IFPA world championship 11 - The Game Exchange, Denver, USA - 23-25/05/2014

After spending a bit over week in the Colorado area it was finally time to go check out our final venue - The Game Exchange. The place was huge and the very first thing that caught my eye after walking in was the yet unreleased Stern Mustang limited edition! In the entrance hall was a long line-up of new machines, including all the latest Sterns and usually all the variants of them next to each other. In the back was the actual tournament area with three separate line-ups for classic, 80s and modern pins.

The Game Exchange building, with Olli-Mikko

On Thursday we had the official warm-up session, where all the machines were freely playable by anyone participating in the tournament. As I walked around and checked out each machine, I was happy to see many familiar faces from this year's EPC games. It was also fun to notice many of them seemed to remember me from there and greeted me as I walked by. I guess I'm now at least noted by the world's elite! :) First thing I had to do was to play the new variant of Stern's Mustang. I kind of liked it first time I saw it in Rimini earlier this year, but I wasn't that sure about the new version. The main difference in game play was some added Cactus Canyon Bad guy-styled drop targets to make the center field side shots harder, but other than that all the other thins were just for show. Still, the best experience so far in the US was absolutely getting to play a shit-load of Wizard of Oz!

On the right wall were all the EM machines. Many of them were new to me, but I noticed couple of old acquaintances as well. On the back wall were the 80s machines and on the left modern ones. The 80s section was mostly machines I was very familiar with and the rest I had at least played couple of times, so no surprises there, ditto with the modern side. The place was pretty crowded as all the 63 other players were there (and apparently some extras as well, even when I recall there was a rule of non IFPA 11 players not being allowed to the area?), but I managed to squeeze in couple of practice games in there. All the machines I tried played really well, but were on pretty harsh settings with steep angles and rubbers removed from most in/outlane posts and so forth.

Panorama shot of the main area

The free play machine area

The IFPA 11 qualification consisted of 8 rounds, where four players played against each other in three pin groups. The players score 7 points for winning, 5 for 2nd place, 3 for 3rd place and 1 point for 4th place. 32 players with most points after 8 rounds would go to the play-offs.

The end-game bracket

Day 1

I think it only hit me during the breakfast the next morning - I'm going to play today in the world championship games! We drove to the Game Exchange with couple of Danish(?) guys who needed a lift. After the introductions and opening speech, it was time for the first round. I was nervous as hell, fearing I'd tank my first games with a 1-1-1 point run.

Round 1

Pins: Snow Queen, Earth Shaker, Shrek
Opponents: Trent Augenstein (USA), Dave Steward (USA), Roberto Pedroni (ITA)

I had been debating with myself for some time now if I should listen to some music during playing to find my playing zone. Suddenly I was standing next to Snow Queen with three others and I was the first player. I ended up deciding to go for the music and chose Orion by Metallica as my starting song. I gathered myself during the intro and plunged as the main riff started. Man, it felt good to be here today!

Snow Queen was no new game for me, and I knew exactly what to do with it; get the ball in the holes at the upper playfield, then give it a sharp nudge every time the ball was ejected .. so the ball hit the rubber post nearby and went back in the hole. I felt a hole burning in my back as the others watched me nearing roll over point! I had couple of bad balls, but also couple of really good ones. I ended up with 7258 points which was one of the best, if not the best ever I've played on that machine. Next up was the three other players and nervously I watched them play. None of them were newbies to pinball, that was sure! But after the last player drained his last ball, I realized I had won my very first game at the IFPA 11!

Next was a System 11 classic, Earth Shaker. This time we got to play against each other (our first game, Snow Queen was a one player game, so we each played a full game on our turn). Thanks to winning the Snoq Queen, I was player #1 once again. I started another strong game, but on my 2nd ball the machine developed a problem; the right flipper's return spring apparently snapped. The local repair team took care of it real quick and I got to continue my game. The only downside was that I did cool off during the pause and was really strugling with my last ball. Before the failure I was in the lead by over 1.5M points, but failed my last ball, only to watch Dave zoom past me. Still, I was second and got 5 points.

Our last game was Shrek. My game plan didn't help me much as I got couple of rather annoying air ball drains, and only got to play one proper ball, ending up with just 8 million and being 3rd. Still, no last positions so far!

Round points: 7-5-3

Round 2

Pins: PinBot, Lord of the rings, Wizard
Opponents: Frank Bona (FRA), Scott Milgate (AUS), Dean Grover (USA)

Stoked of the first round I was ready for more! While waiting for the remaing players to finish I noticed Gary Stern himself had arrived!

