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From Issue #14 April 11, 2013

Pinball Wizards

Keeping machines in play, one location scout and data field at a time.

By Brittany Shoot Twitter icon 

There’s only one reason to stop at the tourist-trap diner in my downtown San Francisco neighborhood. In the back, behind a display case of schlocky trinkets and the bored servers clustered around a red vinyl booth, there are two pinball machines: a 1991 Williams Terminator 2: Judgment Day and a Gottlieb Atlantis, an electro-mechanical console first released in 1975.

I didn’t figure this out by peeking in the window or even by going in. I grew up with a Bally Paragon in my basement and love to play, but I’m not that committed. Like a lot of players, I turn to the Pinball Map to determine which nearby bars, arcades, and pizza shops have machines inside. It’s an actively crowdsourced collection available through its Web site and its smartphone apps. Before I wander into a dank pool hall south of the city, I know which machines I’ll find there. Moreover, I know what condition the machines are in, and whether I should bother making a stop at all.

Mapping the relevant locales for any sort of hobby or sport isn’t exactly a new idea. In the pre-smartphone era, pinballers scribbled on bits of paper to keep track of their favorite bars. In recent years, because of renewed interest in the pastime, players have banded together to create data banks for most major cities: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Seattle, to name a few. The Bay Area’s robust, timely listings are thanks in large part to the efforts of my pal Jon Olkowski.

Like a lot of millennial and Gen X players, Olkowski grew up slapping flippers in arcades and tilting machines in friends’ basements. When he rediscovered pinball in late 2008, he knew about only a handful of spots to play. On a slow day at work, he decided to map his 10–15 go-to pubs and found another 45 from other maps and Yelp listings. After posting about the project to the Bay Area Pinball Association newsgroup, he gained 18 collaborators. “Within two weeks, I was up to 150 locations,” he says, still a bit incredulous.

Flipping out

No one — especially players in the pinball community — should be surprised by the collaborative attitude. Like any esoteric hobby, pinball relies on an active, committed base of regulars to keep interest from waning. Highly skilled location players — that is, pinheads who log hours playing in public rather than practicing on their own private machines — help remind club owners that pinball is still in demand, and that machines should be maintained accordingly.

And while it might seem like a convenient trend-piece thesis, there is an actual pinball resurgence underway. In 2006, the International Flipper Pinball Association had 500 ranked members and ran 50 sanctioned events. Today, there are over 16,000 players competing in more than 350 official tournaments, with those numbers increasing substantially every year. After teetering on the edge of bankruptcy for over a decade, Stern Pinball, the country’s only surviving legacy manufacturer, has seen sales quadruple since 2009. That same year, pinball documentary Special When Lit sparked interest on the film festival circuit. Two startup manufacturers, Skit-B and Jersey Jack, promise to release machines within the next year.

Yet for all the pizzazz in industry fortunes, pinball machines still elicit a sense of classic Americana, mostly because so little about the actual game has changed. Pop bumpers have functioned in the same basic way for a century. Coin-drop is still just a quarter or two. Unlike video games, a game of pinball is difficult from the start. There’s no beginner level. You either stick with it and get better, or you don’t. Word of mouth remains the most effective form of marketing. A friend of a friend told me he played in a league and at weekend tournaments where fellow players give pointers and cheer for one another. After entering half a dozen Saturday afternoon tourneys this past year, I’m ranked 2,643 in the world (as of this writing), and I have some cool new friends. It’s hokey, but it’s true.

Fueling fellow-player passion for the past seven years, back-end developer Scott Wainstock and front-end coder and designer Ryan Gratzer manage what is widely considered the definitive pinball map. It started when the friends were living in Portland, Oregon, one of the focal points of the pinball revival. With player communities expanding there and farther north in Vancouver, B.C., Wainstock and Gratzer knew they needed to map their home turf and eventually include other regions.

No one can verify what happened next — we know only that Wainstock and Gratzer connected with Olkowski, despite having no elegant solution for merging the data. “I think I just manually added it,” Gratzer says with a laugh. From there, the Pinball Map rapidly expanded. Every city and region mapped, from Toronto to the Twin Cities, has at least several committed players in the area, something Gratzer and Wainstock insist upon in order to keep the information from becoming stale and outdated.

