Fingers on the flippers
Dedicated pinball lovers keep the game (and all its gear) going in Portland
In a muggy red room on the second floor of Billy Ray's Neighborhood Dive in Northeast Portland, six members of the Portland Pinball League are communing.
Yes, they're keeping score. But they're also keeping pinball alive - one beer, one story, one ball at a time.
Before there were PlayStations and Xboxes, before there was a Pac-Man or a PONG, there was the silver ball. It rolled along for decades before the microprocessor rocked the world, and it still rolls today in the back rooms of Portland's bars and pizza joints.
It's a warm Wednesday night, and this is Anthony Ramos' first time leading a meet as the league's new president. Compact and fit, with sharp blue eyes, Ramos, 39, is an affable gaming entrepreneur who co-owns Ground Kontrol, a retro arcade and downtown hangout.
The league was started in 2004 by pinball aficionado Jeff Weston, who stepped down as president this year. Membership is casual, and meets are held Wednesday nights at rotating locations.
Pinballers pay no dues and show up as little or as often as they like. But serious players, the ones who want to see their names at the top of the league's online leader boards, become regulars.
'The system rewards loyalty,' Ramos says.
The point is to get people who love pinball out into the community regularly to share their passion for the game.
It's the rare electronic gaming evangelist who urges the faithful to leave the living room and mingle with their fellows. But Ramos and the Portland Pinball League have known for years what some in the larger video-game world are only just beginning to grasp: Gaming at home is great, but some crave something more.
'It's a community,' says Jason Bailes, a 33-year-old felony criminal defense attorney from Vancouver, Wash., who has played in the league for three years. 'I'm not here for the sole purpose of winning. I'm here to have fun.'
Like Ramos and some of the other league members who showed up to play at Billy Ray's on a recent Wednesday, Bailes doesn't need to go out to bars to get his hands on a pinball machine.
'I've got one at home, and my girlfriend says that's too many,' he says.
Fellow league member John Sharrard has Bailes beat. He owns 37 pinball machines, and he knows them like a classic car nut knows vintage Corvettes.
Suntanned and sandaled, the 44-year-old Sharrard looks like he just stepped off a sailboat. But with his fingers on the flippers of a pinball machine in the smoky back corner of Billy Ray's, a neon Rainier Beer sign glowing above his head, he blends right in. He hunches over Medieval Madness, a game he covets.
'This game is one of the most sought-after out there,' Sharrard says between rounds, his hand patting the cabinet. 'They can go for as much as $5,000.'
Players who need players
He's an unbelievable repository of pinball arcana, but Sharrard isn't much of a competitor. He makes no claims about his playing skills.
'Most of my enjoyment comes from restoring them. I couldn't tell you who's leading the league right now,' he says.
But he can tell you how to find just about every pinball-related Internet resource of any importance. There's the Internet Pinball Machine Database, the rec.games.pinball user group, Marvin's Marvelous Mechanical Museum - he could go on.
Without the Internet, how would pinball fans know that Tina Fey ('Saturday Night Live,' '30 Rock') provided the voices for two of Medieval Madness' princesses?
When Sharrard first started trying to repair pinball machines in the 1980s, gathering information on their maintenance and provenance was a daunting task, he says.
Then the Internet came along, and a flood of networked pinball-related information followed. A revival of interest in vintage games was close behind.
Josh Brake has played his share of them.
Brake, probably the best player of tonight's group, is a member of Portland's most notorious pinball gang, the Crazy Flipper Fingers. The next time you're crammed into the back of a Portland bar, sidle over to the pinball machine and watch the high scores tick by.
If you hang around long enough, you'll spot the initials 'CFF,' probably somewhere near the top. Once they join the gang, Fingers members give up the right to enter their own initials when they get a high score.
How a wizard is born
Brake represented the CFF at Portland Pinball League meets in the past but stopped coming for a while. Now he's back to check out Ramos' new direction. He's intense, a bit abrupt and covered in tattoos, including a pair of swirled black-and-blue pinballs on each elbow.
After members play a round each on four machines, the scores are tallied. Everyone gathers around the score sheets to see how they did, but no one seems to care much who did best (for the record, it was Brake).
Talk turns to Lyman Sheats, a pinball virtuoso and a programmer for Stern Pinball Inc., the world's only remaining pinball machine maker. He wrote the software for Medieval Madness and is something of an icon in the pinball universe.
Brake says Sheats has a distinctive playing style, holding his face inches from the glass as he works the flippers. Somehow, Brake says, Sheats has banished luck from the game.
Some who showed up at Billy Ray's for league night say pinball is half skill and half luck. Maybe. But for Brake, taming the random and staying one step ahead of entropy is how the best pinball players become legends.
Anthony Ramos is no Lyman Sheats, and he's the first to admit it. Asked how he's doing throughout the evening, 'I'm sucking' is his frequent refrain. He battles on, though, moving from machine to machine, cursing each with equal ferocity.
'I think there's a certain amount of masochism involved,' he says. 'It's like paying money to bang your head against a wall, but you get to see lights and hear sounds while you do it.'
There's always one more
At the end of the night, Ramos holds an informal meeting over by Creature From the Black Lagoon. Over his shoulder, the Creature himself leers at the league, a buxom woman hanging limp in his scaly green arms.
Ramos is full of ideas for the future, and he floats them all: How about a double-elimination sports-style playoff at the end of the season? What about a traveling trophy or coffee mug that the top player defends each month? Would Pabst Blue Ribbon beer be interested in sponsoring the meets and providing prizes?
'More chicks,' Bailes shouts to the male-only crowd, raising his fists in the air. The laughs fade into serious nods.
It isn't Ramos' night on the tables, but his presidential debut has been a success.
After the competition ends, some league members trickle out into the night, but a few stay behind. They gather around Kyle Poquette as he plays Scared Stiff, a 1996 classic with 'Property of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark' emblazoned on the side. Elvira's canned cackle rings out in approval as Poquette hits his mark, league members offering their encouragement at his side.
And the ball rolls on.
Popular pinball spots
• Ground Kontrol, 511 N.W. Couch St., 503-796-9364
• Goodfoot Lounge, 2845 S.E. Stark St., 503-239-9292
• Billy Ray's Neighborhood Dive, 2216 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 503-287-7254
• Clinton Street Pub, 2516 S.E. Clinton St., 503-236-7137