Atticus Palmer, 15-Year-Old Pinball Wunderkind, Heading to National Championship
But in his early go at competition, Atticus displayed the rare ability to put his anxiety on ice. Other pinballers might smash their hands against the glass or curse; Atticus would just play, his headphones pumping in Slayer or Metallica or Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up" on repeat. He began wearing dollar-store sunglasses with "YOLO" scrawled on the lenses.
Photo by Ian Witlen
"I try not to focus too much on what's going on," he says. "I just want to go and have fun and play pinball. I don't want this to turn into a giant monolith towering over me. If it's not fun, why am I doing it?"
Wise words for a 15-year-old. Atticus isn't some Tommy-like savant. Home-schooled since first grade, he's a well-adjusted kid who likes building stuff with Legos, playing Xbox with friends, and participating in the Fort Lauderdale Children's Theater. He's also preternaturally level-headed for a kid his age facing off against adults with decades of flipping experience.
"I've been playing for a long time and against people that let the moment get to them," says IFPA President Sharpe, who competed with the Palmers at Florida tournaments. "[Atticus] is a free spirit. Any game he plays, you can't tell whether he's playing for fun or in the finals."
At the Game Warp Tournament in July 2012, Atticus came in second out of 32 competitors. He kept putting in impressive performances throughout 2013. In June, Palmer father and son met in the finals of the Point Monsters Championship in Fort Myers. The game was Iron Man -- a machine the Palmers have in their family room.
"We both know how to play it; neither one of us had an advantage over the other," Jeff says. "He got first, I got second, and I couldn't have been happier."
IFPA's state championships are cumulative processes. After piling up points throughout 2013, the top 16 contestants were invited to play for the Florida title in February in Boynton Beach. Each matchup between players was a best-of-seven contest. After Atticus plowed through his first two competitors, he was nervous. Then he was in the finals with Sanford's Kurt van Zyl, one match away from the proverbial belt. After three rounds, Zyl had 382 million points, Atticus a measly 60 million.
This was bottom-of-the-ninth, tie-game, go-ahead-run-on-third stuff, two seconds on the game clock, down by a single bucket.
He had one last ball to play on a machine -- a '90s pin based on the thumbs-down Keanu Reeves movie Johnny Mnemonic -- he'd never played before that day and couldn't get the feel for it. By then, the Mountain Dew in his bloodstream was about all that was keeping him standing after eight hours of play. About 20 spectators watched. Some were chewing their nails. Nancy couldn't stand the tension and walked away. Jeff, on his feet near the machine, watched as his son slowly slipped on his YOLO specs.
"It's over," he said to a spectator at his side. "It's done now."
Sure enough, when the ball dropped, Atticus began banging away, knocking home points until his total climbed... and climbed... and climbed to 392 million. He was the champ.
"I was still processing everything when my dad ran up shouting," Atticus says.
In Colorado, Atticus will face a field of 31 other state champs. It's the first national championship and his first big-time exposure. True to style, he's not going overboard with practice. "I'll play a couple of games a day," he says. "I try to work on becoming as relaxed as possible, like I'm just playing another game of Iron Man at home."
"I'm guessing out of all the players there, he'll be the least nervous," says IFPA's Sharpe. "We'll see if that translates into big scores."