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Pinball Is Bumping Back In Kansas And Missouri

Remember pinball, the coin operated game that flips a silver ball to score points?

During the 1990s in Kansas City, you could easily find pinball machines in arcades, bars and restaurants. But now, pinball machines are harder to find, and they are often out of order. But, the game of pinball is making a comeback with the help of some local competitors. 

Some of who will go on to represent Kansas and Missouri in the national championships, after winners are selected at the state championships this weekend.

Pinball's second generation

“I am currently ranked 2 out of approximately 22,000 players in the world.” says Chicagoan Zach Sharpe, who is what you might call a pinball wizard. He and his brother Josh Sharpe, ranked 24th, were raised on pinball.

Their father Roger Sharpe is a pinball designer and is idolized in the pinball world. He testified before the New York City Council in 1976 calling his shots with a ‘Babe Ruth-esque’ style to prove that pinball is in fact a game of skill.

"Like, our dad saved pinball," says Zach.

With it’s legalization and newer technology, pinball took off with arcades in the 1980s and 90s all around the country. Zach and Josh Sharpe competed through their teens and into adulthood in various tournaments, but they wanted to take pinball competitions to the next level.

"There was no kind of end goal. There was no, like, umbrella of trying to achieve something outside of just one tournament," says Zach.

So, in 2005 the Sharpe brothers took over the once defunctInternational Flipper Pinball Association (IFPA) and started a professional ranking system for players. Zach says at the time when they re-launched there were only 50 events annually and 500 players ranked world wide.

"If you flash forward to today, there are actually over 1600 events with 22,000 players ranked, and it just keeps increasing up every year," says Zach.

The increase isn’t just seen in the typical pinball hot spots like Seattle, Portland, Chicago, Denver and places on the west coast.

Midwestern pinball

"Three or four years ago I couldn’t even tell you one tournament in Kansas, and now there’s dozens," says Zach.

And that has a lot to do with Kansas City bar owner Artie Scholes.

"It’s a grassroots movement in the fact that there’s only a few people that are trying to bring it back especially in Kansas City, and you know it’s gaining popularity so I don’t think it’s all for naught," says Scholes.

Scholes played a lot of pinball growing up. He credits the dwindling local pinball population of the past 15 years to bar owners and vendors not wanting to deal with all the upkeep on the complicated machines.

When he opened his bar,403 Club in Kansas City, Kan., in 2011 he wanted to make it a pinball destination.

"It’s unusual to see a bank of pinball machines in the Midwest anywhere," says Marion Richards, who is at 403 Club for a tournament with his two kids, ages 8 and 9 who also play.

They rotate between seven different machines: The Twilight Zone; AC/DC; and Wizard of Oz from the new Jersey Jack pinball manufacturer. Piles of quarters and drinks fill the tables.

Every week since 403 Club opened in 2011, the narrow bar tucked away in Strawberry Hill has hosted open tournaments. It’s like an NCAA bracket style, with double elimination rounds, and they attract all levels of players - and lots of them. In fact, this next week Scholes is moving to a new bigger location less than a mile away to 614 Reynolds Ave in Kansas City, Kan. He hopes to be able to house more machines and tournaments.

"I know I’ll have eight there I hope to find room for ten," laughs Scholes. "But i can’t remove all the people space.”

Fostering competition

During the tournaments there’s a small buy in, but players don’t come for the prize money. It’s about the high score, solving the puzzle, keeping the ball in play, and practice.

The bar is also IFPA sanctioned and hosts tournaments that add to player’s international rankings.

"I’m kind of a point whore so I like to try to win as much as I can to increase my ranking. But you know I’m here to have fun," says Phil Cridlebaugh, who is ranked 194th in the world, and leads in Kansas state rankings.

He’s playing against BayleeDeLaurier who’s been into pinball for just over a year. Ranked 3,066th, she just barely made it into the top 16 for Kansas.

"There are actual techniques and ways to trap the ball and ways to control the ball that I had no idea about before I started playing," says DeLaurier.

One tip she gave me, a common novice mistake: don’t put both the flippers up at the same time. It just makes a bigger possible hole for the ball to go down.

The top 16 players in Kansas will compete at The 403 Club this Saturday in the first ever IFPA Kansas State Championship.

All 28 participating states across the country will play this Saturday. The Missouri tournament is in St. Louis at the Silver Ballroom. Winners this weekend will go on to represent their state nationally this May. 

Looking for some places to play pinball around town?

If you know of some others, feel free to let us know in the comment section below.

  • 403 Club- 403 North 5th St, Kansas City, Kan. 66101 - Soon to be 614 Reynolds Ave, Kansas City, Kan. 66101
  • Pizza West - 5436 Roberts St, Shawnee, Kan. 66226
  • The Replay Lounge - 946 Massachusetts St, Lawrence, Kan. 66044
  • Fric and Frac - 1700 W 39th St, Kansas City, Mo. 64111
  • Davey's Uptown Ramblers Club- 3402 Main St, Kansas City, Mo. 64111
  • Harling's Upstairs - 3941 Main St, Kansas City, Mo. 64111
  • Buzzard Beach - 4110 Pennsylvania Ave, Kansas City, Mo. 64111
  • The Record Bar- 1020 Westport Rd, Kansas City, Mo. 64111
  • Mini Bar- 3810 Broadway St, Kansas City, Mo. 64111
  • Tower Tavern - 401 E 31st St, Kansas City, Mo. 64108
  • Union - 421 Westport Rd, Kansas City, Mo. 64111

Every part of the present has been shaped by actions that took place in the past, but too often that context is left out. As a podcast producer for KCUR Studios and host of the podcast A People’s History of Kansas City, I aim to provide context, clarity, empathy and deeper, nuanced perspectives on how the events and people in the past have shaped our community today.

In that role, and as an occasional announcer and reporter, I want to entertain, inform, make you think, expose something new and cultivate a deeper shared human connection about how the passage of time affects us all. Reach me at hogansm@kcur.org.
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