We started out with Pinbot, which didn't go that well. While Pinbot's playfield is virtually identical to Jackbot's, there are minor differences, especially in the locks. Making the lock shots are way harder and caught me by surprise couple of times. Still, I was in high spirits and ready for more!

Our round of Lord of the Rings was a tight one! Dean made some headway from the start while I just tried to build the multiballs, but the sword lock was pretty hard to make on this one. I got my act together during the last ball, and came second in the end. The scores at this point weren't as astronomical as I would have expected, I got the 2nd place with just 11M while Dean got 26M. Naturally the games here are way harder, but still...

Last we played the mandatory EM-game, Bally's Wizard. The game hated me and game me my first 4th position. Blah.

Round points: 3-5-1

Round 2 finishing up

Round 3

Pins: Drop-A-Card, Black Knight, Spider-man
Opponents: Jorian Engelbrektsson (SWE), Raymond Davidson (USA), Jon Replogle (USA)

After the 2nd round it was time for some chow. I was a bit puzzled, when the local "hamburger and chips" turned out to be just that, potato chips instead of french fries! Nothing wrong with that, but it was just a weird combo! Oh, and one of the local sponsors was a DUI/DWI lawyer, I took one of his advertising pens but really hoped I won't be needing his services during this trip.

This wasn't exactly what I expected when they asked if I wanted chips!

Drop-A-Card was a total mystery to me, it's an old EM-machine I had never seen before. Even the good old "shoot the flashing lights" didn't help me there as it didn't have any, but still, drop targets in EMs are usually a safe bet, like it was with this one. Got 5 points out of that one.

Next up was Black Knight. My 2 first balls were a disaster, I missed two saves with the magna-save, and was 4th when my 3rd ball started. But then but I put on my game face, and caught both Jorian and Jon, getting another 2nd place.

The last of three was Spider-man and if I was a betting man, I would have bet on Jorian. He completely dominated that one, while I got 3 house balls and another 4th place. What a bummer. Still, I was far from getting a 1-1-1 point round!

Round points: 5-5-1

Round 4

Pins: Jumping Jack, Paragon, Medieval Madness
Opponents: Adam Becker (CAN), Andy Rosa (USA), Eden Stamm (CAN)

After the 3rd round I noticed I was still hanging in there in the top-32! Wow, I wasn't expecting that!

Jumping Jack was bit of a "meh"-game. I didn't totally tank it, but getting only one good ball left me 3rd. I totally blame my playlist that ended just seconds after I plunged my first ball! Bad playlist!

Paragon again was a welcome sight. Well, that is until getting two house balls and getting to flip the last one like once or twice.

Uh, guys, it's raining. Like inside!

While we played Paragon, I noticed some of the organizers starting to run around. It was just seconds before some water started to drop on the playfield glass of a nearby machine. The organizers moved the games out of the way just before the ceiling gave out and fell on the floor! We had had heavy rains, tornadoes and hail for all week, and apparently this old building just couldn't take any more!
The final machine, Medieval Madness appeared to be familiar game for everyone, but it was really interesting to see so many different takes on it. Yet, I was the only one with the patented "waste every multiball on banging the castle"-approach, which nearly game me the 1st position, I was within a million from Adam, who ended up with 38M. Oh, and if you at this point go like "boo-hoo, I can score 38M in bonus at my MM" I need to remind you that all the machines are without ball savers, have virtually all critical rubber posts removed and have some other minor bastardization as well.

Round points: 3-1-5

Round 5

Pins: Out of sight, Eight Ball Deluxe, White Water
Opponents: Jochen Ludwig (GER), Derek Fugate (USA), Joshua Henderson (USA)

Out of sight was really hard game for me. I quickly learned the hard way, how virtually every ball targeted at the drop targets miraculously managed to find its way to the outlanes. Even harder was that this was the first round where I started the with the last place. I have to admit the day had already taken its toll, these rounds were high-octane and the suspense was killing me, watching the others play!

At this point apparently someone from the roof repair company came and managed to at least partially patch the ceiling with something! It was raining so hard it would have been easier to swim than walk out there!

Our next game was Eight Ball Deluxe. I started to notice how Derek was coaching Joshua during the game. Joshua was still a kid, but already had tremendous pinball playing skills. Derek seemed to give him a hand on the strategy department as some of the games were apparently new or lesser known to him. I had to ask for some consultation myself, this time from Olli-Mikko, who was hovering nearby. He verified what I already had planned, and after getting all the pool ball drop targets down, I concentrated on the multipliers. I had a rather nice last ball, but I failed to catch either Derek or Joshua. Still, 3rd place is better than 4th, so I'll take it.

