With Sterling location, pinball league lights up Northern Virginia

Shamus Ian Fatzinger/Fairfax County Times - Vienna resident Daniel Cotten plays the NBA FastBreak pinball machine at Mighty Mike’s in Sterling during the Free State Pinball Association league night.

To say pinball is Joe Schober’s life would be an understatement.

Schober, 39, has 22 pinball machines in the basement of his Fairfax home, which was custom designed to accommodate them and their electrical needs.

“I have 600 amps coming into my house, and all the outlets are custom spaced to be able to line up the pinball games,” he said.

Schober also has pinball to thank for meeting his wife, a former U.S. women’s pinball champion he met playing the game. “It really is a terrible addiction, and we are both hooked,” he said.

Pinball dates as far back as the mid-18th century, when western Europeans played a forerunner of the game called Bagatelle, in which balls on a table were ricocheted against columns to score points by aiming them into holes, according to Popular Mechanics magazine.

Modern coin-operated machines surfaced in the 1930s, but were banned in the United States from the early 1940s to the mid-1970s in most large cities, including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

To this day, pinball still remains illegal or restricted in many communities, including Ocean City, N.J., where it still is unlawful to play on Sunday.

Pinball was considered a game of chance, not skill, and therefore was categorized as a form of gambling, according to Popular Mechanics. The machines robbed the “pockets of schoolchildren in the form of nickels and dimes given them as lunch money,” New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia wrote in a Supreme Court affidavit.

Schober said he was introduced to the game in a similar way himself.

“When I was like 4 or 5 years old, my mother would take me shopping, and if I was good I would get a quarter to go buy some candy with. At a local Kmart, there was a pinball machine, and that’s where my quarters usually went.”

Schober kept playing into adulthood. In 1995, he joined the inaugural season of the local Free State Pinball Association, and today is its president.

“We began with about 15 people playing at a place called Howie’s in College Park, Md., and eventually started a league in Fairfax Circle at a bar called John’s Place in about 2003,” Schober said.

On Jan. 1, John’s Place went out of business, leaving the league in search of a new location.

“We weren’t exactly sure where we were going to continue or what we were going to do,” Schober said. “I talked to a friend of mine, Roland Joyal, who services pinball games through his Herndon company, Professional Amusements. He actually was able to find us a new venue in Sterling.”

Joyal, another pinball aficionado, began taking apart and repairing pinball machines when he was 11.

“My father was an engineer, and one day he bought me an old beat-up pinball machine and told me I could have it if I could fix it. I’ve been doing that now for more than 40 years,” Joyal, 53, said. “I service some machines at a place called Mighty Mike’s in Sterling and talked to the owner there. He was glad to sponsor the league.”

The league begins its 17th season there this week.

“We have about 27 people in three divisions,” Schober said. “They come from as far away as Frederick, Md., to hang out and play pinball.”

Kevin Stone, 42, of McLean recently joined the league and already has three pinball machines of his own.

“It’s like potato chips,” he said. “You can’t stop at one.”

One of his newer games, Lord of the Rings, patterned after the movie series, cost him $4,000. “It was worth every quarter,” he said.

Stone said he is ranked 386th in the world, according to the World Pinball Player rankings.

“I am amazed by that,” Stone said. “I have only been playing in leagues for about a year and a half. When I came in, I was ranked like 10,000 or something.”

Cristin Gasson, 38, is one of only three women in the league.

“I got involved because my boyfriend plays,” she said. “It is very daunting to be a woman in this league because these guys are seriously good players, and there are very few women who play well, but they are all great guys, and the camaraderie is fantastic.”

Schober said that pinball remains a male-dominated game but that is changing.

“I think many early games had sort of masculine themes to them and portrayed women in ‘less than equal’ roles, but today they are more about skill, and women are just as good if not better than men. Our league’s divisions accommodate every skill level, from some of the best players in the world to the novice who has only ever played a few times before. Come on out and play. It’s a great game.”

 
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