Illustration: Gabe Kastner

Toronto’s Pinball Wizards

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Reading Time: 7 minutes

By Ryan Kennedy

Like Stealth Bombers ready for take-off, the majestic machines stand in line, lights blinking and ready for action. Press start to begin play.

Members of the Toronto Pinball League saunter down to Nick Angel’s suburban basement to warm up on some of the twenty pinball machines Nick has on display. They are preparing for the season-ending, day-long championship competition which will determine who, indeed, is the real pinball wizard among them.

Formed in 1996, the league now consists of a dozen hardcore members and a few other fair-weather flippers. They meet once a week at one of a cycle of locations including members’ homes. Any member with at least four machines can host a night, and the group also plays at some Toronto arcades. The league’s playing season is 15 weeks long, and it culminates in one all-day battle royale.

The league’s president is Charles Blaquière. He’s been a pinball fan since he was seven, back when arcades were still dominated by the silver ball. He misses the distinctive pinball arcade aroma, “That smell of electrical contacts and grease from fries.” Pinball had another feature that other arcade games didn’t: “The big thing is you can get a replay. You could put in a quarter and play all day long,” he gushes. “In video games you always die in the end.”

With a wiry body and sharp facial features, Blaquière is one of the most aggressive players in the league. He looks like he’s at war with the machine when he plays, slamming its sides with his hands and leaning in at the hips on his flipper shots. “Nudging is integral,” he notes, referring to the technique of pushing the machine lightly to change the ball’s direction.

The casual tone of the tournament allows players lots of time to socialize about their favourite pastime between matches, and it’s not unusual to se a cluster of gamers debating the merits of one machine over another, or even one game manufacturer over another.

Video games stole a lot of the thunder from pinball’s popularity. By the 1990s, there were only two companies still making pinball machines: Bally-Williams and Sega.

“Sega games just suck,” says League member Jeremy Wilson. All the members agree that Sega games tend to be more simple and very commercial. Almost all of Angel’s machines are by Bally-Williams.

In October of 2000, however, Williams stopped making pinball machines in order to focus on making slot machines, a much more profitable endeavour. Prices for their pinball machines skyrocketed, and an expensive hobby got even pricier. When Wilson needed to replace a cracked ramp on his World Cup Soccer machine, he had to pay $600 for it.

“I used to be able to buy this game for $600,” he says.

John Flitton is the Wayne Gretzky of the Toronto Pinball League. With a full head of gray hair and a standard-issue Bay Street golf shift, the 36-year-old computer consultant carries himself with a quiet confidence masked by a subtle, self-deprecating sense of humour. A five-time league champion, his initials “JRF” can be found on the high-score lists of many of angel’s machines, often more than once. “One more to go,” he says slyly, pointing out a machine across the room.

Flitton approaches the Cirque Voltaire machine. He notes the neon blue tube running down the right side of the gameboard. “Mine’s green at home. They came in four different colours,” he says. He flicks a button on the panel’s door, and the game’s video screen starts scrolling through a long list of options.

From the operator’s panel, one has access to an ocean of statistics. Records are kept on the number of extra balls won, the average length of games, and whether the ball tends to drain to the left or the right (‘drain’ meaning to lose your ball). The average game of Cirque Voltaire at Angel’s house lasts 5.37 minutes, with each ball in play for an average of 100 seconds.

Nick Angel isn’t just a pinball player, he’s also a collector and a dealer. Along with running a computer parts company, Angel also buys and restores old pinball machines, selling them for a marked-up price. He’ll spend an average of 30 to 40 hours restoring games to their original pristine condition. “Sometimes 80,” he says, staring at a now perfect Bram Stoker’s Dracula machine that he raised from the dead. Along with the 20 currently in his basement, he’s got 20 more machines stores in various other locations. He plans to bring them all together in one place eventually. “Next house,” he promises.

Back on the battlefield, Flitton is continuing his domination of the series of nest-out-of-5 matches. After beating second-ranked Blaquière in two straight games, he must face his protégé, Jeremy Wilson.

Despite being one of the younger players in the league, Wilson already owns six machines, including a $6,000 Monopoly game that was a gift from his employers at an Internet porn company. “There’s a lot of money in porn,” he explains. His pinball obsession also led to the purchase of a van so he could transport the awkward machines. Rambunctious and sarcastic, the bespectacled Wilson rarely leaves Flitton’s side during the tournament. The two trade good-natured barbs and Simpsons references, while assuring me that they are only “moderately wacko” compared to other pinball geeks.

