January 30th, 2019

krazy koati

And playing games is part of human nature

On state-championship Saturday I was, defying expectations, the first one of our quartet to wake. And out the window I saw how bad the snow was: it was maybe an inch. Inconvenient, especially since a minor road like the one our cabin was on would probably not get plowed soon, but nothing we couldn't drive through. I took a very short shower, reflecting how I had no idea how big the hot water heater was and whether it could stand four people taking the showers we'd like. (It turned out to be a 67-gallon tank and I'll share later why I know that.) Though the Special When Lit venue opened at 10 am, we didn't figure to set out until 11:30. We had to be there at 12:30, lest we be marked absent and excluded from the tournament.

That's a hard rule, coming down from International Flipper Pinball Association headquarters. Like many hard rules it's meant to make life easier. In past years various states have set off controversies by someone holding the tournament up for a person who's ``on his way''. With money on the line --- a total of $3,798.75 in Michigan, and even more in California, Ohio, and Pennsylvania --- there's room for really nasty scenes if a rule is not clear, unambiguous, and ruthlessly enforced. There's still room, but a clear rule without exceptions is harder to argue. (There are also states with petty prizes. The total prize pool for Arkansas, for example, was $16.50. That state had 17 competitive players, the top 16 of which went on to finals and the last of which I suppose stood outside, kicking the door.)

The night before, as things were wrapping up from the pin-golf tournament, I joked to PH that, you know, nobody ever said whether it was 12:30 am or pm, we could just run the finals now with he and AJH and me and bunny_hugger and sent apologies to everyone else. That's a joke that should be good for use for years to come.

Friday night a major snowstorm moved into Michigan, encouraging speculation about who would miss after all. DAD and his son, JMA, were the people who seemed most likely to miss. They're from the Detroit area, an hour and a half from Lansing, and Lansing was two hours from Fremont, and that in clear weather without traffic. Getting through all that, with snow? Heavier snow farther south, too, like toward Detroit?

This was very exciting to me, since I was slated to play DAD first round and wasn't feeling good about that. In tournaments we've played together, he's finished higher than me thirty times; I've finished ahead twelve times. That's not head-to-head play, mind you (they don't have that kind of data archived yet). But it says something of relative skill levels. I put my chances against DAD at about 40%, trusting that my greater familiarity with the site would give me an edge. Ahead of finals people started making out brackets, showing their forecasts of the events. About a quarter of people put me finishing ahead of DAD. Could be worse. Nobody bet on bunny_hugger beating her slated opponent, JEK. If DAD and JMA were absent, though? I'd be facing TG, who I have a winning record overall against. bunny_hugger would face MAT, whom ... well, she has a 4-12 record compared to MAT. But that's better than the one with JEK, and again, that doesn't reflect head-to-head matches. Just ones where they played at the same event.

We left for SWL separately from BIL and MWS. We went first to the convenience store, to get some pop and some food. We spent long enough there that MWS started to panic in his own low-key way, and when we got to SWL he was sitting in the (full) parking lot, engine running. He was afraid we had some accident and the car was sitting in a ditch, us unable to get free and getting ever-closer to missing the 12:30 check-in. Nope; we were just slow deciding what to eat. Slow enough that we were the last of the top 24 to check in. DAD and JMA had made it, after setting out at something like five in the morning. Good for them; sad for KEC, the first alternate, and the only woman besides bunny_hugger with a chance at the finals. She would go on to the Blind Squirrel Tavern, in town, to play some games for the monthly and league tournaments. And she texted AJH, who runs the tournaments and owns the machines set there, to warn him about malfunctions. He received them, often, during games he was playing, a peculiar little distraction.

The games were open for people to play. I thought about the pinball superstition that you play better ``cold'', that is, without warmup, or without much warmup. I thought about how the night before I hadn't played anything except for the pin-golf tournament, and that worked out great. I think about doing the state championship cold. I don't quite have the courage to try it. I put in a quick game on the single-player electromechanical game 4 Square, one that's usually a strength for me. I put up about four thousand points, a good solid score. I try out Mystic, a fun early-solid-state game that gives you a rotten score 19 times out of 20, and a kajillion points that 20th time. But that's it.

12:30. Everyone checked in. Everyone welcome. We get our official instructions. The top eight finishers, which included JMA, get a first-round bye. You play best-of-seven matches. The higher-seed has choice of game-or-order for the first game in the match. After that, whoever lost the last game gets choice of game-or-order. People nearly always pick game, given the option, but it can be a good power play to show how you don't care what game you play; you just want to go last. (Going last offers the advantage that you know what score you need to beat, and so can judge whether to take lower-value but safer strategies. Going first, you have to score as much as you possibly can.)

And then! We start. Though I usually finish behind DAD in tournaments, I'm the higher seed, so I get pick of first game. I pick 4 Square. I feel good on earlier games, and all weekend I haven't had a bad game, or even a bad ball, really, so I --- oh, there's a bad ball. And there's another. 4 Square is a five-ball game (with tilts ending the game), the way many of the oldest electromechanical games are. I have three balls to recover, and I get up to 2,426 points. That's a mediocre score, but if I get lucky DAD might not beat it. No such luck; he only has one lousy ball, and he has me beat by the fourth ball. While I decide what to play next he finishes out, coming in at 3,496. If I could have had that practice game instead ... ah well.

