At 6:00 PM on a rainy Tuesday, I walked into Ground Kontrol, Portland's legendary arcade. Up the stairs, in the back room where all the pinball machines live, players were already shoulder to shoulder, practicing before the tournament would start.
The heat steaming off the machines, combined with Portland's dampness, made the place feel cramped and hive-like. Ear-piercing bells and clangs and chirps, the jukebox on full blast, players laughing, cursing, a million strobing and multicolored lights.
Portland has arguably the greatest pinball scene in the world, and tournaments like the one at Ground Kontrol host some of the best players in the game. People like Andy Cobb, current reigning Oregon State Pinball Champion; Derek "DMX" Miazga, ranked first in the state by points; Noah "Opto" Davis, ranked 162nd in the world and gaining; Greg Dunlap, who has nearly two-and-a-half decades of experience as a dedicated pinball player and volunteer with the Pinball Outreach Project, a charitable group that gets kids into the sport. There's Colin Urban, the unofficial mascot of Portland pinball, who, at the age of 11 beat the world's greatest player, Keith Elwin, at a local tournament. Now, at 14, Urban is officially the World's Best Youth Player, and 111th overall. And then there's Zoë Vrabel, the World's Women's Pinball Champion.
The Portland pinball scene began in a garage, Vrabel told me. "Seven or eight people would get together and have these teeny tiny little informal tournaments," she told me. "But I think the real reason that there's such a huge scene in Portland is because of CFF."
Crazy Flipper Fingers, or CFF for short, is Portland's largest pinball gang. It started off in 2005 as a loose group of 20 or so hard-drinking types, united by a pure, obsessive love of pinball.
"They'd buy a lot of drinks, but they'd only go to bars with machines," Vrabel told me. Bars started to realize they could capitalize on a group of heavy drinkers who liked to play pinball, and Portland started to get a lot more pinball machines.
An official Tuesday Night Tournament soon followed, registered with the International Flipper Player Association, the global governing body of all things pinball. The scene flourished from there, and today you can find tournaments every week, sometimes three or four, in dimly lit bars or private back rooms all over the city. And then there's the unranked bar leagues, pinball pub crawls, and charity events. Portland even has a women-only league, Belles and Chimes, where women can get together to talk strategy and practice on machines in a less competitive environment.
At Ground Kontrol, during one of the weekly Tuesday tournaments, the place was so packed by 7 PM that you'd have to yell to the person next to you to be heard over the wall of noise.
It goes like this: 40 or so players; every round, two randomly selected players would battle on each machine. Every game you lose is a strike, two strikes and you're out. Survive to the bitter end, and you win.
The announcer barked out the matches, and Cobb, the state champ, ponied up to his first machine. Cobb looks like a second grade teacher, but stoned. Behind the machine, however, he's a fucking nightmare.
As a kid, Cobb spent most of his nights at the nickel arcades of Portland, where he first discovered pinball. Now, at 30, he's a staple of the Portland scene and a serious player. By his own estimates, he's logged around 10,000 hours on pinball. To put it another way, that's about ten hours a week, for 20 years.
Cobb's first match of the night was on Bram Stoker's Dracula, a machine so perfect and shiny, recently doted upon by one of Portland's priestly pinball techs. Amidst all the chaos and noise and heat, his opponent watching from behind his shoulder with darting, unblinking eyes, Cobb was only focused on one thing: the machine.
They battled back-and-forth for 20 minutes. His opponent played with zen-like calm, barely moving save for his index fingers, which were twitching like insects. Cobb, on the other hand, played with the spring-loaded tension of a cobra on meth.
A few machines over, Vrabel was playing with the flailing style of a Southern Baptist preacher—legs kicking out, hands flying. Between matches, I asked her what it was like to be one of the few women here.
"It's pressure," she told me. "I feel like I'm letting women down every game I lose, you know? Like there's always someone waiting there to judge me."
By 9 PM, the room smelled like sweat and beer. It was down to a handful—Cobb, Vrabel, and Dunlap among them. Everyone else had left, defeated.
Watching some of the greatest pinball players on the planet is like watching any competition between the world's best of any activity. At its heart, it's a form of art, with subtlety that could be easily lost on the average observer. But if you know what you're looking for, if you know how skillfully each player is playing, it's a mesmerizing thing.
In the end, after five hours of battling, Cobb won the tournament. His prize: $120.
No one gets rich playing pinball. Not yet, at least. And anyway, that's not what it's really about.
For the novices, it's about hope, that maybe, if the winds are blowing just right, you can beat the greats and get your name written in some small piece of history. For players like Vrabel, it's about camaraderie. For Dunlap, it's about preserving something, passing accrued knowledge on to future generations.
For Cobb, it's just about not losing. "I hate losing more than I like winning," he told me, smiling. "Although winning feels pretty fucking good, too."
As the last of the players stroll out in to the night air, I asked him if he had any advice for a new player.
"Don't let the ball go down the hole," he said, laughing. "If you can do that, you'll beat everyone."