Dan Cerny was winning by millions of points when his shiny metal ball slipped past his flippers and into the hole for the second time. He still had a third and final ball, but so did each of his three competitors in this bracket of the city's newest organized sport, the Los Angeles Pinball League.
Cerny was dominating a pinball machine titled Rollergames, which is based — as much as a pinball game can be — on another completely disparate but comparably fringe organized sport known as Roller Derby. Cerny's score had reached more than 4 million at this two-thirds mark in the game, while his competitors at this Echo Park pinball arcade had been left behind in the mere hundreds of thousands.
Cerny's invisible advantage this night is what should only be referred to as a healthy obsession with pinball. As organizer of this brand-new league, Cerny has a mind for the game — a mind he's willing to dedicate to hours of bracket-making, score-keeping and player-ranking.
His more noticeable advantage, however, is a style of pinball playing that is antithetically calm compared to the manic path of the ball as it slides down ramps and bounces off various spring-loaded bumpers and walls beneath the glass of these intricate machines. When the ball reaches his flipper, Cerny doesn't just kick it back out into the chaotic, clanging field of pinball madness at the top of the slope. He breaks that flow, ever so subtly, to stall the ball with his upturned flipper. Suspended from motion for a brief moment, the ball then is allowed back into its gravitational fall, only to be slammed off the ideal spot on the flipper and back into a more preferred spot in the wilderness above.
Cerny has what the pinball community might call flipper control. One move you will never see him make is to flip both flippers at once.
If you've ever played pinball, this is something you've probably done. It's a phenomenon that hasn't been properly studied, but using both flippers at once is a reaction seemingly ingrained in our collective pinball-playing impulses. It feels so right, but it couldn't be more wrong. Both flippers flipped up at the same time makes the path to the dark beyond of the pinball machine's drain-hole immense, which greatly increases the probability that your turn will end soon. Experience eventually takes a player beyond that natural urge, an urge that dedicated pinball players equate more to an illness than to human nature.
“The old double-flipperitis,” as league competitor Dave “Mustang” Lang calls it. A self-reported champion of the Addams Family pinball machine in his college student center, Lang seems as much an expert as one might hope to find on such subjects.
However, it should be stated that the sort of people who are here, paying $5 a week to play competitive pinball, are not the type to trigger their flippers without at least some sense of control. Though not unseen, double-flipper play is rare at this level. The people who make up the Los Angeles Pinball League know the game too well, and respect it maybe too much.
The idea of a pinball league is not especially new; leagues exist all over the country, including three others in Southern California. But until recently, L.A.'s pinball community had done without. Then pinball enthusiast Molly Atkinson, who's one of the top-ranked female pinball players in the world, opened a small pinball arcade in Echo Park.
Stocked mainly with her own collection of machines from the 1960s, '70s and '80s, Atkinson's store has become the new center of the L.A. pinball scene. The store's first few months were spent relatively quietly in the back half of a WIC nutrition center, which sold fruits and milk during the day. It recently moved to a larger, more pinball-friendly space in Echo Park's Bedrock Studios. Its first six-week season of competitive pinball just ended.
On this night, Cerny seemed confident about the way things were going. His two-ball score had demolished his competition, and he expected only more of the same level of pinball dominance from ball three. But as it can often be in this tempestuously unpredictable game, ball three was on a path Rollergames had paved so effectively, a path that would take no stall or redirection from either of the flippers at Cerny's control. His final ball took a few bounces and reflections on its way through the sloping pinball landscape but then slipped into the depths of the machine, adding only a few tens of thousands of points to his score.
It was an unfortunate turn, which opened a door for his fellow competitors — an opening they would take. By the end of the night, Cerny's score had been topped by more than 3 million points. It was a devastating loss but one not unexpected in a roomful of the city's pinball elite.