I pick 8 Ball. This is an early solid state game, one of the estimated 800 kajillion pool-ball-themed games. Various shots collect pool balls. But the real strategy is in shooting this little candycane-shaped alley in the upper right of the field: it multiplies the bonus you get for each ball collected. It's tricky to dial in. You can go whole games without it. But I nail this one, in the first ball beating a hundred thousand points, and finishing the third ball at 170,600. DAD rallies in the end, but wraps up at 97,090. I have the first win of the four I need for the round, and sixteen I need for the day.

His pick of game. He chooses Iron Maiden, the really slickly designed Stern game of 2018. It's a fun game; it has a lot of great-feeling shots, and rules too complicated for me to quite follow. DAD has a lousy first ball, and I have a decent second ball. Neither of us is playing great, but I'm out ahead. Then the last ball he puts everything together and gets to 130,733,010. Not an insurmountable score, but certainly above my median. I have a couple tricks lined up, though, including two different multiballs ready to go. And I'm able to get them going, but not quite long enough. I finish at 87,250,280, after a good rally and a game that would beat a lot of people, that day, that table. Just not him, not that round.

I decide to retreat to the safety of solid-state games. Taxi it is. I screw up the skill shot, getting 1,000 rather than the 100,000 points I should have. And then the ball drains right away. He has a mediocre but all right ball. We repeat our performances second ball. The third ball I finally nail the skill shot, and I start putting together a solid rally. And it flops; I end up at 1,095,420, an underperforming game. DAD already has 1.1 million; he doesn't even have to plunge the last ball. When he does, he has 1,214,070 points, and three wins to my one.

I consider Aerosmith, since it's so much a chaos agent game, and what the heck, I'd played it pretty well the night before. And Whirlwind, similarly an unpredictable game. I lean toward Firepower, an early solid-state that's hard but a lot of fun when it comes together. I turn away from it, though, and DAD confesses his regrets there: he loves Firepower. I do too, I just don't have enough time on the table.

My pick is Mystic. It's a bit of a desperate choice. The game's magic-themed, but the goal is to shoot targets representing tic-tac-toe board squares. The more lines you complete the higher your bonus, and the bonus can get explosively high. But the game house balls you, shooting the ball right down the drain before you can even try flipping, a lot. Even great players. And if I have a decent ball, and he has a lousy one, maybe he'll rattle. We can try, anyway.

I have a mediocre first ball --- really bad news, since the bonus is cumulative, and a great first ball means so much more than a great third ball. But he has a catastrophic first ball. I feel hopeful going up to the second ball, which completes one tic-tac-toe line before I lose control. Not great, but something. DAD has a great second ball, and his score goes soaring up past a quarter-million points to my 40,000. All I can do is have the ball of my life. I'm ready for it. I've found ways to shoot the drop targets. I've roughly found the captive ball shot that multiplies the bonus. I've lost the ball already, and finish the game at 74,790. After plunging DAD has 352,590. With one win and four losses, I'm out. He's on to the second round, there to face AJH.

The 2018 competitive pinbal season for me was over.

Meanwhile bunny_hugger, facing JEK, started off great. The universal underdog won her first game handily, and then her second also. JEK was playing rattled, and made a pick that she judged to be a retreat to something safe: The Walking Dead. bunny_hugger feels good on this game, because she's got a nice reliable strategy that pretty much always gets her at least 20 million points, sometimes up to double that. Not an awesome score, but enough to win often enough. And anything you have a tested strategy for feels comfortable. But JEK has a better strategy. As with many modern games, the key in The Walking Dead is to stack things, getting the modes which make certain shots worth more to interact. bunny_hugger's greatest weakness, strategically, is not stacking modes. JEK had no trouble doing that, and had a great game even for that. He had a single shot worth over a hundred million points. I'm always trying to encourage bunny_hugger that it's not doomed, and there's never reason she can't go on to have the best ball of the day now. But at that point, even I had to admit, all there was to do was get him next game.

She didn't. After her early lead, JEK got back in the zone. He won four straight games, and bunny_hugger was also knocked out. It was one hour into the tournament.

Trivia: The radio message to signal the final evacuation of Americans and supporters and foreign journalists from Saigon, in 1975, was to be a broadcast beginning with the phrase ``the temperature in Saigon is 112 degrees and rising'', followed by thirty seconds of Bing Crosby singing ``I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas''. Japanese journalists were unfamiliar with the song. Source: Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World's Superpowers, Simon Winchester.

Currently Reading: Popeye: An Illustrated Cultural History, Fred M Grandinetti. I'm delighted by his plot recaps of the various cartoons, partly because they list things that are legitimately somewhat interesting, eg, ``first time Popeye sucks spinach through his pipe''. But partly because when he does start editorializing it's fun, like when he writes of a King Features 1960s cartoon about how we need to be saved from the ``god-awful'' animation.

PS: What I Learned Doing My 2018 Mathematics A To Z


PPS: Some more of Waldameer!

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Oh, so apparently I was at the Waldameer Pirates Cove just in time to see the spirits emerge from these forms. I don't know how I managed this light effect but would love to be able to do it on purpose.


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One of the last scenes in the Pirates Cove (you can see the outdoors to the left there). You get the sense of the whole attraction's sense of humor, as well as its specific era, when you know there's an audio loop playing of this pirate regretting squeezing the Charmin.


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Ravine Flyer 3, which opened several years before Ravine Flyer II did (working out the highway crossing took time), is a kiddie coaster. The pool underneath used to be a bumper-boats ride. That the coaster goes over the walkway leading up to it evokes in a small way the highway-crossing that marks Ravine Flyer II (and marked the first, also).