“Would you hurry up and drain!” says Wilson closely watching his focused competitor. Flitton is working on a special feature of the game Banzai Run, Wherein the ball is lifted by a magnet, and dropped onto a bonus set of flippers. Wilson tugs at his hair with mock anxiety, as his competitor’s victory is sealed.

After a couple of high-scoring moves, he isn’t down by much … Then, he activates multiball

Over at the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Angel and Blaquière are playing a sudden death tie-breaker. Neither seem content with the choice of game. “It’s a tough game,” laments Nick Angel, whose athletic stature lives up to his superhero-esque name.

After draining his second ball, Angel pauses to shake his head and contemplate. The game belts out a gleefully crude digital rendition of “Summertime Blues”. “Mean game,” mutters Angel. By the third ball, however, he has secured a considerable lead in points. Flitton wanders over to watch the drama unfold between his two potential competitors. “Ooh, ball three,” he muses after Blaquière’s second ball drains.

Undaunted, Blaquière continues his rock’em sock’em style of pinball playing, fighting with the machine for control over the ball. “He kicks the shit out of those machines,” notes Wilson.

Down to his last turn, Blaquière stages a comeback. After a couple of high-scoring moves, he isn’t down by much. Then, he activates multiball. “That’s not what I wanted to happen,” says Angel, staring intently at the machine as it pops out two extra balls for Blaquière. Angel’s anxiety is short-lived, as two of the three balls drain quickly, the third going down soon after. Flitton will face Angel in the finals.

In another corner of the basement, Wilson rebounds from his earlier loss to Flitton by beating Jim Symington, an 18-year veteran mailman, and the “resident rocker” of the pinball crew. Symington sports a long heavy metal haircut and faded blue jeans, and his own collection of pinball machines reflect his rock’n’roll tastes, with games featuring Ted Nudgent, Kiss and Guns ‘N’ Roses. He tells of the time he played South Park pinball against rocker Marilyn Manson. “He freaked on the first ball,” recalls Symington, “Then he took his contact lens out. He played a lot better after that.”

In the semi-final, Angel and Wilson vie for the herculean task of facing Flitton in the championship round. Angel tries to mess with Wilson’s head by choosing to play Dracula, the machine on which Wilson had lost in a previous match. “No!,” cries Wilson, throwing his arms up in prayer to the gods of pinball. They may have actually been listening, because Angel nudges too hard on his last ball, causing a ‘tilt’ which freezes the flippers, forcing a drain and the loss of the game. The stage is set for the final match-up : Flitton versus Wilson — the veteran versus the protégé.

Most of the other League members are conspicuously absent from the final game, whether it’s because they think the outcome is inevitable, or simply because their pizzas arrived. Only Blaquière and Angel, armed with a camcorder, watch the final showdown. Flitton chooses the Star Wars: Episode 1 machine for the first match. The machine features a holographic video screen inside the body of the game, a feature that was supposed to usher in a new era of pinball design. “It was supposed to save pinball,” says Blaquière. Only one other game like it, Revenge from Mars, was produced before Bally-Williams shut down.

“This game is all about the skill show, because it’s so lucrative,” Wilson notes. Unfortunately Flitton knows it too, and the veteran takes game one.

For round two, Wilson chooses to play Safecrackers, an unorthodox game with a unique time countdown feature. The goal of Safecrackers is to “break into the vault” by hitting certain spots. The twist is that if you take too long you can “time out” and lose your last ball. Flitton positions himself well at first, netting some very big multiball jackpots. He times out, though, leaving the door open for Wilson. With the chance to even the series, Wilson attacks. But he times out as well, and Flitton takes game two.

The final game of the tourney is played our on No Good Gophers — Flitton’s favourite. He takes control early. He seems to be getting all the bounces, and Wilson looks in disbelief. When it comes his turn, Wilson’s poor showing puts him at the mercy of some very sarcastic gophers. “Hit anything!” the machine chides.

On his second turn, Flitton puts the match out of Wilson’s reach with a final show of his pinball wizardry, netting a super jackpot of nine million points with a multiball. Wilson trails by 30 million points going into his last ball, and can’t make up the difference. All hail the six-time champ, John Flitton.

The award ceremony is held. Most improved player Symington receives a coupon for a free League membership for next year, valued at $30. Two trophies made of giant, mounted silver balls are awarded, one to Blaquière — the regular season champ — and the other to Flitton, the tournament king, who also goes home with $120 prize money in his pocket.

The famished warriors trudge back up Angel’s carpeted stairs to await more pizza, and their next opportunity to dethrone the champ. They nudged, they bounced, they tilted and they drainer. They are the Toronto Pinball League.

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