“I’ve always been drawn to amusement-related things—boardwalks, carnivals, blinking lights—because I grew up between the Jersey Shore and New York City. During college I spent every hour I could in the game room; the joy of the flashing lights was much cheaper than therapy. I played pinball in between classes, on the weekends and really at any opportunity available. So when I read an article in The New York Times about a pinball tournament in Manhattan, I was intrigued.”
That tournament was the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association World Pinball Championship, otherwise known as PAPA 3, held at the Omni Park Central Hotel, February 12-14, 1993. Most details about it have been lost to time, but it was the first pinball tournament VSA Partners’ Associate Director, Delivery Management Penni Epstein ever played in. And, in her own words, she was hooked. “I saw banks and banks of games set up. I was amazed that everyone was there just to play pinball. I qualified for the finals and lost my first match, but my life was forever changed. I wanted to play more and play better.” The official page for the following year’s PAPA 4 lists about 600 participants, with Epstein coming in 14th in the women’s division. By the time of PAPA 6 in Las Vegas, she took fourth place in the same division—meaning she ranked as the fourth best female pinball player in the world.
Epstein managed to combine her studies in college with her love of pinball—as a graphic design major at SUNY Purchase, just outside New York City, she decided on pinball design as her senior thesis. After researching game design, development and programming that included a week spent on-site at the Data East pinball company in Chicago, “I designed and hand-painted the graphics for a fully operational prototype; there’s nothing like having an 18-wheeler pull up to your apartment and drop off a brand new, graphics-free pinball machine” she called Penni Arcade. Once she realized game designers needed AutoCAD training and engineering experience, she returned to her graphic design degree. “If I couldn’t get a job designing, I wanted to play even better,” she said.
Throughout the ‘90s, Epstein called the legendary Broadway Arcade her home base; it closed on New Year’s Eve, 1999. But for years, “I had a job at a small ad agency 12 blocks away, so I spent many a lunch hour there. Broadway Arcade really showed that pinball was alive and well in New York, and it was what kept me going early on.” Dozens of tournaments followed, including competitions in California, Kentucky, Bainbridge Island and Amsterdam. In addition to solo competitions, Epstein was also an inaugural member of the first all-female team in pinball, the 4 Chicks, for PAPA’s annual PinBrawl tournament.
Epstein will attend her 15th PAPA tournament this week in Pittsburgh, and in the time since she first competed 21 years ago, the tournament’s stakes have only grown. With cash prizes of $45,000, players flying in from as far away as Australia and Japan, 52 hours of pinball play and the title of “World Pinball Champion” on the line, it’s clear that this is no small deal for pinball enthusiasts. Fortunately, each tournament provides a unique opportunity to reconnect with the wide range of players she’s met over the years. “Tournament players are an interesting mix of people from all walks of life—there are teachers, programmers, scientists, math book writers, business owners, CGI artists—many are still great friends of mine, and seeing them once or twice a year is like a family reunion.”
The PAPA tournament remains the largest of its kind, but Epstein clears her schedule for two other annual events. One is Pinball Expo in Chicago, which is the industry’s version of a conference and features seminars, pinball machines and parts for sale and much more. The second is Pinburgh, a tournament held just outside—where else?—Pittsburgh and featuring three solid days of head-to-head matches in front of an audience of 400. In Epstein’s words, all this geeking out is a mixed blessing. “You think it’s easy playing pinball for days on end, but it’s taxing on your legs, arms and brain. And the games can get grimy, so I have hand sanitizer on me at all times. You have to know the game, that particular game’s rules, have a strategy, tune out the sound of the crowd, keep your focus to get the most points—and still have a great time! ”
What can the average person do to get into competitive pinball? Epstein’s advice is not unexpected: just get out and start playing. “There’s probably a league or organization locally in every city in America—all you have to do is sign up and play. Check out the IFPA site for tournaments across the country or download the Pinfinder app. There are mailing lists, events at local bars, so many opportunities to get into it. It’s getting to be a bigger subculture than most people realize.”
For Pittsburgh-area readers, you can cheer Epstein on at PAPA 17 this week; anyone can follow along to the tournament online on Twitter and at PAPA.org. You can also find out information about upcoming tournaments across the country at the IFPA site—it lists over 200 taking place before the end of the year alone. Chicago-area enthusiasts can tour the great Stern Pinball factory, site of the Pinball Expo, for a detailed look at how games are created. And Epstein recommends checking out Modern Pinball, Reciprocal Skateboards, Jackbar, Fifth Estate or Bar Great Harry for New Yorkers seeking a great pinball experience today.
Epstein’s considering taking her show on the road to Belgium for next year’s World Pinball Championship and will be at Pinburgh 2015 as part of the ReplayFX Arcade & Gaming Festival next July. She remains in the top 1,000 of over 18,000 players of both sexes, worldwide, and continues to lobby VSA’s administration for a pinball machine in the Chicago office.
Photos provided by Penni Epstein.