January 25th, 2020

krazy koati

My name is Tommy and I became aware this year

I had a very good competitive pinball year, in 2019, and that started the day before the state championship when I tied for third place in the pre-championship tournament. There would be a pre-championship tournament the day before this year's championship too. This would be a simple progressive-strikes tournament, in which you get from zero to three strikes depending on your finish in group games, and you finish playing after collecting at least nine strikes. This would also be my first chance since Frostyfest to play any of the games at AND's place, so it would offer valuable intelligence.

It would also be basically everyone else's chance. AND had scheduled practice time on his games the Saturday before, when I was in New Jersey. But a major ice and freezing-rain storm swept through Michigan and he cancelled that rather than let people risk their lives on the road getting there. But there wasn't a sensible makeup day. This would be everyone's chance to get some practice time in. AND and his partner JJ hosted, with JJ putting an extraordinary effort into providing food, from snacks through to burritos. And much of it vegetarian too; it's great to be able to just go up to the buffet and eat without closely examining things. The one weird oversight was they didn't get any diet sodas. I guess I understand people thinking zero-calorie sodas taste ``weird'', but I don't understand choosing to drink that many calories just to have flavored water. When we drove back to our hotel I watched for any convenience stores where we might get our own pop in the morning. There were not many; it was mostly minor roads between AND and JJ's place and the hotel. But also in the morning the snow would turn out to be bad enough we just wanted to get to AND and JJ's place safely and weren't much for side trips.

25 people, all told, came to the event. Not everyone who was in the state championship. JRA, DAD (JRA's father), and CST attracted my attention by not being there. A couple of people who were alternates were there. As was KEC, who was so low-ranked that a shocking number of people would have to not show up at the last minute for her to play. But it's great to see her out and playing again, after several months of her being absent from competitive events. And, you know, given the weather? It could happen.

The important and most wonderful thing is that bunny_hugger and I were never put in a group together. So we were spared jokes about the homewrecker matchup and neither of us had to beat the other. bunny_hugger even started with a win, on Gruaniads of the Galaxy. This beat PH, whom she was slated to play in the first round on Saturday, as well as JB, her Lansing-league rival. Also the guy I was slated to play in the first round of the championship. After this emotionally grand start, though, she had a last-place finish on the 1970s Playboy, not helped by the injustice of the game refusing to register a scoop shot she had made. Then a second-place finish in a three-player group, on Jackbot, against RLM and AND. And then she got put in a killer group, against AJG, AJR, and MSS on Transformers. Any of her opponents was a strong candidate for state champion; only AJR didn't have a first-round bye for the championship and that just because he didn't play enough. And Transformers is a frightfully hard game, with a very tight tilt. She expected a bloodbath and, yeah, that's what I would expect too.

And yet. She decided she was just going to shoot for lit shots and not try any strategy to start the lucrative but risky multiballs. And this worked. She came within a whisker of taking first place, and she got on the high-score table with the achievement of a nine-way combo. She didn't realize she had done that and, yeah, making nine major shots in a row without interruption is amazing on any game. On this it's even more amazing.

Still, she was averaging more than one strike per round, a rough average. The next game: Attack From Mars, an old familiar one. She took third place, earning two strikes. This put her at seven strikes. She had to get first or second place on her next game, which was ... the newest game in the world, Stern's Stranger Things, based on the 80s game. She's played it a couple of times, but hasn't got much experience (of course, who has? The game was released not three weeks ago) and the rules are still being discovered. Possibly written. She took a third place, just enough to knock her out, and leave her in the four-way tie for 16th in the tournament. After her second-place finish in the New Year's Eve progressive-strikes tournament it felt like a comedown. But, as she had been pointing out to a disheartened MWS, one tournament really doesn't tell you much about what the next tournament would be like. She had finished dead last in the Silver Balls tournament only to get a final-four finish at Fremont and a second-place finish on New Year's Eve. State Finals could be anything. And she did have that win against the formidable PH.

And me? Well, I was disappointed that Stranger Things was there. It wouldn't be in the state championship --- the game's programming is too much in beta for that --- but to make space for it, and some other new games, AND had removed Hotdoggin'. This is a 1980 skiing-themed game that I had gotten the hang on, and figured would be one of my go-to games for the tournament. There were some other go-to games, but I'd really have liked to have this one back.

