On a drunken night at Gestalt on 16th Street, two pinball enthusiasts came up with the Mission’s latest pastime: a beginner league for pinball players.
“My baby has come alive,” said Jessi Reid, a Mission resident, who along with her friend, Gene Hwang, has been dreaming of such a league for about a year. Now, through the support of friends and the power of social media, their “Mission Pinball Club” met for the first time earlier this month, and will play every Tuesday for a five-week tournament.
Reid said she discovered the game four years ago and “was hooked.”
Hwang, a photographer, said that he regularly plans trips around tournaments.
“When I travel, there has to be a pinball component,” said Hwang, adding that he almost participated in a “Kiwi” tournament on a recent trip to Australia.
As soon as the two put their idea into action, a local community of devout pin-ballers followed.
“Pinball is the most manageable addiction I have,” said Jeff Cleary, a 20-year Mission resident who lives around the corner from Gestalt and also joined the club. “Wherever you go, you’ll find “pinball heads,” but it always seemed to be an afterthought in the dark shadows of the bar. Now, it’s a thing. There’s a league for it.”
While pinball has made a resurgence in popularity over the last five years, its dark history of flipper-less tables used for gambling prompted an 80-year ban on the game in Oakland. The city only lifted the ban in 2014. In San Francisco, pinball machine owners needed a permit from the entertainment commission, and the number of machines that an establishment could have were regulated. As video games replaced the analog, those restrictions lost relevance and have since been rolled back.
“The more [machines] the merrier, if you ask me,” said Reid. “It’s a fun, social hobby where we all gather around a table and cheer for our fellow players to do their very best.”
On February 9, the league convened for the first time at Gestalt. Two dollar PBRs and two hours of playtime on machines with “Game of Thrones” and “World Cup” themes, among others, drew eight people. By the second week, the size of the group had doubled.
“You gotta go for the flashing lights,” advised Bryan Whalen, who squared off with a machine themed around the band “Kiss,” after feeding it four quarters.
With slightly hunched shoulders, Whalen angled his feet at 90 degrees and leaned his slim frame into the table, as his index fingers grazed two red buttons on either side of the machine.
Kiss songs blared from the machine. No matter. His eyes followed the steel ball that he manually catapulted through a playing field of tunnels and miniature obstacles by way of a spring lever.
Whalen only broke his focus once to dispel some crucial advice.
“It’s about spatial awareness,” said Whalen, a Pabst Blue Ribbon representative with a pinball tattoo on his wrist. “The thing about pinball is you don’t look up. You gotta know where everything is from this half up [without looking].”
As the ball slipped through the black flippers that acted as extensions of his fingers, he yielded the table muttering “Oh, and beer and pinball go together.”
That’s exactly what Reid thought when she founded the Club, hoping that it would be a starting point for beginners with the goal of either having fun or gaining the skills and confidence to enter the professional realm of competitive pinballing. But word about the club is spreading quickly, and she hopes to build momentum to sustain the club beyond the season.
“I love that there are so many women here. Pinball is definitely becoming an up-an-coming thing for women to play,” said Reid.
Newly minted pinball enthusiasts, passers-by, and professional competitors made up the diverse roster of players that joined the league Tuesday night.
Kara Murphy competed in the tournament for the first, but has been a pinball enthusiast for a while. The game is not at all pretentious, she said, and neither are the people who participate.
“I really like the camaraderie here,” said Murphy, who competed in the tournament for the first time. “Yes, we are competing but it doesn’t feel like it because everyone high-fives after the game. They’ll pay attention to your game and they want you to do well.”
Hwang agreed that the game attracted all types. “There’s a homeless musician who is pretty good but barely makes it to events. There are some tech people, and there’s Bryan the beer guy.”
Nick Whelan, a software engineer from Austin, Texas, was one of the 14 people that competed in Tuesday’s tournament after finding out about it on Twitter.
Whelan said that his company has two pinball tables, which he uses regularly. “You can really find a community anywhere you go,” he said. “It’s a great way to relieve stress and meet interesting people.”
Though new to the world of pinball, graphic designer Kelly Martin said that she made an important discovery by observing other players in the league.
“Everyone I’ve noticed has their own system for how ‘rocking’ the table when they play,” said Martin. “Some people lean in, others lean back a little bit, and then there are those who shake the table just after they launch the ball. Maybe it’s a good luck thing, maybe it’s technique.”
“Tilting” the table is useful trick in scoring, explained Hwang. A slight nudge will prompt a warning message to appear on the table’s digital screen, but shaking it too hard could penalize the player.
“You’re supposed to shake the machine around a little bit, that means you’re trying,” said Hwang. “Nudging skills are extremely important for getting better at pinball.”
While the league has a competitive premise — the players break off into groups of three and four, which battle amongst themselves for the highest scores, rotating between tables throughout the evening — the Mission Pinball Club in particular, said Reid, is about friendship.
“You learn, you become good at a table, you share your knowledge,” said Reid. “Everyone commiserates — it’s the machine, not you.”