Disciples of the silver ball

'You need to play the machine to its best advantage by nudging rather than tilting it'
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The Independent Online
My two daughters were hugely impressed when I called up a world champion to fix a footling domestic breakdown. Okay, it's been five years since John Whyatt held the title, but he's still unquestionably one of the best in the world, as he was later to prove.

Actually, the children were a bit disappointed when Whyatt knocked. They expected a cross between Rambo, Luke Skywalker and Gomez Adams. Instead, they opened the door to a slightly fussy man in his 40s. Unfashionable clothes, glasses and a briefcase make Whyatt look more like a doctor.

In fact, that's not a bad analogy. Whyatt's hobby is operating on ailing pinball tables. He even advertises for "dead and sick machines", and his interest in the technical side of the game has been a vital element in making him as good as the legendary Tommy - although he's not happy with the comparison.

"Whenever you see pinball on television, that piece of music is always played. But Tommy hasn't done us a lot of favours," says Whyatt, from Great Yarmouth.

Despite his best efforts to raise the game's status, pinball still carries the stigma of noisy seaside oiks. But within the game's elite, such players are as rare as invoking the tilt light. The Pinball Owners' Association, which held its annual convention last weekend, now has more than 500 members and many are lawyers, doctors or accountants.

Americans may claim to have the top players. After all, there are two pinball leagues running there. But the World Pinball Wizard Competition, run by the POA, has been going for 19 years. Significantly, a couple of American players competed in this year's two-day championships at Lytham St Anne's, Lancashire.

We've all played pinball. Generations of students have squandered much of their grants on those flashing, winking talking machines. But to play well, to play really well, you need more than hand-eye co-ordination. Game of chance? Not according to Whyatt. As befits a computer engineer, he insists that the silver ball's behaviour is a matter of physics rather than fate.

"You need to understand the game thoroughly, then be able to play the machine to its best advantage by nudging rather than tilting it," he says.

Technically known as English for unknown reasons, nudging is essential - and legal, as long as you don't invoke the dreaded tilt freeze.

Some players, notably the 1991 world champion, Malcolm Rimmer of Southport, claim you can impart three sorts of spin on the ball - side, topspin and backspin - to control its seemingly random ricochets. Rimmer says: "Spin is vital to success at pinball. You can bend the ball round a bumper and hit the target, or stun it so that it stops dead on the flipper."

He likens pinball, which grew from 1920s coin-op bagatelle machines, to snooker. "At first you just crash the balls around the table, then you learn to pot individual balls. Then you learn to control the white so that you can set things up for the next shot. You have to get the same degree of control in pinball - but hit the ball on the move."

Serious stuff, this - almost as serious as the future for pinball in the 1970s when video crashed through the door. Operators didn't need a gaming licence, the cabinets were smaller and the games offered a new level of challenge. Pinball reeled. Columbia Pictures closed Gottlieb, the leading manufacturer, while Williams, another top name, was on the verge of closure. It looked as if video had killed the pinball star, especially when computer games developed rapidly from their early sophistication of one blob chasing another blob.

But pinball didn't die, largely thanks to an innovative game called Space Shuttle. Circuit boards and microprocessors replaced the old electro-mechanical innards. (You can still buy classic electro-mechanical machines as cheaply as pounds 150.)

Sound and speech synthesisers, lasers and a host of innovative features have made the games more addictive and playable. The next generation looks certain to incorporate CD technology.

There's been a downside to the bells and whistles of these new multi- level games, which are often based on Hollywood blockbusters. Accomplished players like Whyatt could once get hours of play for 10p, which must have driven end-of-pier operators crazy. No more. "Most games have only one replay for high score now," says Whyatt. "Even with a proficient player, it doesn't take long before you just can't win more replays."

He has 16 machines at home, filling his garage, his workshop and his games room. He relaxes with a couple of games after work and regularly practises difficult shots by removing the glass and replicating difficult situations such as "bangbacks" - how to get the ball back when it has passed the flippers.

It's skills like these that set the pinball wizards apart. I have owned my machine for several years. After Whyatt had fixed the worn-out bumpers, the broken lights, mended the sticking replay feature and taken out the "cheat" nail that I put in to make the game easier, he had one go to check it was working well. In that game, he scored higher than I have ever done. Depressing, huh? I'm now stuck with a high score I'll never beat. But I suppose it serves me right for thinking of pinball as a game of luck.

The Pinball Owners Association is at PO Box 122, Cambs CB1 4AH. Owning a machine is not a qualification of membership.