The One Where We Played in a Competitive Pinball Tournament in the Back Room of a Garden Center

Scene: Downtown Hyatt, Boise, Idaho.

Characters: Braden, Janna

Braden: “Hey, want to play in a competitive pinball tournament? It’s called “The Infinity Games”

Janna: “Ok. But I want you to know that I’m not going to do very well but I am trying so you can’t get mad at me.”

Braden: “Ok. Just act disappointed if you lose.”

Braden: “It’s at a place called ‘The Potting Shed.’ Is that right?”

Janna: “Like, the pinball machines are in the garden center?”

Braden: “I dunno, I guess we’ll find out!”

Scene: The Potting Shed

Yep. In the back room of a garden center, about 2 miles from downtown Boise, Idaho, there are approximately 30 pinball machines set up.

We walked in, not sure whether to be intimidated or not. The description of the event on Facebook ended with: “not sure what any of this means? Just come play pinball with nice people!” That was enough to get us in the door, but we were still skeptical. It felt like a pretty niche thing.

Turns out, on this particular Saturday afternoon, 29 of the  nicest people in Boise, Idaho were gathered in the back of the Potting Shed garden center, playing pinball. The owner of the establishment, Dave Fellows, is a hobbiest pinball machine owner (which, incidentally, also means “pinball mechanic,” as the machines are notoriously finicky). It sounds nerdy, and it’s definitely that, but the people came from all walks of life. One guy works for a distributor of solar panels. Another couple announced at today’s event the pending birth of their first child. One pair was a father-daughter combination. The daughter, when she was 15, was Idaho’s first-ever state pinball champion in 2017; her dad won the most recent title, beating his own child in the championship match. He claimed that it was all good and no hard feelings. Her expression told a different story.

The format, which is not standardized, saw each of the 31 players get one crack at each of the 17 functioning machines in the building (which became 16, and then 15, by the time it finished – as I said, pinball machines are finicky). Sometimes that means 2 flips in 3 balls. Sometimes you get hot and run up a big score. You received points based on where your score ranked on each machine, and those points were added up into a ranking. The top 12 advanced to the finals, where they were to be split into 4s, playing “match play,” where you accumulated points based on how you finished within your quartet. Kind of a modified rolling ladder system.

While pinball does involve luck, it is definitely not only a game of luck. Some people are really good at pinball. We’re not those people. Janna finished 30th out of 31, and I wasn’t much better: 26th. For a brief period we were 1st and 2nd! We were the first two to finish all 16 games. It turns out, pinball is a game where ‘finishing first’ is a bad thing, for obvious reasons.

I had a couple of really good games. On one, Triple Strike, I was the 2nd-highest scorer. On another, Jungle Queen, I was 3rd. Both were older games, made in the mid-70s, so I think I’ve found my sweet spot.

This was an absolutely perfect way to kill an afternoon as we’re on our way to Boise. It was 2 parts pinball, 1 part potluck, with snacks and beers and conversation and just a great time.

This isn’t the first time we’ve played pinball on this trip. At the Melt restaurant in Columbus I put up some big scores, and we took 2 trips to Asheville’s Pinball Museum (which is a trip of a place). I think I could get in to this pinball thing. Janna, who’s not usually competitive, enjoyed it too, because nobody else was dependent on her abilities, so the pressure was off.

It turns out, there are leagues like this everywhere – all across the country and the world. There’s even a slick website that they use to score it, so you can see your scores updated and track your history. Check out IFPAPinball.com to find a tournament in your area. I promise you’ll enjoy it.

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