Awesome careers: Professional pinball player

By Jackie Burrell
The title may be "professional pinball player" but Andrei Massenkoff says it's a rare player who can actually make a living at pinball. Massenkoff, the grand champion of the 2006 Bay Area Pinball Association and a member of the national Professional Amateur Pinball Association, splits his days between the San Francisco school district, where he works part time as a preschool teaching assistant, and local pinball venues.

Massenkoff, a native San Franciscan who graduated from college as a comparative religion major, was bitten by the pinball bug early. He's been playing since he was 4 or 5, he says, although it wasn't until college that he heard about competitive pinball.

"My junior year of college, someone informed me of the world championships," he says. "I made a trip out there (to Pittsburgh, Pa.) to see how I'd do amongst the big boys."

These days Massenkoff plays anywhere from three to six days a week -- one of those days is with the Bay Area association at a local bowling alley, liquor store or pizza parlor. The world championships, which ended Aug. 20, are "my favorite four days of the year," Massenkoff says. "The best in the world come out for that. It's intense."

Top players can earn as much as $10,000 in a single four-day tournament. But most players augment their earnings with day jobs, and some become pinball vendors, purchasing and installing pinball machines in public venues and collecting the resulting fees. Of course, others purchase pinball machines just for fun. Fremont software engineer Eugene Gershtein has seven machines in his living room.

"We just had playoffs for our last league season at my house," he says.

Gershtein and his wife play for fun, but Massenkoff is a competitive player whose high scores propelled him into the world championship finals this year. And fellow San Franciscan Neil Shatz, who took the crown last year, came in second overall.

Training: Professional pinball players devote enormous amounts of time to the game, refining their strategy and flipper techniques in three- to nine-hour practice sessions multiple times per week. It's all about ball control, touch, game management and patience. But it's fun for anyone to play, no matter what the skill level, says Massenkoff.

"Enjoy the game," says Massenkoff. "It takes a little time to get comfortable on a pinball machine, but it's fun. It's one of those games you can enjoy no matter how well or how poorly you play. Just shoot for the flashing lights."

Prospects: The world championship has a $33,000 prize purse, but only a select few make that kind of money. Most players have second jobs. To join the Bay Area or national Professional Amateur Pinball Association, visit www.BayAreaPinball.org or www.papa.org.

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