austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,

And you can't win

I remembered that one day we went out to lunch and the other we stayed in the convention center to get not-hot-enough ramen. Didn't remember which day. Thinking over carefully and considering how there was only an hour for lunch on Friday, we must have eaten in that day. Well, the other time we ate outside was with a group including MWS and MSS and RLM and all. This started out as an attempt to get to a Thai place that turned out to be closed, and then we went around to a bar that MSS et al were excited by and which turned out to have as the vegetarian option ``I dunno, maybe the small tuna fish?'' (They had an egg salad, but restaurant egg salad has even more failure modes than restaurant potato salad and we weren't looking for that kind of risk.) bunny_hugger and JTK and I detached from the group and looked for something else, and ended up at a great little Korean place that started out impossibly packed and gradually uncrowded enough that we could appreciate being there.

Anyway. Around 6 on Friday everyone who could was huddled together near the main stage to take the big group photo. They even had one of those extending platform dollies so a photographer could wave at people who were taking photos right back at him. And then a dramatically smaller group, of just the women, gathered, mostly on stage, for some more pictures. Among the Pinburgh events was the first Women's International Pinball Tournament, something for Sunday morning and maybe a consolation tournament considering how bunny_hugger's main was going.

Round nine. MWS has Set 15, Super Cue and Twilight Too. Its modern game is Capcom's Breakshot, a pool-themed game that did a great job trying to make a modern pinball with the sort of old-fashioned, accessible, ramp- and tunnel-less game that's probably easier for newcomers to play. We used to play it at the Brighton Arcade. It's also got Twilight Zone as the late-solid-state; it's no more a solid-state game than is Indiana Jones. Still, it's a game everyone knows and loves even though the pop bumpers are a death field. He goes only 5-7, dropping his record to 56-52, and his standing to 60th in the division. He'll need a great round ten to make playoffs. JTK is on Set 63, We Need A Hero. Its early-solid-state game is Flash Gordon. He goes 5-7 on it, record dropping to 47-61.

bunny_hugger is on set 53, Men Without Necks. The modern game is Stern's Monopoly, which she finally learned how to play at the Logan's Alley tournaments in time for it to be retired from Logan's Alley. The electromechanical is Captain Fantastic, based on exactly what you think. The late-solid-state is Road Kings, which she got to know and weirdly like at the Women's World Championship in 2017. The early-solid-state is Paragon, on which you either have a great time or you lose the ball three times fast. She goes 6-6, bringing her record to 46-62. For the day, so far, she's 23-25, which is not bad. But starting from the hole she was in? Even a perfect round won't bring her up to .500 for the tournament.

I'm on Set 19, One Cactus Per Seashell, which MWS played five rounds ago and bunny_hugger two rounds before that. I'm feeling good after the first game, the early-solid-state Barracora. I've got a good feel for a set of bank targets worth a good bit and while other folks catch up some, they don't reach me. First first-place of the round. Also the last. bunny_hugger warned me that Demolition Man felt weird. It's a game about making combos, taking the ball as it's finished one ramp and shooting right away to another. I keep threatening to find my timing, and never do. I try switching to just shooting up the center, because this is safe and can slowly build up combos and bonus multiplier. But I miss out entirely on one ball because I don't get the thing under control, and take a last place.

The electromechanical is Safari. I choose to go fourth. Usually when I have the chance I pick to go second, but here, I want as much time to watch other players work the game as I can get. It doesn't help me; my score is decent enough, but only good for third place. Ah, but the late solid state is Cactus Jack's. I know the game well; it was at the RPI student union for years. I turned my friends on to it last year. There's lots of multiballs to be had. Lots of million-point shots to be had. Lots of polka to be started. I get absolutely none of them, and finish in last place with 1,009,300 points, which is pretty near what you get for just starting a game. Later in the weekend I come back for revenge games, and never get it; I don't ever have a good game, and just watch everyone else enjoy multiballs and jackpots and polkas passed out like cheap candies. I go 4-8. I drop to 56-52, the closest to .500 I've been since the day started, and fall from a nice cozy 28th seed to 59th. I can still get into finals, but if I have an 8-4 round to close the day.

