The pinball wizards set for tilt at title

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The Independent Online
It was destiny, an encounter made in Heaven (or at least in Chicago).

David Dutton was 15 years old and on a school exchange in France when he wandered into a small cafe. In the corner, playing the pinball machine with considerable verve, was a stunning brunette. For Dutton, a silver ball enthusiast, it was love at first sight. He found out that she was 14 and that her name was Marie. The pair met every day and played pinball. When he returned to Sheffield, they agreed to become penfriends.

And there it might have ended. But pinball enthusiasts are made of sterner stuff. They wrote and visited each other. Through the Depression, those dreadful days when computer and video games seemed set to drive pinball into extinction, their romance still burned bright. Marie, determined to train as a nurse but equally determined to preserve their relationship, moved to England. Nine years ago, the couple married. One of the first things that David acquired was the pinball table that had brought them together.

Nice story, isn't it? But it doesn't end there. The two now live just outside Huddersfield in a rambling 1830s vicarage that is a monument to pinball (or it would be if David ever gets round to repairing the 50-odd machines that fill almost every room). He is the reigning British champion, his wife perhaps the best female player in Britain. They have two children and - wouldn't you know it? - the elder one, William, five, was standing on a box and playing pinball as I walked through the door.

Pinball conjures up images of smoky coffee bars, truckers' cafes or end- of-the-pier amusement arcades. It's easy to assume that those who still play the game are old rockers still mourning the day Eddie Cochran died. Believe me, I tried hard to find this stereotypical player - but I kept running into bank managers, engineers and people like Dutton, an accountant by trade, who now runs an educational supplies company. There are plenty of women, too, because good pinball requires guile and hand-eye co-ordination, rather than brute force and good fortune. Watching leading exponents is an education for anyone who thinks the progress of that ball is governed by the laws of luck.

It's not a matter of buying your own table (about pounds 300 upwards for a reconditioned one) and learning its eccentricities either. As an enthusiastic but poor pinball player, I had my machine serviced by John Whyatt, a former British champion. Having fixed all the blown fuses, soggy bumpers and missing lights, Whyatt had one go to test it - and recorded a higher score than I had made in three years of owning the thing. His multi-million total is still there, mocking me.

Top players give machines a good shaking, running the fine line between controlling and tilting. This is called English or body English, for some unknown reason, and American players in particular develop styles as flamboyant as Michael Johnson's running. But you need other abilities besides as fast eye, quick brain and a nifty hip-wiggle.

"You don't have to use the full force of the flipper,'' Dutton says. "You can do a lot of tricks with that simple plastic bat.'' Like backspin, sidespin and in multi-ball games, holding two balls on one flipper while keeping the third ball in action. You need to see it to believe it.

No wonder Dutton was banned from playing the machine at his local pub. "The landlord said I was too good. He told me: 'You are putting in just one coin and winning loads of replays.' He wanted to encourage people to keep playing and putting in money.''

Ah, there's the chartered accountant in him. He likes the concept that playing a machine in an arcade or cafe is "winning the right to stop putting money in''. But it's not always like that. Marie says: "We sometimes go into an arcade and he will feed money into a machine, trying to win and set a new high score. When he has done that, he will walk away, leaving replays up there.''

Dutton is also one of the few Europeans to win a title in the United States, spiritual home of the game. ''We took a year out to travel round the world and we were in Arizona when we heard about the Wild West Pinball Show. I always seem to play better when I come fresh to a machine, and I was lucky enough to win,'' he says modestly. The prize was a machine called Bride of Pinbot, reckoned by many to be the best of all pinball games. But it cost the Duttons so much to ship their prize back from Phoenix that it would probably have been cheaper to buy the machine.

Still, Dutton should be good. As well as playing his heart out to win his dream girl, he's been playing machines since he was five. "I lived in Liverpool and there were a couple of dozen cafes within two miles. Our neighbour rented out machines to these cafes, and I was his unofficial tester.''

He bought his first machine while at university in Sheffield. When it broke down, he learnt to repair it. "The old electro-mechanical ones are not that complicated: it's the way the parts interact that's the secret. You can make them work with a rusty nail.'' Gradually, he has collected more and more.

"There were times when I have thought, 'I can't get another one,' but Marie has encouraged me and said: 'Go for it.' I suppose I am a little bit of an eccentric. It is a release for a side of my character that I don't use in other ways.''

Dutton, now 37, admits that competition brings out the best in him. "When I play board games against the children, I find myself mentally smacking my wrists because I'm trying to beat them.'' He will certainly be the man to beat in Birmingham today, when he defends his British pinball crown. He has won the title three times, more than anyone else since the Pinball Owners Association started 20 years ago.

However, his wife, who has been runner-up in the championships, is quite capable of beating him. "She's a very good player,'' he concedes. She delivers a Gallic snort. "He's not invincible.'' Maybe not. But I'm not playing against him, and he's not coming to mend my machine either.

The Wizard 97 Pinball Convention takes place at the National Indoor Arena, Birmingham, today and tomorrow from 11am-5pm. It features the largest number of pinball machines seen in the UK. The British Championship is an open event with qualifying rounds today and finals tomorrow. Entry is pounds 5, including one child free.