My tournament started out against AJH, AND, and BIL, all people with first-round byes, and on Transformers. I took third place, but only because BIL did not have any idea how easily the game would tilt and his game went down in flames. My second round was against RLM, AJG, and EAG. RLM and AJG I know, and know they're better than me. EAG is one of the emerging Ann Arbor competitive scene; he was merely 48th ranked in Michigan for the year, but he also only started playing in mid-August. But the game was Fathom, a mermaid-themed early-solid-state and while AJG creamed everyone on it, I gave him a run for the money. I had three strikes after two rounds, not where I'd like to be, but manageable.

Then on to Stranger Things, against RED and the guy I was scheduled to play first round Saturday. I was the only one to have a fair first ball. They were the ones to have good second and third balls, and I took two strikes. Then to Strikes and Spares, an early solid state game. The secret here is finding either the scoop on the right side or the spinner on the left side of the table. I almost had that, and got second place again. I really needed a win, or better two wins, to finish well in the tournament, but consistent second-place finishes would be all right.

My next game: Title Fight, against MWS, PH, and JEK. This is an early 90s Gottleib game, meaning that its scoring is bonkers and arbitrary. It also means that you can always bring the ball to a stop by just holding the flipper up. It's got a tricky ball plunge, but I was aware of that and had practiced, finding the plunge that would send the ball into play safely, ideally into this little upper playfield that's very good to get. PH started off with a plunge that rocketed the ball into the outlane. I had a solid first ball, and then nothing the second or third balls. Everyone but PH overtook me, and this would be his only last-place finish of the day. He spent some of the evening experimenting with the plunger and finding just how to launch this ball.

This left me at eight strikes: I would continue this game only as long as I finished in first place. My next match was on Attack From Mars, against AJR and JD. AJR could play Attack From Mars for years, if he chose. But, you know? He put up a fair, for the table's difficulty, score of 800 million. (The game scores very high). I could reach that, if I didn't fumble the ball. And I didn't fumble the ball. I made it through to the next round. I was still in the do-or-die situation, but I was finally starting a winning streak.

The next game was Playboy, against BIL and EAG again, plus PAT. The game has the simplicity of late 70s games: you need to hit the five targets that correspond to keys to the Playboy Mansion, and repeat. There's other stuff but it doesn't much matter. If you can manage this right-orbit shot into a left scoop, you're pretty much gold. I can't manage this shot, and takes two strikes. I'm knocked out, one round after bunny_hugger, and dropped into a tie for 13th place with MWS, who's worrying about his fall from third-seed.

The tournament goes on, taking twelve rounds in all. (I was knocked out in the 7th). AND wins, an outcome that would make sense even if these were not his own games played in his home. EAG takes second place, a sign of how tough the Ann Arbor scene is going to make it for the rest of us in 2020. AJR, AJH, and AJG take the next several spots.

BIL, knocked out with me, says that his strategy for Saturday is going to be ``don't play anyone whose name starts with A''. He's not wrong. All of Michigan's state champions since the modern era of competitive play began in 2014 have been from the killer A's: AND twice, AJG twice, ADM (who's not in the championship this year) and AJH once each. And AJR, who won third place in all of Pinburgh for 2019, is who I'd bet on to win this championship.

We spend some time playing, trying to get intelligence on just how the pinball games do play. I put attention on Title Fight. Its rules are quirky and its plunge is dangerous. It could save me. Fathom, too, which is also a lot of fun to play. Seawitch, the table on which the modern Beatles game is based, ought to be a go-to game, but I don't feel confident on it. Dirty Harry, Aerobatics, Strikes and Spares, Freedom ... these I come to feel are going to help me tomorrow, if anything can.

We don't stick around until AND and JJ are ready to go to bed. It's already snowing. We'll want a full night's sleep. And be ready to deal with whatever snow we see in the morning.

Trivia: In the 1870s Macy's department store in Manhattan opened a restaurant, leasing space to a caterer who provided cold food made off-site. Source: Service and Style: How the American Department Store fashioned the Middle Class, Jan Whitaker.

Currently Reading: Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age, Alex Wright.

PS: How All Of 2019 Treated My Mathematics Blog, more of me looking at my writing instead of actually writing. And yet these kinds of posts are always popular. Go figure.


PPS: At Lakeside Amusement Park, looking at the things we passed on the way in but from a different angle now.

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Just west of Kiddieland is the area of the park we'd first entered, with the Ferris wheel (note the partially script-Neon logo), the still-as-of-2020 unnamed, unopened roller coaster, and the drop tower.


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Closer look at the unnamed Zyklon roller coaster and, beside it, the Heart Flip ride; I don't know whether that was ever opened but it was closed off by roller coaster construction when we visited.


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Close-up on that water fountain we kept passing and that I kept finding awfully interesting.