Show Earl a photo of a topless woman, and he’ll respond like most heterosexual men—sure, he’ll take a look at the boobs. Show Earl two photos of a topless woman, and he’ll ditch the boobs—that’s an amateur move—and look for the color of her thong, the pattern of her rug, or how many eyes her dog has.
Earl is a connoisseur of Erotic Photo Hunt, an electronic bar game that puts a bawdy twist on the “spot the difference” puzzles that fill out kids magazines or the comics page. The rules of Erotic Photo Hunt are simple. Drop in a quarter. Choose “Babes” or “Hunks.” Inspect two photos of the same soft-core pinup, identical except for five Photoshopped differences. Touch all the variations before time runs out, and you advance to the next round. Each round is faster than the last. Never go straight for the boobs—differences are most likely to reveal themselves in the less titillating areas of the screen, like foliage, motorcycles, or pets.
“It’s like playing the one-eyed monster,” says Earl, a semi-retired mechanic who prefers to go by his first name. “You just put your money in, and it just takes it and stares back at you—challenging you.”
Earl is up to the challenge. He’s been playing the game for just over a year, but he’s already dominated the machines at most of the downtown bars where it’s on offer. When a new topless woman pops up—be she lounging on a yacht, surrounded by bananas, or with an Easter basket placed fortuitously between her legs—Earl instantly touches the screen five times, as if working from muscle memory. He seems to barely glance at the screen as he coaxes out a succession of “mmms,” “aahs,” and “yahoos” from the game, payment for accurate touches. Earl attributes his ability to a lifetime working on cars and houses. “I just look, and it’s different,” he says. “You just look at something, and see what the difference is, and bada-bing, bada-bang. One, two, three, four, five.”
The temptation comes courtesy of game distributor Megatouch, whose touch-screen consoles also provide less risqué bar fare, like poker and glorified crosswords. But not all Megatouch consoles are created equal. Since Earl began photo hunting, he’s tried about three dozen District machines, each providing varying levels of screen quality and sensory response. L Street basement bar Recessions “has the best-calibrated machine in the city,” Earl swears. In addition to its prized machine, Recessions also has one of the city’s worst Erotic Photo Hunt consoles—the bar’s second machine, which is smaller, poorly lit, and often requires several finger-pushes to register a hit. Earl holds the high scores on both of them. He’s also the top-scorer on the machine in Mackey’s Public House, a flight above Recessions. Earl harbors a particular distaste for the Black Rooster machine just down the street. He has a high score there, too.
The Recessions machine isn’t just the best—it’s also a couple blocks from Earl’s home. You can find him camped in front of it daily, peering at topless women under a black eagle-embroidered hat when he’s not helping out with barback work and small repairs. When Earl sits down to play, he first locks the machine “so it don’t swivel on you,” then camps on the right side of the screen. “I’m always on the right. I always sit on the right. I’m right-handed, so I’m just like boom, boom, boom, boom, boom,” he says. Earl can sometimes find all the differences before even one of the game’s units of time disappears, “until things really speed up,” he says, “after Round 26.”
On lower rounds, Earl takes the time to crack jokes or explain technique. “Will somebody give her a hand?” he says, after finding an upper extremity missing from one model. “See, it looks like her tit is covered up more on that one,” he says. Sometimes, he plays with friends. “When I play with them, they sit back and let me play, and if I’m missing something, they hit it. They’re like backup.”
Earl’s personal bests—428,000 points alone, and 492,000 with a team—may be modest in comparison to national records. While there’s no national body that keeps an official count, in 2006, a guy going by the name “Tanman” scored 1,042,768 on a Tampa, Fla., machine, and has the cell phone shot posted online to prove it.
Earl doesn’t keep such records. He doesn’t maintain a consistent handle. He will always heed another player’s call for assistance. “Everyone asks for my help,” says Earl, whose games are largely funded by rookie bargoers who need an extra hand. As a result, even Recessions management can’t recognize Earl’s complete dominance of the board. “I don’t know who’s the best,” says Mohammad, a bartender. “I don’t play the game. But he plays a lot. He loves the game.”
Erika, a Mackey’s employee who sometimes serves as backup for Earl, confirms Earl’s generous habit. “Earl takes this seriously, like it’s a job,” says Erika, who says she joins in only on weekends, after her own workday is through. “But 99.9 percent of the time, it’s other people calling him—‘Where’s Earl?’” she says.
“Where the fuck is Earl,” adds Earl.
But Earl remembers which scores are his own and which he still needs to beat. Sometimes Earl signs his games as “ECinDC”; sometimes, simply “Me.” If he gets a high score with the help of a friend, he’ll sign it “Us” or use a double attribution like “Kenny Earl.” For a time, he concentrated on filling an entire leader board—the top 10 scores—under the name “Death to Balls.”
“A while back, a bunch of players were coming in, calling themselves ‘Team Balls,’ ‘Cow Balls,’ ‘Pig Balls,’” Earl explains. “At some point, I just got tired of the balls.” For a month, Earl worked methodically to rid the leader board of balls. “I’ve had people come in and say, ‘Who’s Death to Balls?’ I just don’t say anything, because I’ve got the whole screen filled. I had to go in there and clear the whole screen to get people to try and compete again.”
Earl isn’t an Erotic Photo Hunt completist, but he is a purist. He never plays “Hunks”: “I don’t care if he’s wearing short shorts—I don’t want to be touching his johnson, you know what I mean?” He also avoids Megatouch’s other variations on the classic version—“Chippendales Photo Hunt” and “Penthouse Photo Hunt,” which provide additional distractions for an extra quarter. “You can guess what those are like,” says Earl. “Swinging dicks? I’m not going down that avenue,” he says of the Chippendales version. The Penthouse game has similarly failed to entice him. “So you see the pubic hair. They’re not spread open or anything,” he says. “If I wanted to see a hairy crotch, I wouldn’t be paying for it.”
Earl would just prefer if everyone kept his or her pants on. In the classic game, neither Babes nor Hunks reveal any genitalia, and some of the women even appear with modest bikinis covering their breasts. Earl doesn’t claim to favor any of the few dozen models offered up to him every evening. He has, however, begun to resent some of the women who appear in the more frustrating puzzles. “A couple of them on there, I would smack the shit out of them. I’m just tired of them,” says Earl. “This is a bitch I hate,” Earl says, indicating a busty woman posing suggestively on a director’s chair. “She’s in like seven different pictures, and they’re all terrible—just in a kitchen with so much bullshit behind her.”
To Earl, Erotic Photo Hunt is hardly erotic—just highly addictive. Earl gives one reason as to why he keeps playing the one-eyed monster, and it has nothing to do with boobs. “After 400,000 points,” he says, “you get a free game if you beat the high score.”
Photos by Darrow Montgomery.