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Tilting for pinball supremacy in the suburbs

The pinball championship of Rockville will be decided in a small alcove in the back of the Champion Billiards Cafe. If the sports bar’s name isn’t a strong enough indicator of its indoor-game hierarchy, its floor plan is. The game room—which houses four pinball machines, four arcade cabinets, a change machine, and a small pedestal end table—is overshadowed by 23 pool tables and a Pop-a-Shot. As the competitors play a few warm-up games, a waiter comes in, picks up the end table, and hoists it over his shoulder. “They need it for the pool league,” the waiter says, shrugging, and leaves the room.

Paul McGlone, an attorney from Fairfax, Va., and one of three finalists, looks for a new place to rest his beer. He settles on the console of the idle Varth: Operation Thunderstorm video game.

The Rockville League of the Free State Pinball Association is used to making adjustments. When the six regular members of the year-and-a-half-old group walked in for the last week of the regular season, they found that two of the league’s staple machines, Addams Family and Medieval Madness, had been replaced. “The operator of these pins had an auction last weekend,” says league President Tim Peterson, a computer analyst from Lanham, Md.

“It’s the saddest thing that’s happened around here for a while,” says John Elliott, a scientist from nearby Gaithersburg, shaking his head. “That was a good Addams.” Only one replacement machine has been provided for the erstwhile amusements—Monster Bash, which is handicapped by a weak flipper.

The championship tournament consists of a march down the row of machines: one round of Monster Bash, then two rounds of Monopoly, then two games on the bulldozer-themed Road Show. (The last game in the lineup, Attack From Mars, sits dark and dormant, which may be just as well—”That’s the first machine with an epilepsy warning,” says Elliott.)

The finalists, who finished on top in the league’s 10-week regular season, are McGlone (“Mainly I play pinball. During the day, I have to practice law a little bit”); Chris Newsom, a military intelligence analyst from Alexandria, Va., who’s fresh off taking a jackpot of $502.50 in a tournament in Arlington, Texas; and Kim Brennan, a systems analyst from Vienna, Va.

On the first ball of the night, Monster Bash draws invective from Newsom. “The game’s playing terrible,” he says. “When the right flipper’s not working, it’s not quite the same.” But he recovers his concentration when play resumes, hunching his long torso over the table, eyes locked straight down and feet firmly planted. The left is slightly behind the right.

“Nice shot, Chris,” says McGlone. The praise, he explains in a hushed aside, is a little gamesmanship, to get Newsom’s mind off the ball. But head games are futile. “He got the scroll,” McGlone whispers, “which gives him a monster bomb when he’s playing the mummy.”

Newsom wins the first round by 10 million points and starts steadily pulling away. While the competition goes on, Peterson leaves the room for long stretches, returning each time with a stuffed animal under each arm. In addition to his pinball talents—he just missed the cut for the finals—he’s an expert Skill Crane manipulator. “I think they know I’m scamming their machine,” he says, as he sets a pink teddy bear and yellow chicken atop the change machine, next to a trophy from last year’s tournament.

The trophy stands about 6 inches high and features twin silver chalices on a marble pediment. Tucked snugly inside each cup is a single authentic pinball, which Peterson put there himself. “They’ve got trophies for everything, including bocce ball,” he says. “I had to look for something with a pinball theme, and I saw the cups.”

By the fourth and penultimate round, Newsom has just about put the field away. Brennan steps up to Road Show to play his last ball, needing to pass Newsom’s score of 205,691,160 to stay mathematically alive. The canned sound of screeching tires and honking horns crescendos. Brennan hits the bulldozer, works the left ramp, unlocks multiball mode. His score starts creeping up a million points at a time.

Then, suddenly, the ball drains—142,172,900. Brennan stares straight ahead, unmoving. “It’s all over but the shouting,” he says. Then he pulls a few more quarters from a black drawstring pouch and slides them in. CP