Update, 6/11: The results are in, and Cayle came in second in this weekend’s world championship. Not too shabby. “It came down to a tie-breaker at the end. It was truly exciting,” IFPA co-director Steve Epstein said on the phone this morning. The winner was Italian pinball wiz Daniele Celestino Acciari.
Sixty-four of the best pinball players in the world converge on Bainbridge Island this weekend for the 9th annual International Flipper Pinball Association World Championship. Their mission: To unseat last year’s winner, Shoreline’s own Cayle George.
George, of course, has a different game plan. To him, it’s man vs. machine.
“It’d be amazing to defend the title, and I really, really want to, but lots of things have to go right,” he said. “There’s a lot of luck in pinball. If I can avoid the bad luck, then I can do the rest.”
Apart from having an envious distinction in the arcade world, George, 31, has what for many in the design and development industries is an envious day job. He’s game level designer at Valve Software, the Bellevue-based video-game company.
And yes, he says, his Valve and pinball worlds do meet.
“I worked a long time on Team Fortress 2. When designing weapons or new levels, you have to really think about the ways players are going to use the toolbox you give them and how they’re going to exploit it,” he said.
“I use the same kind of thought process in pinball. All the features there, all the things a game was designed to have in it, how can I use that in ways that were not intended, to exploit that game and maximize performance?”
The big strategy in competitive pinball is to maximize points while minimizing risk — no easy task in tournament play. This weekend, championship players will be paired in head-to-head matches that switch off, ball-to-ball. See your opponent get too far ahead and you may have to plan some of riskier plays in Johnny Mnemonic or Dracula. Make the right series of shots and you win. Miss them and you’re done.
Dracula was the first arcade pinball game George bought himself, ten years ago. Today nearly a dozen machines fill up his basement. George spends hours playing each one, fine-tuning not just universal pinball skills like how to aim the flippers and how to nudge the 300-pound beasts without triggering a potentially game-ending tilt, but also his understanding of the most effective strategies for each game. What bonuses should you light up in Shadow and when? What’s the best way to get multiball in Creature?
“Most people think of pinball as just being a game when you kind of randomly shoot for flashing lights and nothing else,” said Roger Sharpe, founder of the IFPA. “But there is a strategy component to it. Some people compare it to chess. You’re making moves for the end game.”
You don’t have to own the games to master them, though of course it helps. Shorty’s in Belltown and Full Tilt Ice Cream in Ballard are among the Seattle pinball palaces where local competitors come out to play year-round. Both held tournaments this week to make the most of the top talent here for the championships.
I watched George faced off against some of these world’s best at the Full Tilt event Wednesday. Staff kept serving cones in flavors like mango chili and Mexican chocolate to awestruck customers as players from Sweden, Australia, England and beyond crowded about the space and spilled out onto the street, waiting their turn.
Two major pinball championships are held every year. In the other, the open Professional and Amateur Pinball Association World Championships in Pittsburgh, George placed third in 2011. To earn a spot at this weekend’s championships, which will be held at the Bainbridge home of former NBA player and pinball wiz Todd MacCulloch, players must rank among the game’s 64 best. George is currently ranked third.
The IFPA is a marathon event, with players going almost non-stop from 8 in the morning to about midnight each of the tournament’s three days. In its eight-year history, only two players have managed to repeat wins. George just might have what it takes to be the third.
“Cayle has mad skills. He really does,” Sharpe said.
At Full Tilt, George snacked on his own cone as he traded war stories with fellow players between matches. When he took on a game, though, things got serious. There are just two buttons in pinball — left flipper and right flipper — but you wouldn’t know it the way George leaned in to each machine, facing it down like he could crush it with a stare.
Stay tuned. Maybe he can.
It’s dark and shaky, but here’s video of George’s win in the final match of last year’s IFPA championship: