Top Pinball Players Prepare For Championship Finals

The world's top pinball players squared off Sunday in Pittsburgh in the finals of the Professional Amateur Pinball Association. Keith Elwin went into the day's competition as the reigning champion, and talked to host Guy Raz as he geared up for the finals.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

The world's top pinball players square off today in Pittsburgh in the finals of the Professional Amateur Pinball Association. The drama unfolds on a red carpet in the middle of a warehouse on the edge of the city. And with their backs to the roaring crowd, the competitors shift and squirm their hips toward the $10,000 prize and a giant trophy.

Keith Elwin from Carlsbad, California, went into today's competition as the reigning champion. We spoke to him earlier today. Mr. Elwin, welcome to the show.

Mr. KEITH ELWIN: Thank you. Thanks for having me on.

RAZ: How big of a deal is this competition? Is this among many pinball championships?

Mr. ELWIN: No, this is the crown jewel of pinball championships. People come from all over the world, from Sweden, Germany, London. They all come here for this one.

RAZ: So these are the best of the best.

Mr. ELWIN: The best of the best.

RAZ: How much competition is out there for a pinball player these days?

Mr. ELWIN: It's growing.

RAZ: Mm, it's growing.

Mr. ELWIN: Yeah. Even though pinball's not as popular as it used to be, there are a lot more quality players coming out of the woodwork to these tournaments, so…

RAZ: Who do you have your eye on today? Who is the person that you think might have a shot at beating you?

Mr. ELWIN: Well, my main rival, his name is Bowen Kerins, and we're usually one, two at tournaments.

RAZ: Oh, you guys have gone head to head before.

Mr. ELWIN: Yeah.

RAZ: Any foreign prospects out there, people from abroad?

Mr. ELWIN: Oh, yeah. The Swedish players are very, very good. And there's…

RAZ: You've got to watch those Swedes.

Mr. ELWIN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Got to watch them.

Mr. ELWIN: Pinball is very popular over there.

RAZ: Oh, is it?

Mr. ELWIN: Yeah.

RAZ: How did you get into pinball, and how did you sort of end up as the champion?

Mr. ELWIN: Actually, my brother got me into pinball. He's 10 years older than me. And when he got stuck babysitting me, he'd take me to the arcade with him. And we'd play pinball because you can win free games. I just kind of stuck with it, and I noticed they started having tournaments in the early '90s. And so I finally made it out in 1993, and I had a great time and have been coming since.

RAZ: What do you do before a competition? I mean, what's your sort of, your workout regimen? Do you do finger exercises?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELWIN: No. But I say it's your legs because after four days of being on your legs playing, you know, eight, 10 hours a day, they start to fatigue. So I try to do a lot of leg stretches, leg exercises, squats, just keep them limber. That's the great thing that pinball has over video games, it's not a memorization or pattern or anything, it's actual physical skill, being able to calculate the angles and the physics, the ball's spin and the timing. So I think that's the drive it'll always have over video games.

RAZ: What is your favorite all-time machine?

Mr. ELWIN: That's a tough one. I would have to say it's a game called Frontier. It was made in 1980, and it's what I grew up playing. Basically, the games were a lot more wild back then. But now, all the newer games have ramps and things that stop the ball and slow it down. So it's actually become a much greater game of skill than it was, say, 20, 30 years ago.

RAZ: In the finals today, do you think you have it pretty much in the bag?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELWIN: I don't know about that. There are some really tough players here. I feel confident. So I guess that's all that matters. But this is a really tough tournament to win.

RAZ: Well, we wish you luck with today's tournament.

That's Keith Elwin. He went into today's finals Professional Amateur Pinball Association competition as the reigning champion. Mr. Elwin, thank you so much.

Mr. ELWIN: Thank you for having me on.

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