Arts and Entertainment

Pinball wizards descend upon Bainbridge Island

Tod MacCulloch - Richard D. Oxley / Bainbridge Island Review
Tod MacCulloch
— image credit: Richard D. Oxley / Bainbridge Island Review

Under the glow of blinking lights and bathed in the sounds of springs, beeps and hypnotic pings, pinball wizards from around the globe congregated on Bainbridge Island to praise the game they have devoted their nights and countless quarters to.

The International Flipper Pinball Association held its 2012 championship on the island over an intense two days of competition that drew 64 players from 12 countries.

It’s more involved than one might think. To competitors, pinball is more than just a game shoved into the corners of bowling alleys.

“I think the uniqueness of the game is what makes it so great,” said Josh Sharpe, president of the International Flipper Pinball Association. “There’s a combination of physical challenges within a game’s geometry, where you are simply fighting gravity in a bat-and-ball game.”

Sharpe added that each table has its own complexities and features that give it a sense of chess-like strategy.

It’s such strategy and skill that draws players to arcades, intent on making record scores and, hopefully, a shot at the championship.

One such player, representing his home pinball gang the Crazy Flipper Fingers, was Danny “Backglass” Belrose who traveled from Portland, Ore to try his luck in the competition, which featured 60 pinball tables.

“I was one of the last people to make the cut for the world championship,” Belrose said. “You have to earn a certain amount of points throughout the year, you have to win a certain amount of tournaments, and travel a little bit, maybe win some outside of the state to accumulate enough points to be accepted into this.”

Like Belrose, all the competitors spent their year aiming for the championship. Unfortunately, Belrose fell out before the finals.

While competing is itself an honor, players got an extra treat at this year’s tournament.

Islander Todd MacCulloch hosted the event at his own home. MacCulloch is widely known throughout the gaming community — as a professional basketball player.

After playing basketball for the University of Washington, MacCulloch played for the Philadelphia 76ers, and then the New Jersey Nets. He also played for the Canadian National Basketball team in the 2000 Olympics.

MacCulloch retired in 2004 after a foot injury put an end to his pro-ball career.

However, the rock wasn’t the only ball he was talented at slamming. MacCulloch has held a passion for pinball nearly all his life.

“I played pinball whenever, wherever I could,” he said.

The love of pinball followed him through his hoops career, and it was more than just a hobby. He easily cites his favorite game (Medieval Madness) and his preferred pinball table designers (Steve Ritchie and John Borg).

Eventually, he decided to have a few tables around the house.

“In New Jersey, I purchased three machines from my youth. Then I found myself not getting burnt out on them, but getting energized and I wanted to get some more,” MacCulloch said. “I found some good games and acquired them, and then searched out more.”

His passion only grew over time to where his home now houses a revolving number of pinball tables — generally around 30 machines at any given time. And he doesn’t stock just his favorite past games, he makes sure to get the newest ones to. The most recent pinball release, an AC/DC table based on the famous rock group, is already in place at his home.

Three of his machines — Fish Tales, Adams Family and Jackbot — are also featured at his local island hotspot, The 122 bar.

Though what initially started as a collector’s hobby quickly transformed into a competitive fervor.

“I played in a tournament in 2006, and got hooked on competitive pinball,” MacCulloch said. “It’s fun to compete when it doesn’t matter who wins.”

MacCulloch, at an intimidating 7-feet tall, crouched over the tables sporting an impassioned glare throughout this year’s tournament. However, the towering pinball host played his last ball shortly before the finals.

Despite his home field advantage, he took 49th place at the competition.

After last weekend’s competition, he is currently ranked 128th out of over 14,000 ranked players world-wide.

MacCulloch’s spirit of pinball camaraderie was shared by his fellow aficionados at the tournament. Despite a tense competitive climate, players cheered each other on as one-by-one they were shed from the line-up leading to the finals on the second day.

The finals included 32 players. But the competition shortly spiraled down to a shoot-out between three top players: Daniele Acciari from Italy, Cayle George from Seattle, and Andy Rosa from Flint, Mich.

Acciari and George have traded the world champion title over the past two years. Acciari won it in 2010, but George claimed the title in 2011.

Rosa had also run into Acciari before. He lost to Acciari in the 2010 final match when the Italian flipper first became world champion.

Now the title was once again up for grabs, and each player was determined to take it.

“The IFPA World Pinball Championship is an extremely challenging event,” George said. “It tests players’ skills and abilities beyond most any other event in the world and it is wonderful to take part in such a great competition.”

Rosa went down first at the hands of Acciari, taking third place.

“I guess I dropped a spot this time, but in the company of the players present, that’s not that bad,” Rosa said.

“Daniele played very, very well against me compared to scores he dropped on others on the same machines he chose,” he said.

The two remaining pinball rivals, Acciari and George, hammered along, racking up points and trying to defeat the other across an array of tables with themes such as The Shadow, Medusa, Attack From Mars, Old Chicago and Grand Prix.

At the end of the day, the Italian stallion of pinball, Acciari would punch his points further than George and take home the world champion trophy.

“The number of times that Cayle was almost eliminated truly tested his will to dig deep and really survive,” Sharpe said. “When it came to another elimination game for Cayle, he actually lost because of an unintentional interference ruling where he accidentally tilted not only his ball, but the tilt went into Daniele’s ball. This cost Cayle that game, as it is a disqualification, and ultimately ended up costing him the championship.”

George was a good sport, walking away with second place.

“I am very happy to have made the final for the second year in a row, though this year, the bitter taste of defeat will linger,” George said.

MacCulloch is already at work getting prepared for next year’s championship in Germany. He wants to improve enough to make it into the finals next year.

“There are always people improving,” MacCulloch said. “So if you’re stagnant, you’re sliding.”

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