Pinburgh's been using what I guess is termed ``slaughter seeding''. You start the day with the top of the division playing the bottom player and the two middle-most players. Second-highest in the division plays second-lowest, plus the two just above and just below the median players. Third-highest plays third-lowest plus the two that are two spots above and below the median players, et cetera. Over the rounds this divides up, so the top player plays the middle, and the two players closest to the first quartile (and so on). And then top versus first-quartile versus first-octile players. The point is, as the day goes on you play people closer and closer to your own skill level. The tenth round is an exception. If you're in striking range of making finals, they just put you in random groups. The reason, believe it or not, is to avoid collusion, players agreeing that oh, we all happened to go 6-6 so we all go into playoffs together. So I won't even have the consolation in round ten of going in, I hope, undervalued and playing against weaker players. At least not that I can count on. It turns out in my Round 10 group I'll be the lowest-ranked player, with the sixth-seed in my group.

Round ten. The end of the day of playoff-qualifying. MWS, 60th-seed for the C Division finals, needs a strong round He's on Set 52, Welcome To Hell. Modern game Stern's AC/DC, recently installed at the Lansing Pinball League venue, with a surprisingly belated code update, that he's still learning to work. Electromechanical Aquarius, one of those occasional Zodiac-themed games. Look at the lion and the goat cuddling in that backglass art. Late-solid-state Mousin Around, one of a small run of late-80s games with a cartoon-mayhem theme. I love the game myself. Early-solid-state Ready Aim Fire, which I played in that perfect round in 2017 I'll apparently never stop talking about. MWS goes 7-5, bringing his record to 63-57. Good enough for playoffs? Maybe. It's going to depend on the entire rest of the C Division. (MWS also watches E- K-, who'd gone into this round as 5th seed in the division, have a disastrous 1-11 round. He does make it into playoffs, one of eight people with 64-56 records who get tiebroken into the playoffs. The drop did cost E- K- a first-round bye, possibly also a second-round bye, in the playoffs.)

JTK is on Set 14, Redock BAO. The set's name comes from the endlessly repeated sounds of the late-solid-state Space Station where every freaking thing you do inspires the game to tell you to redock. And Interflip's 1977 electromechanical Dragon, which is more of a hydra and which every hydra-head target makes the game growl a ``bao'' at you. Everyone who has ever played the game loves it, for the chance to repeat its bao barks. JTK goes 6-6, rising again to 53-67. He's nowhere near playoffs, and fine with that. He'll sleep in late Saturday, consolation for finishing the division in the seven-way tie for 122nd.

bunny_hugger's heart sinks at her last set. She's on Set 48, Do I Make You Shimmy, Baby? Its modern game is the infinitely annoying Stern Austin Powers. She complains fairly, it's bad enough she's doing lousy but now she has to close Pinburgh on Austin Freaking Powers. The electromechanical is an improvement, anyway, Old Chicago. Like the one they have at Cedar Point, except this one works. The late-solid-state is the actually-modern game Shaq Attack. But it's a 1995 game from Premier so no one knows the rules, if there even are any. The game has many points where play stops so the game asks the player to pick one of two options. With no idea what any of them signify the value of the choice is obscure at best. The early-solid-state, at least, is the 1978 World Cup, which bunny_hugger and I both played at Pinburgh 2016. She knows an easy strategy that's supposed to be incredibly boring but reliable. I don't know; I couldn't get it to work myself.

She has a lousy round, going 3-9, and finishes Pinburgh at 49-71. Much of the night, and of Saturday, will be spent in the argument about her pinball abilities. I argue the case that she has them, and quite good ones. I do not convince her.

And me? I'm on Set 15, Super Cue and Twilight Too, just like MWS was two one round ago. I want to play calm, because, I usually play better calm. It's part of why my preferred stance has one leg reached back and resting on its toes; that's how I stand when I'm relaxed, so by standing that way, I make my body think it's relaxed. Call this stupid if you want. It works, and sports psychologists would agree with me that this is right to do. And I need calm. Eight wins, I figure, will get me into playoffs. Seven or six wins might do it. The eight can come from anywhere. Two first-place and two third-place finishes. Four second-place finishes. Two first-place and a second-place finish. Lot of options. I don't have to be perfect. I can just play for good enough.

The early-solid-state game is Bally's 1982 Eight Ball Deluxe. This is not the same early-solid-state Eight-Ball we were playing the previous weekend, at the Baby Food Festival. It's a completely different early-80s pool game. I know it, though; it's all about drop targets, and hitting an alley of bonus multiplier drop targets. I have a nice solid game. Player four has a more solid one. I take second, but that's all right. A string of second-place finishes is as good as a perfect round for me right now.

