Las Vegas Sun

September 17, 2019

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Revenge of the Pinheads

News of pinball's demise has been greatly exaggerated.

Or so it seems this week as hundreds of "pinheads" from all over the world converge on Las Vegas to compete in "The Shoot-Out at the Sahara," the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association's (PAPA) 6th World Pinball Championship, also known as "PAPA 6."

Legendary pinball wizards such as Lyman "Silk" Sheats, Paul "Prez" Madison, Rick "Hollywood" Stetta, Kai "Gentleman" Bateman and Alberto "Smiley" Santana will be battling it out with arcade afficionados from several continents and locals such as Jim Rogers, a self-described pinball addict, for an estimated $30,000 in cash and prizes.

"This is the biggie, the Numero Uno of pinball tournaments," says Robert Volin, owner of First Travel in Las Vegas, who is promoting the event and offering a seven-day Hawaiian vacation to the grand prize winner.

Or as PAPA founder Steve Epstein puts it: "For four days we'll be Flipstock, the pinnacle of silver ball action, a jolt of flipper fusion so powerful its electricity will rival the Strip."

At least as far as some people are concerned.

The competition consists of nine divisions, including those for juniors, women and doubles, and is open to anyone willing to pay the entrance fees -- $10 per round for juniors, $20 for adults, and $30 per doubles team. "The whole idea of this tournament is really to attract new players," Epstein says. The qualifying rounds will be held Thursday through Saturday at the Sahara hotel-casino; The finals on Sunday will determine the Grand Poobah of Pinball.

"On Sunday night we will have the best pinball player in the world at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas," Epstein says.

A winner-take-all tournament, in which five American and eight European champions face off for a $2,000 purse, will be held on Saturday. Another side tournament featuring a selection of "gaudy and spectacular" pinball games from the '50s through the '80s -- "A Trip Through History" -- will be held at the Sahara alongside the world championship. Entrance to that tournament costs $4 per person; Half of that will go to support the Salvation Army.

Spectators are encouraged to stop by and watch, free of charge. "It's a pleasant way to kill a few hours," Epstein says. "It's a real piece of Americana."

Epstein, who owned "The Broadway Arcade," a famed but now defunct pinball hangout on Broadway and 52nd Street in New York, has traditionally staged the PAPA championships in New York City. But the event soon outgrew the hotel ballrooms there. "The expenses got to another level," he says. "I couldn't take the step (financially) from hotel ballrooms to Madison Square Garden, and that was the next step." So at Volin's suggestion, he decided this year to move it to Las Vegas.

"It's an event that I believe can have great success in this new venue," says Roger Sharpe, director of licensing for Williams Bally/Midway, an amusement game conglomerate, who will be attending the competition with his two sons, both competing world champions in pinball.

"Las Vegas embodies the spirit of what fun and escapism is all about."

Originally conceived during the Depression as low-cost entertainment, pinball fell victim in the late '70s to the emerging popularity of video games, Sharpe says. Whereas in the mid '70s, pinball had represented about 85 percent of a $4 billion a year industry, in 1982, it had dropped to 5 percent.

"Everyone thought the (pinball) industry was dead."

Then something unexpected happened.

Pinball began to reinvent itself and rebounded to capture between 35 percent and 38 percent of the steadily growing amusement game industry. Hot new games, such as Starship Troopers, NBA Fastbreak, Cirqus Voltaire and No-Good Gophers, which will be featured at the tournament, began giving video games a run for their money.

"It's not your father's pinball machine, anymore," Sharpe says. "The games today are totally choreographed with light shows, musical scores ... it's a movie-in-a-box."

Although many kids remain devout video game junkies, some are starting to show an interest in pinball, says Volin. "If you go to arcades you see a lot of younger kids starting to play."

So are women, says Volin, who has heard rumors that a band of female biker babes will be attending the "Sahara Shootout."

The reason pinball has begun attracting a broader range of players is that it offers the player greater control than video over the outcome of their game, Volin says. "Every game is different, and you have a physical ball you're hitting."

Sharpe agrees that this aspect of pinball allows it to "transcend not only eras, but people. It's always remained a very vibrant, tactile and totally sensory environment ... it's a Rube Goldberg-esque fantasy event."

Tim Arnold, a member of the Las Vegas Pinball Collectors Club, who is organizing "A Trip Through History," prefers the games he grew up with -- 250 of which are stashed in his backyard. Some local pinheads, who apparently don't have the yard space, have actually jammed them into their bathrooms, he adds. "It's not like collecting stamps, you can't slide 'em under your bed."

Still, Arnold goes out about once a week to try out some of the newer games. "Right now I'm stuck on Elvira and the Party Monsters," he says. Part of the game involves breaking open a crate with the steel ball. "There's scary stuff in the crate: monsters, used car salesmen, newspaper reporters."

While some find the bleeps, gurgles and flashing lights of pinball machines nerve-racking, many flipper freaks find it soothing. "It's my martini, my way of relaxing," Sharpe says. "It can dissipate everything and anything that's bothering you."

The new games "have all the lights and bells and whistles, but that doesn't matter to me," says Epstein, a pinhead who learned his game from atop a milk crate at the age of six. "What matters to me is flipping the flippers and watching the ball hit the targets you want it to hit.

"It's very Zen."