ve got a room full of Honus Wagner stuff.  I first checked for some family history (my grandfather lived in the Pittsburgh area) and then I asked if they had anything about pinball.  They said ‘no’, so I donated my Pinburgh poster and around a dozen different PAPA tokens for their collection, explaining the designs were by local artists.  The woman at the desk got really excited and told me how her husband had two pinball games and a puck bowler in their basement.  We talked some local history and then I trek’d back to the bus stop to catch a bus to the airport.

Back to reality.  Back to normal life.


In 50 or a hundred years, maybe someone will go into the Carnegie Historical Society and ask: “I heard there was a big pinball tournament here.  You got anything on that?”  Now they can say they do.

Dave Baach, who used to be with the PAPA organization, once told me at the Pacific Pinball Exposition: “This is a more than just a show.  It’s creating memories.”  I think that’s about the highest compliment.

Kevin, Mark, Bowen and the PAPA team created a lot of great memories.  Tip of the hat for a great job.

Long live pinball.

  1. ELK permalink
    April 19, 2013 11:40 pm

    I never left…

  2. April 18, 2013 4:18 pm

    Nice post. I am a local local (Carnegie born and raised, live about 2 miles away from PAPA). I’m glad you got to see some of the sights of our little town. It has gone through a lot over the years. Having PAPA so close is a dream come true for me. I meet people from all over, and do my best to be an ambassador of the area. One guy I talked at the beginning of day one was from Atlanta, in his second tourney (first one in Texas), and he liked the format, the organization, and the area. Turned out we both ended up in the D finals. Not only nice talking to people from all around, but even the Pittsburgh Pinball League people.

  3. Bdiv4Life permalink
    April 18, 2013 9:14 am

    Great post Jonny! Pinball tournament in its purest form…every round feels like a playoff round…

  4. April 17, 2013 3:34 pm

    Sounds fun – I am jonesing for pinball since I haven’t seen a machine that I can play yet on my Europe trip. Luckily on Friday I am visiting Pinball Park (

  5. Yancy Blaylock permalink
    April 17, 2013 9:44 am

    Thanks for the trip report. By all accounts, Pinburgh was an absolute blast, and there’s no way I’m missing it next year.

  6. Josh Lehan permalink
    April 16, 2013 11:05 pm

    Wow, great post! Sums it all up nicely. I too whiffed it during tournament play but killed it during revenge games at the afterparty. Funny how that works!


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