The modern game is Capcom's 1995 Breakshot. It's really a pretty fun game, marred only by a bunch of unneeded casual ``tee-hee lookit the breasts on those girls'' jokes. I've forgotten the deeper bits of strategy I'd picked up from when the game was at the Brighton Arcade. I fall back on what always makes sense for every pool-themed game ever: shoot the targets numbered for each of the balls. I skip going for multiball, because the game allows players to steal others' locked balls and I don't want to do the hard, dangerous work of locking a ball for someone else to get the points. I also miss my chance to steal someone else's locked balls, but, eh. I have a pretty solid second-place finish. And, again, that's just fine. I'd have liked a first place, but, you know? Four wins on the two remaining games is certainly attainable. Three wins would be marginal, but give me a chance.

I'm finally feeling optimistic as we start the electromechanical, Gottlieb's 1975 ``300''. It's bowling-themed. It's got a neat gimmick, too. When you hit a bonus-advance target, it shoots a small wooden ball up into a backglass alley decorated to look like a bowling ball return lane. The bonus maxes out at ten balls, for ten thousand points. But there's a shot on the playfield to collect your bonus, mid-ball. You can make a pretty good game out of building the bonus and collecting the bonus and repeating. I don't do well my first couple balls, but by the fourth ball (of five) I've dialed in a nice easy bonus-building shot, and am just nailing the collect-bonus shot. All goes well, I might --- wait did it just tilt?

It did.

There is nothing shameful or wrong in nudging a machine. Non-players and novice players see nudging the machine as some slightly underhanded thing even as they admire players who do it well. But nudging has always been part of pinball; indeed, it and plunging the ball were the only way to control the ball in the earliest games. It's a challenge to nudge the game without tilting. And there's no shame in tilting; every game through the early-solid-state era has on the instruction card, TILT DOES NOT DISQUALIFY PLAYER or that the only penalty for tilting is losing the ball (and any bonus built up). On some electromechanics, ending the game. This is not one of those harsher-rule electromechanicals, though. It's still not a fair tilt, though. I wasn't nudging, though. The ball was doing as I wanted. It just ... took normal play as a tilt. Sometimes games are too sensitive like this, and yeah, the player who went before me on the single-player game was hit by the same thing before. So it's not like I wouldn't take advantage of it. But it's unnerving, and I didn't know how sensitive he meant by saying it was that sensitive, my unfairly-tilted opponent agreed, unfair.

All right. Get my head together. One ball. About 25,000 points to get to a guaranteed third place. I can do that. I can't do that. I can't find the shots I just had. I finish at 40,220 to the first player's 60,350. I watch, closely, the third player work his way up to 54,980. The fourth player foils us all, scoring 86,760 and only disappointing us by not rolling the game. I have a last-place finish.

It's impossible to get four wins on a single game. One can't say what would have happened had my fourth ball not tilted, but from how I was playing? Beating the third player's 54,980? That's plausible. Beating the first player's 60,350? Also plausible. Later on in the weekend I go back to the game for some revenge matches and beat 60,000 on each of them. Beating 86,760? Maybe not, but at least thinkable. Boy, one point, that could have changed so much. Two points even better.

It was my only tilt of the whole tournament.

The ``late-solid-state'' game is the not-at-all-a-solid-state game, Williams's 1993 Twilight Zone. Seriously, this is one of the games that made dot-matrix-displays and wizard modes --- the iconic legs of modern games --- a proven thing rather than a promising possibility. Anyway. Everyone knows it, everyone loves it. There's a skill shot most tournament players skip. If you plunge just softly enough you can score ten million points right away, which is great. But it sends the ball into the pop bumpers, which often sends the ball rocketing out towards the left outlane or the center drain with no hope of recovering. I decide to go for it, though, and secure my ten million points. My thinking is that seasoned tournament players will, by habit, go for the long game, and on the tough settings of a Pinburgh machine will get caught by sudden tilts or not being able to find the scoops or something. The strategy isn't a bad one; we all have a very brief, low-scoring first ball and my sure ten million looks good.

