Atticus Palmer, 15-Year-Old Pinball Wunderkind, Heading to National Championship
Suburbs don't get much tidier than Coral Springs. The boxy patch of West Broward is made up of neighborhoods of modest ranch homes planted evenly on shady, manicured lawns. It's Mayberry 2.0, a David Lynch movie before shit goes bad.
Photo by Ian Witlen
Behind the front door of one such modest suburban house is a living room like a million others, except this one is lined with five blinking pinball machines. Another 11 rigs are tucked away in the garage. The man of the house -- who, thanks to a Duck Dynasty beard and shoulder-length hair, looks like he could be hauling around guitar cases for Metallica -- is a friendly engineer named Jeff Palmer. His only son, Atticus, is a cheery 15-year-old with a Nicolas Cage fixation who likes to dress up like Doctor Who. Put them together and you're looking at Florida's first family of pinball excellence.
"We're not," says mom Nancy, "like the other families in the neighborhood."
The younger Palmer is currently the Florida flipper champ. He clinched those bragging rights at a nail-biter tournament at Club 66 in Boynton Beach in February. And this week, the whole Palmer clan is heading off to Lyons, Colorado -- just outside Denver -- for the International Flipper Pinball Association's U.S. National Championship. Atticus will be the youngest competitor at the event.
"You have people who are flying in from all over the country," Jeff says. "He's going to be playing against literally the elite people from the United States."
The Palmers' pin success comes amid a pinball resurgence. Fueled by the internet's enthusiasm for all things retro and a new world ranking system, its popularity is surging across the United States. Last year, 13 tournaments with 168 competitors were held in Florida. Now, five months into 2014, Florida has already seen ten.
Back in the day -- before Xbox, Nintendo, Donkey Kong, or even Pong -- there was only pinball.
The first mechanical pinball machines were largely games of chance; you shot a ball and tilted the machine to control its trajectory. The flipper wasn't introduced until 1947. But by then, most major American cities had outlawed the game as another form of gambling. In 1942, New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia personally ordered raids of pinball parlors to destroy the damn machines that were stealing nickels and dimes from "the pockets of schoolchildren."
Pinball became a wink-wink backroom pastime. It developed an outlaw aura. By the time the Who's rock opera Tommy hit in 1972 with the tale of the "Pinball Wizard," some bans were still in place, but the game's popularity had exploded.
The 1970s and '80s were the classic period of pinball, with companies such as Bally and Williams filling bowling alleys and pizza parlors with the machines. But by the mid-1990s, videogames -- both in the arcade and at home -- delivered the KO punch. The parent organization that ran international tournaments, the International Flipper Pinball Association, went inactive in 1995. All the major pinball producers shuttered save one.
But there's an unwritten rule that forgotten fads once beloved by nerds will one day rise again. The internet helped collectors sniff out old machines.
The master stroke came in 2006, when a reignited IFPA began ranking players worldwide.
"Before that, there was no real way to connect players from across the globe," explains IFPA President Josh Sharpe. "Back in the '90s, there were pretty strong tournaments in Sweden. For us U.S. players, we didn't really care. There was no way to know who was good or bad."
Under the new worldwide ranking, players flipping at IFPA-sanctioned events could earn points and track their progress against players everywhere. Tournaments exploded as a result. In 2006, there were 50 pinball matches worldwide. By 2013, there were 1,604. Already in 2014, 718 tournaments have been held.