How to Lose at Pinball

Step 1 – Don’t play well…

napoleon dynamitw well duh


Sorry about that. I couldn’t resist.

I recently competed at the 2019 IFPA Pin-Masters tournament. Seventy-two of the best pinball players gathered in Vegas for three days of competition in my favorite format: pin-golf. Instead of playing to see who gets the highest score, it is a game about efficiency. Each game has a point target, and your score is based on how quickly you reach the target (or how far short you fall). Reaching the goal in one ball scores a 1, two balls scores a 2, and so on.

Reaching these targets, however, was not made easy due to some of the toughest game modifications I’ve ever seen (multiball disabled on Sorcerer, no ball save from the plunge and multiball ball save timers shortened or disabled, and every outlane post removed or otherwise moved to its most open setting). These modifications were put in place in order to (1) make otherwise reasonable point targets harder to get to and (2) make ball times last shorter, making for a quicker tournament.

If you haven’t guessed by now, I did not win this tournament. I started out in very good shape, being in second place after five games were completed with a score of 6 under par, but by the end of day 1, I had dropped to 9 over par and I was a long way from the finals cut line. Day 2 was more consistent, but again I scored 9 over par for the day, ending 18 games with a score of 18 over par and putting me square in the middle of the standings.

Looking back at it, I believe I suffered from two sources of stress that, while they may not have affected my play, put me in a negative headspace and made me feel like I wasn’t having fun any more. The first source came from my initial drop. In holes 6-9, I lost 17 “strokes,” meaning that I finished my games at around 20-40% of the target scores for these games. I was in disbelief. Why was I suddenly playing so poorly? Are these particular games just bad? I didn’t want to admit that I didn’t have the skill that these other players had.

Day 2 came with a bit of a rough start. I started this round on the games that I crapped out on the day prior. I tried to psyche myself up, and at first I thought it had worked. Instead of the 17 strokes that I lost the day prior, I had only lost 4. I thought to myself, “okay, you did better, you can do this,” but the remaining games played out the same, averaging 1 stroke over on each game, resulting in the 9 over for the day.  Instead of doubting myself, I was now feeling like the beginning of the day before was just a fluke, and that I didn’t belong competing with these players.

As day 2 progressed, and it became more and more clear that I was not going to make the magic from day 1 happen again, my reactions to my own play became louder and more angry. I would start yelling at the machines when I’d get a house ball, yelling at myself for fumbling a save, and performing various acts of pouting as ball after ball drained.

I am a very competitive person. I’ve competed in various capacities in a variety of activities. After a bit of reflecting, I’ve come to realize a couple things about pinball and myself.

Skill is measured differently among different activities

Pinball is not like all other competitive games and sports. Take chess, for example. If you put a novice chess player against a Grandmaster for 10 games, it is almost certain that the GM would win all 10 games. In pinball, the margin of victory is not as clear. If I play against Keith Elwin on 10 games, even though he is perhaps the greatest player of all time, I would bet serious money on me winning a game or two out of the ten. Pinball is a physical games with many sources of entropy (randomness). There are so many elements of entropy in the game that it is hard to measure skill by one metric. However, what better players tend to have above lesser skilled players is consistency and adaptability. These skills allow a player to have more chances to score big.

Since literally nobody makes a living on competitive pinball, your focus shouldn’t be on winning

There are plenty of skills out there that one can be good at without enjoying. While I was in school, I had a talent for spelling, grammar, and syntax. People came to me to review their English papers, and I absolutely hated it. I wasn’t a big fan of writing, either (and yet I have a blog 🤔🤔🤔).

Pinball, however, is a different story. I don’t know anyone who breezed through their pinball class in college, bored out of their mind while getting good marks (if you know a college that offers a pinball class, by the way, let me know). If you like playing pinball and you like competing, you’ll play more pinball and get better at it. If you aren’t having fun, however, then why are you playing? Is it your job to play well?

At the risk of sounding cliche, playing pinball should be fun, and only you can define what fun is. Are you miserable every time you compete? Then don’t compete. Do you hate losing but enjoy winning? Then as far as I can tell, you need to focus on two things.

Getting better

When you compete, don’t make your goal winning the entire event. Focus on improving specific skills such as game knowledge, flipper skills, or nudging.

Losing better

While it is important to keep things fun for yourself, it is perhaps more important to conduct yourself in a manner that keeps things fun for others. I am very grateful to the pinball community for being welcoming and accepting of people who want to enter the hobby, whether it be for competition or for the simple joy of playing or collecting. It can be very frustrating when you’re competing and you get multiple house balls in a row, and I know it can be hard to compose yourself. However, I know firsthand how off-putting it is to witness others rage over their game. After all, what noob wants to join a hobby where its members are so stressed?

Remember: nobody likes a Rage Monster™

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