Pinball League Night

Games night
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Editorial Review

Fairfax bar takes pinball seriously

By Fritz Hahn
Friday, Feb. 17, 2012

Every Monday night, a sleepy little Fairfax bar called John's Place transforms from a strip mall dive into the epicenter of the Washington area's pinball scene.

Accompanied by a symphony of click-clacking flippers, dinging bells and sound effects from electronic score changers, a predominantly male crowd groups around 15 machines - an awesome collection that includes a 1979 Harlem Globetrotters machine and the more futuristic "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

By now, even casual pinball fans know how hard it is to find working machines in bars, so to find this many under one roof is a treat, and it's all thanks to the members of the Free State Pinball Association.

The pinball machines at John's, whether vintage or modern, belong to someone in the league, predominantly Fairfax lawyer Paul McGlone or intelligence analyst Chris Newsom. Newsom, 38, owns nine of the pinball machines at John's, and seven at Town Hall in College Park, where the Free State sponsors a Thursday league night. "For us, it's a labor of love as well as a hobby," explains McGlone, 52. "The owners get a few quarters out of it."

It's fair to say most of those quarters come from the league, which hosts an event every Monday - $4 dues, plus 25 cents per game - and the annual Fairfax Pinball Open, which will draw dozens of players from across the Mid-Atlantic at John's Place next weekend. (See box for details.)

The members also take responsibility for fixing any machines with problems and rotate new games in and out a few times a year to shake things up.

Several players at John's have managed to crack the world competitive pinball rankings, including Newsom, and they're more than willing to share tips with newcomers. That's what draws new players such as Rich Wickersham, 35, of Vienna. "I walked in here on a whim about two years ago, and I ran into a couple of league players," he says.

As a hard-core video game player, "I wasn't a hard sell," he says, laughing. "It's all these guys who know how to play really well, who have the technique and know-how to keep the games in good condition." Though Wickersham has bought a few pinball machines for his basement, "I come in here a couple of times a week now."

John's Place is an odd one: the kind where the deer head mounted high on the bar's wood-paneled walls is draped with a bra, and when strangers walk in, you can feel everyone in the room swivel and look them up and down.

The pinball machines are in a room that, for all its glass-block windows, '70s wood paneling and beat-up vinyl furniture, looks like the rec room at an old VFW hall.

The games are available to play from noon to midnight daily, and the bartenders are used to making change. If you show up and the game you want to try isn't on, McGlone helpfully suggests you "just plug it in."