Atticus Palmer, 15-Year-Old Pinball Wunderkind, Heading to National Championship
Jeff first fell in love with pinball back in the glory days, when he was growing up in Virginia.
Photo by Ian Witlen
"Fast Draw, Joker Poker, Paragon," he says now, listing classic pins. "Those would have been the games from the mid- to late '70s. From that point, I would look for more pinball machines out at skating rinks, malls, bowling alleys."
Jeff and Nancy met while they were students at the University of Central Florida. They immediately had something in common -- she grew up in small-town West Virginia, where one of the only forms of entertainment was an Evel Knievel pinball machine.
In 2000, Nancy was bedridden with what was later diagnosed as lupus. Atticus was just a baby. Jeff was working, then shuttling home to care for his family. "I told him, 'You don't go out with your friends anymore; you just work and take care of us,' " Nancy says. " 'Buy a pinball machine.' " The family found a 1990 Fun House machine. It featured the usual bumpers, flippers, goblins, and clowns.
Atticus' first memory is of being propped up on Jeff's knee as a 3-year-old, watching the metal ball bolt around a green monster's head on the family's Fun House rig.
It wasn't until 2003, when the family picked up Stern's Lord of the Rings pin (an instant classic), that the 5-year-old started showing a natural talent for the game.
"At 5 years old on games like Lord of the Rings, he was doing things that adults weren't even coming close to doing," Jeff says. "He was beating them, he was putting up decent scores, and he could barely see over the top."
In 2011, Jeff and Atticus both began entering tournaments in Florida. The first one -- the Southern Pinball Festival in Orlando -- featured 64 competitors, including Jim Belsito, the 11th-ranked player in the world, and Zack Sharp, ranked second. Jeff placed sixth. Atticus came in 12th.
The Palmers quickly realized tournament play was far different from flipping at home. For one, the machines were calibrated to be more difficult. The slope was increased, so the balls jumped faster. They took away extra balls... It was as if you practiced your jump shot in the driveway, then showed up for a basketball game only to find the hoop had been raised a foot.