The person before me, second ball, shoots the gumball machine to release the Powerball. This is potent and dangerous. Shooting the Powerball back into the gumball machine awards twenty-or-more million points to start. And it starts the Powerball Mania multiball. It has a jackpot, hard to get, that starts at forty million and grows easily. The Powerball is a ceramic ball, the same size as but very slightly lighter than a regular pinball. The result is it's even livelier than a regular pinball, and its relatively weird, fast action makes it a chaos agent in any game. He drains and I rub my hands with glee to see that the Powerball is returned to the shooter lane. All I have to do is make the nice easy right-orbit shot and collect my oh wait a minute where did the ball go?

I lose it, and the next player gets his chance with the Powerball. He can't do anything with it either. Neither can the fourth player. We get back around to the first player, everyone having had a very short ball two and the tantalizing feel of a Powerball jackpot, waiting for us and not at all there. We all grumble about the chance we all know we missed. Well, at least the first player has the moral claim on the Powerball; he's the one who got it out of the gumball machine in the first place. And then he goes and loses it again.

I'm back at the game, with the Powerball again. I need to not screw this up. I need the Powerball on the left flipper, to stop, aim, and shoot the right orbit. I make the hard plunge that skips my chance for the ten million points --- given the Powerball's lightness it's not clear I could hit that again --- and let the ball bounce out the Slot Machine, off the right flipper which I leave down --- the most terrifying move you can make in a pinball tournament, but so often the right one, is just letting the ball bounce without swinging --- and roll it onto the left flipper. It rolls back up the left inlane some, comes back slowly, and I figure to go for it.

I nail it.

25 million points for loading the Powerball. Now I figure to just keep the ball alive as long as I can. The Powerball Jackpot you get by shooting the right ramp, into this miniature playfield where flipper-button-controlled magnets might send the ball to the hole at the top. I figure there's no point trying to do that. Just keep as many balls in play as long as possible, instead. It's the sort of rapid-fire, many-ball, don't-bother-to-aim mode that's a lot of fun and that, oddly, I'm pretty good at. And what do you know, but I get a Powerball Jackpot after all.

Eventually it, as everything, ends. From now the high side of 200 million points I say to my opponents, ``Now, I took that one for the team,'' and they're amused and don't kick me or anything. And my score is good but it's not, like, unapproachably good. A regular multiball and a bit of luck and either of the two people left after me could beat me. If they dial in the ramps and gumball load shot, they could even get their own Powerball Manias.

But they don't. I finish the round, and the last day of Pinburgh, with a first-place finish, and can go home as if the whole day had been nothing but first place.

I went 7-5 for the round. (That fellow who went in sixth seeded only did 8-4.) It improves my record, a touch, to 63-57. I feel really good that I finished Pinburgh above .500.

I'm tied with MWS, and a bunch of other people, at 63-57. It's possible we'd made it to playoffs in our own right. It's more likely that we're on the margin, and would make playoffs if tiebreakers go our way.

We'll have to wait for all the rounds in C to finish, and be processed, before we'll know what happens. We meet up with everyone and share stories about how we were cheated on the way back to our hotel, and to wait for word about playoffs.

Trivia: The annealing --- the slow, 10-month-long cooling of the molten glass to room temperatures --- for the Mount Palomar 200-inch telescope mirror was interrupted when flooding caused two days of power failure at the Corning factory in July of 1935. Source: The Perfect Machine: Building the Palomar Telescope, Ronald Florence.

Currently Reading: Spaceships: An Illustrated History of the Real and the Imagined, Ron Miller. Really shows the science-fiction-fanboy influence when it tries to mention Asimov's dumb 1939 short story ``Trends''. It's a little bit based on something Asimov had just learned, about there being social reaction and resistance to major new technologies, so, here's the premise: the first rocket leads to society hating on and even banning rockets and also science because people are dumb about new technology and also the experimental one kind of blew up Jersey City. (All right, it only killed dozens of people, and that many just because the Angry Springfield Mob broke through the security fence but still.) The short story's important to Asimov's development as a writer. It's part of his learning to write the mock-historical story, one that looks at social evolution through individual characters. But as something that influenced development of the spaceship, or social attitudes about spaceships? No.

PS: Getting back to our rental home the last full day of the Omena trip.


One of the other stone sculptures at the Grand Traverse Lighthouse, made with a lot of rocks in the 1920s.


And then back home and looking out over the porch and ... wait a minute. Computer, enhance.


Well! A local native bunny, going over the same terrain that Stephen and Columbo nibbled on.

Tags: pinburgh 2018, traverse bay 2017

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