Pinball Wizard

What's it take to be the top-ranked pinball player in the Granite State? Just ask Brian O’Neill, who's setting his sights on the world title

Brian O’Neill is a most profound Pinhead, an elite player among serious Pinballers. Fresh from being crowned the best player in NH, he now moves on to the North American Championship in Wisconsin. Ranked 56th in the world, Brian stands a solid chance of snatching that title, too. With about 33 tables in his basement, he would have been an outlaw once upon a time — an amoral pariah, a gutter dweller. Pinball was ruled indecent and quite illegal in most states. But things thankfully have changed. It takes some serious skill — and not the cover of night — to play well these days. Grab some quarters and bat around a few silver balls. Ding, ding, ding.

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In Brian’s words…

  • I’ve been playing some form of pinball for as long as I can remember. My summers in New Hampshire typically would include a few trips to Funspot. 

  • My first true connection to pinball was playing Attack From Mars when my family vacationed to Disneyland. The feeling of destroying my first saucer, collecting an extra ball or getting a free game was exhilarating. 

  • There is prize money in pinball but not enough to play it professionally for a living. If I win enough to pay for my trip to a tournament, that is a bonus. 

  • Unlike an arcade game like Pac-Man, where all you have to do is memorize patterns, pinball is mechanical, so no two games are ever the same. 

  • Each machine has a different set of rules with a different way to score the most points. 

  • If I can keep my emotions in check as well as maintaining focus during huge competitions, I end up performing much better. 

  • There are currently no endorsements for competitors. But I’d love if New Balance would sponsor me, as there are some tournaments where I end up on my feet for more than 12 hours a day for up to four days in a row.

  • I own 36 machines. Most are at my house, but I put some out on locations in local bars and restaurants. 

  • Calling them “tables” versus “machines” is a hotly debated subject among pinheads…I personally prefer “machines.” “Tables” are something you put drinks on, and you will be shunned if you ever put a drink on a pinball machine. 

  • From the 1930s until 1947, you had pinball machines that didn’t have flippers. You would plunge the ball and see where it went.

  • There is a running joke in pinball that the worse the movie the game is based on, the better the pinball machine. “Congo” and “Johnny Mnemonic” were terrible movies but excellent pinball machines. 

  • Understanding how much you can nudge a game before warnings or tilts is a massive part of the game and will give you an edge over other players who aren’t great nudgers. 

  • My wife, Allison, is also a competitive pinball player. She is one of the top female players in the world. We both got into pinball together when we lived in San Francisco.

  • My response to someone asking if I’m a “Pinball Wizard” is usually something along the lines of, “It doesn’t take magic to be good at pinball.”

  • Tokens Taproom in Dover and Toys from the Attic in Somersworth are two great places to check out with some great working games. Funspot up in Weirs Beach is also a must stop for any arcade or pinball aficionado.

Pinball SmashDid you know that it was once illegal to own a pinball machine in many states?

Pinball machines were officially banned in New York in 1942 until the late 1970s, because the city administration viewed the game as a “game of luck” rather than a “game of skill.”

In 1942, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia started executing a massive Prohibition-style raid across the city by issuing an ultimatum to the NYPD that their “top priority” was to round up all the pinball machines in the city and arrest their owners. The raid resulted in thousands of machines being confiscated then smashed with sledgehammers by the Mayor and the NYPD before being dramatically dumped into the city rivers. But pinball in New York City did not disappear; it simply moved to low-key locations in less desirable areas.

Writer and pinball historian Roger Sharpe’s obsession with the game drove him to report on and overturn the ban, in 1976, by playing a perfect game in a court proceeding. Sharpe showed the New York City Council how he could call his shots in a game of pinball, proving that the machines can’t be used for gambling, because they are games of skill instead of chance.

Categories: People, Q&A