It’s a simple and fair request, and one that makes the app far more useful than a static Web site occasionally updated by random players. Every community resource needs an active evangelist behind it — or at the very least, a talented, curious curator. Eric Wagensonner, a Bay Area admin who recently took over the primary maintenance responsibilities from Olkowski, treats updating the map like a treasure hunt. “I’ve always seen the map as a community service,” he says. “There are a ton of bars I don’t enjoy, but I go every six months. I like exploring new places.”

That’s quite an understatement. Wagensonner recently settled in San Francisco after nearly three years on a massive, multi-continent road trip. It started in London, weaved through Africa and the Middle East, and landed him back in Europe before he came home to the States. Get him talking about pinball, and you’ll find his thirst for adventure is much the same.

Olkowski concedes that Wagensonner is more enthusiastically active when it comes to locating machines. “Eric will go anywhere!” he says, joking about the many times that the seemingly straitlaced Wagensonner has sauntered into seedy leather bars, all in the name of cataloguing another machine. Olkowski, an IT systems administrator who hosts a number of regional tournaments, admits another reason for the changing of the guard: “I don’t like doing data entry.”

Thankfully, Wagensonner does. Unlike a lot of players, he didn’t grow up cruising pool halls looking for neglected pins. By chance, he and his wife, Louise, began playing four years ago when they spotted a machine in a bar and thought it looked like fun. (It was, and it is.) A year into it, he started tracking machine locations on a spreadsheet. Pretty soon, he heard about the map and connected with Olkowski.

Maintaining an already compiled database is not only a cool side gig. It means that when I ask Wagensonner to meet me for some location play on a Friday night, he suggests we meet at Shotwell’s, supposedly California’s oldest bar and home of a well-maintained Medieval Madness. After giving me substantial pointers on how to start multiball, then shaking the console hard enough to cause an end-ball tilt, he beats me anyway.

Despite the fact that he’s a highly skilled player, Wagensonner didn’t initially attend tournaments or join a league. “My favorite part is the collaboration,” he explains, shrugging off the benefit of competitive events. Before we part ways, he leads me through the Mission and Castro districts, pointing out bars along the way. “They got a new Theatre of Magic two days ago,” he announced as we passed dive bar Delirium.

We soldier on, eventually stopping at a gay bar. I’m the only woman in the place, but no one notices us until Wagensonner beats me again. I furiously pound the machine’s steel frame, yelping in pain as I realize what I’m doing. Self-inflicted pinjuries are the worst.

Solid state

With passionate, high-profile moderators handling incoming data in every region, the Pinball Map developers can focus on creating better search functionality and doing the occasional redesign. The ad-free, open-source app uses the Ruby on Rails framework, and Wainstock makes the site’s code available on GitHub. He encourages others to contribute. “It’s the community aspect of the whole thing that has kept it thriving.”

Of course, that means it’s always a work in progress. “Ryan and I talk every day,” he says, noting that after seven years the two have no intention of letting the app stagnate. “With a lot of Web sites and applications, there’s always a risk of the creator or developer moving on.” He’s adamant that that won’t happen to the Pinball Map. “We don’t just let this sit in one person’s hands.”

You don’t have to be a developer to know that data is dynamic or to believe in the power of a virtual community. Last week, on the way home from an appointment, my husband and I passed a little British imports shop near our apartment. “I heard a rumor there’s a Doctor Who in there,” Andreas said, his hand already on the doorknob.

Sure enough, out in front of the Aero chocolate-bar display and the shelves of Marmite jars, a 1992 Midway model was set to free play, and a friend’s initials displayed as a high score in red LED lights. After the store owner gave us a few tips, we played for 20 minutes before buying a $6 bottle of Bitter Lemon Schweppes as a token payment of sorts. “Was that place even on the map?” I asked Andreas as we headed home. “People should know about it! Why the hell doesn’t the guy charge for it?”

He looked at the bottle of soda. “I think we just paid for the equivalent of 25 games,” he said. Pretty sure we’re the winners anyway.

San Francisco-based journalist Brittany Shoot, the managing editor of The Magazine, writes about fascinating people and far-flung places. She is a contributing writer to Mental Floss, Spirituality & Health, and Sojourners, and also writes for magazines including Time, San Francisco, and Islands.

You can purchase our complete archives, almost 300 articles, as a DRM-free ebook in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats. We ceased publication of new work on December 18, 2014.
You can purchase our complete archives, almost 300 articles, as a DRM-free ebook in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats.
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