Full-tilt wizards

By Allison M. HeinrichsTRIBUNE-REVIEWMonday,
Hunched over the flashing machine, Lyman Sheats, of Chicago, pushed a button and became World Pinball Champion for a third time.
"It was really tense," said Steve Zumoff, 41, of Point Breeze, who helped organized and run the competition. "Everyone was completely silent."
Nearly 400 competitors gathered Sunday at the Pro-Am Pinball Association's headquarters in Scott to compete with the world's best pinball wizards for more than $33,000 in cash and prizes at the Ninth Annual World Pinball Championships.
The international competition drew people from as far away as Germany.

More than 300 pinball machines began buzzing, flashing and ringing Thursday morning when the competition began. The machines, which date back to 1946, are the personal collection of Kevin Martin, 35, of Shadyside.
"It's an expensive hobby," said Martin, who owns and operates Pair Networks, a Web-hosting company on the South Side. Older machines average $1,800, while new ones cost about $3,900.
Martin pays for the machines himself, making no money by donating them for use in the competition.
"That's what makes (collecting) fun," he said. "It's more fun to compete than to have 380 pinball machines all to myself,"
The winners of each of the five divisions in this year's championship received custom-made trophies featuring a magnetic ball the size of a pinball dangling from a wire. When batted, the ball bounces between three magnets the way a pinball bounces off a machine's flippers and bumpers.
The trophy was created by Pittsburgh decorative metal artist Don Bell.
"This is going to be my trophy," said Justin Ortscheid, 10, of Akron, Ohio, as he gazed up at the award for the winner of the Juniors division, which is for those 16 and younger. He finished in second place.
Ortscheid said he's been playing pinball "about my whole life, probably." His parents, Marvin and Grace, have pinball machines at home and Ortscheid said he practices at least once a day.
Bowen Kerins, 31, of Salem, Mass., credits his father with getting him interested in pinball. Kerins was last year's world champion.
"To become an excellent player you have to see how other players play," said Kerins, who finished eighth this year. "You have to learn to push the machine and the flippers at just the right moment.
"People who don't play pinball think it's all luck," he said. "It's definitely a game of skill."
Sean Grant, 33, a stockbroker from New York City, took an interesting approach to sharpening his skills and clearing his head for this year's tournament.
"I stopped drinking for the past month," Grant said. "I'm 33 now and I wanted to have as much of an edge as I can -- this is a grueling event."
"Plus I lost 15 pounds," he said, patting his relatively-flat stomach. "I guess that's another side-effect of cutting back on the beer."
Pinball World Champion
These are the winners of the Pro-Am Pinball Association's Ninth Annual World Pinball Championships:
• Expert division: Lyman Sheats, of Chicago.
• Intermediate division: Darran Kamnitzer, 31, Columbus, Ohio
• Novice division: Mark Salas, 42, Cleveland, Ohio
• Juniors (16 and under) division: Ethan Blonder
• Seniors (50 and over) division: Rick Prince
Pinball through the decades
Pinball machines appeared in the early 1930s as countertop machines without legs and grew to become elaborate digital machines with blinking lights, sound and complicated rules. Here is a sampling of the machines featured by the Pro-Am Pinball Association in Scott:
• 1946 -- "Big Hit." This machine gave the player five balls for 5 cents and a five replays for any ball that went through the machine's center channel, when lit.
• 1958 -- "Gottlieb's two-player Gondolier." With the motto, "It's more fun to compete," this machine cost 5 cents to play and gave one replay for each score of 1,500 points.
• 1966 -- "Hot Line." This fishing-themed game gave five balls for 25 cents and the goal was to use those balls to hit various targets and light up seven lights that spell the game's title.
• 1977 -- "Sonic Mars Trek." For 25 cents, players were given three balls and could score 10,000 points by "Making Mars," or hitting four buttons with the balls to spell "Mars."
• 1986 -- "Pin Bot." This game moved beyond a flat playing surface to feature a ramp that allowed players to shoot the three balls they got for 25 cents over a robot and into a spaceship, increasing their "solar value."
• 1994 -- "Guns N' Roses." After paying 50 cents for three balls, players could shoot the balls with a rose-shaped pulley and use a fake-gun to make "skill shots" and add "band members."
• 2006 -- "Pirates of the Caribbean." One of the hottest pinball machines on the market, this game costs 50 cents for one play and requires players to shoot their ball at a sinking ship to start a battle with the "Kraken" or launch their ball into a treasure chest and "Jack the money" to get an extra ball.
Become a pinball wizard
The experts share the following tips on becoming a champion:
• Watch the other players to learn creative techniques, like keeping several balls in play at once.
• Learn to "stop" the ball with the flippers so you can stay in control and plan your strategy.
• Don't get a big ego if you are the best player in your hometown -- most of the players at the World Pinball Championships are the best in their towns.
• Don't think about the money or prizes or else you'll lose focus.
• Speaking of losing focus, reducing alcohol consumption helps keep your mind sharp.
• As with most competitive sports, practice makes perfect.

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