- Daria Bishop
- Preston Francisco competing at the Vermont State Pinball Championship
Outside a nondescript building the color of old paste in South Burlington, one could clearly hear what many consider the most glorious sound in the world: steel ball hitting bumper after bumper. As a newcomer entered a room the size of a shipping container, the pinging, the bells and the clicking of flippers — the holy shit! clamor of nearly two dozen pinball machines — offered a welcome ravishment of the senses.
Peering through the low lighting, one could see figures hunched over machines, using hips, hands and contorted torsos to prolong the journey of a silver metal ball among the musical, high-scoring way stations of the game before it inevitably hurried out of play. The ball's value begins when the plunger shoots it into the active field and ends when it drops past frantic flippers into the drain.
This was the Big One: the IFPA Vermont State Pinball Championship. On Saturday, the competition brought together the state's 16 top-ranked pinball players, male or female. The winner would go on to the North American Championship Series, to be held in March in De Pere, Wis., under the auspices of the International Flipper Pinball Association. The state tourney, held at the clubhouse known as the Pinball Co-op, began with an open tourney that was followed on Sunday by a first-ever women's championship.
To qualify for the tournament, aspiring pinball wizards accumulate points throughout the year by playing games at any venue against opponents registered with the IFPA, which establishes players' rankings. Six of the 16 top-ranked players could not make it to Saturday's competition, including a former multiple-year champion, so alternates took their places.
"This kind of situation really opens the field," said Jody Stahlman, the Vermont IFPA representative and open championships coordinator. "Anything can happen in pinball. People have off days. People have great days. It's a spinning steel ball players try to control with little plastic flippers."
- Daria Bishop
- Allison Havens and others playing pinball between tournament rounds
This is the first year that the IFPA has designated Stahlman to run the event. The 56-year-old former middle school teacher is also the highest-ranked woman among the 16 finalists. And she has a very hands-on role in keeping the co-op running: Stahlman organizes "repair nights," when members are invited to come in and help fix machines that have problems.
The co-op opened in 2016 after the beloved Tilt Classic Arcade and Ale House in South Burlington went dark. Mike and Allison Havens, married pinball players and teachers at Burlington High School, had some rental space in an industrial park on Williston Road near Kennedy Drive. Mike invited players to join the co-op, bring their tables (as pinball machines are called) and flip to their hearts' content.
Now, the space holds 23 gleaming machines with names such as Jurassic Park, Twilight Zone and the Big Lebowski. Toward the back is the game that online pinball community Pinside ranks No. 1 (as of this writing): Godzilla, an $8,000 creation of art, sound and dexterity. (Pinball humor: The Lord of the Rings pinball machine doesn't take quarters. It only accepts Tolkiens.)
- Daria Bishop
- From left: Mat Barewicz, Emily May, Eric Marz, Nathan Crosby and Mike Havens watching the live stream of a game
Between the absence of some top-ranked players and the vagaries of a steel ball bouncing off bumpers, Stahlman said the state championship results could be wild. And they were, as a trio of alternates pulled first-round upsets.
That included 11th seed Emily May, who won the best-of-seven round against sixth seed Stahlman in six games. Fourteenth seed Mat Barewicz beat third seed and former Vermont state champion Bill McHugh in an exciting seven-game round.
And 16th seed Alex Yeager beat top seed Connor Shlatz. For a 16th seed to beat a first seed is rare. According to Stahlman and Mike Havens, this may be the first time it has happened in the history of the co-op.
The players' body movements — banging the table just enough to keep the ball from draining, manipulating the flipper to catch the ball just so before it drained — showed that they knew exactly how far to push a machine before they got penalized. Concentration was etched on many faces, none more than that of Preston Francisco, who appeared to be doing acting exercises. Some players rubbed their sweaty hands on pant legs to keep them flipper-fresh.
Many of the contestants have been playing since adolescence. Nathan Crosby, a computer tech from Montpelier, said he was 10 when he played his first pinball game on a Space Shuttle table at the Berlin Mall. "I didn't even know how to work the flippers," Crosby confessed, "so I just hit the plunger three times and watched each ball drop through into the drain."
Barewicz, a state economist who lives in Montpelier, said he was about 6 years old when his teenage brothers brought home a battery-powered pinball game that they played on the kitchen table.
- Daria Bishop
- Jody Stahlman giving a tournament update
The state championship matches went on all day Saturday. Losing players continued competing in the consolation bracket. As the winners were narrowed down, the tension rose.
At stake, besides a trip to the North American championships and bragging rights, was the princely first-place prize of $117. All 16 players would get payouts, ranging from $70 for the runner-up to $8 for places nine through 16. The prize money comes from a percentage of dues that co-op members send to the IFPA.
In the final, best-of-seven match to decide the champion, Eric Marz led Mike Havens, three games to one. Havens then won two games, tying the score and sending the title match to a seventh-game tiebreaker.
As the lower seed, Marz got to choose the machine for this showdown. He picked Paragon, a 1979 table manufactured by Bally. Down 200,000 points with his last ball remaining, Marz rocked a miracle ball to overtake Havens, 252,630 to 175,730.
Legends have been written about less.