Joshua swept away our last game, White Water. Jochen again got to witness some of the lesser great moments of WW and mostly found the rubber posts. I again chased Derek hard, finally draining just 4 millions short of his 114M score. Bummer.

Round points: 1-3-3

Round 6

Pins: Dr. Dude, Metallica, Jungle Queen
Opponents: John Kremmer (CAN), Jennifer Peavler (USA), Danielle Peck (NZ)

6th round was the last to be played today, with the final 2 to be played on Saturday. I felt a bit uneasy, playing a bit too many "meh"-rounds. While I was far away from total loss, I was dangerously sinking away from the magical 32nd place.

Dr. Dude was probably the most fun round so far. Both Danielle and Jennifer were hilarious with their more or less praising comments about the rather brutally hard game. In the end Danielle managed to cash out the multiball and take a clean victory over the Dude. I came in 2nd.

Metallica again was a bit of a surprise. I took way too much time starting even the first electric chair multiball and was 3rd. Jennifer again owned this game hard, scoring over 53M. I'm not sure if this Metallica was running a software version I had never seen, or if Jennifer just knew how to start something I hadn't found yet.

Last game for tonight was Jungle Queen. This again was more of my territory, although John managed to squeeze his way past me, but just barely :)

So, that was my first day ever at the pinball world championships! After some calculations I realized I still had a theoretical change to be in the top-32 if I'd manage to score couple of 15 point rounds tomorrow.

Other than that, I was interesting to see virtually all of the world top players in the same place. I had to sit down for a while after returning the score sheet. Just then the adrenaline finally started to wear off, and my feet started to kill me! A full day of aggressive pinball playing really took its toll!

Round points: 5-3-5

Day 2

I was rather beaten up after yesterday's effort and pretty much hit the bunk the moment we got back. This morning was even worse than yesterday and no amount of coffee or other stimulants helped there.

Why, oh why the Americans put straws in coffee cups? It's incredibly hard to drink coffee with it!

I was now in a tight spot: I was way below the cut-off line, but I wasn't below enough to call it quits just yet! I raided the local vending machine for some energy drinks and found something very odd: Monster's vanilla energy shake. That had to be either really good, or really awful. The latter was proven true later on, as I nearly puked my guts out after tasting it. I paid for it, so down it went and by that time we were ready for the opening speech, during which Sharpe got a trophy for being the first ever to go over 1000 WPPR points.

Sharpe receiving his 1000 points trophy

Round 7

Pins: Pinbot, Ironman, Aquarius
Opponents: Johan Genberg (SWE), Tatsunori Naruke (JPN), Ronny Hansen (NOR)

By time time I was up, I was psyched and ready to go. This was the ultimate back against the wall-situation - play two good rounds, and I'd be in! Once again I was full of energy and in high spirits, even when the energy shake didn't quite agree with me. This was the first time I met mr. Naruke, Japan's #1, in person and I was very interested to hear about how pinball is doing in the Land of the rising sun these days.

We started out with the original Pinbot. It was hard, but I got a nice lead from the very first ball and built on that on the second ball. I got he multiball running on my 3rd ball, but didn't do much with it. This time I found the ramp shot quite easily and took the "if you can repeat something in a classic pin, do it ad nauseam"-route. I easily won the game, with almost triple score to the next player. 7 points, ladies and gentlemen!

The Ironman was a whole different beast and it almost got me when coming from the slow playing Pinbot. I was last with just 3 million when my 3rd ball started and stopped to strategize before plunging. Tatsunori had owned hard, and was at 24M. The two other Nordics were within my reach in the 4-5M zone. I was couple letters away from Iron monger and I decided not to risk as this game was extremely bouncy. I did the unorthodox and started to repeat the ramps, just enough to drag myself to 6 millions and to the much needed 5 point place! Ha!

Tatsunori grinding away the Aquarius

We ended the round with Gottlieb's Aquarius. I had no idea of the game, so I had to resort to some advice from John Google on my iPad. Sure enough, the game rules in this 1970 machine weren't that hard, but the 2" flippers do take a step towards game of chance instead of game of skill. Still, knowing the game objective helped a lot and I put myself in 2nd position just after Tatsunori and got another 5 points.

Wow, what a round! I pulled a good one when I really, REALLY needed it! Just one more round like this and I'd be in the end game!

Round points: 7-5-5

Round 8

Pins: Centaur, AC/DC, Space Time
Opponents: Roberto Pedroni (ITA), Trent Augenstein (USA), Tatsunori Naruke (JPN)

This was it. The ultimate pinball do or die-moment! First up was Centaur, which made me a bit nervous as the outlane post rubbers were removed. Things didn’t get on off to a good start as I tilted my first ball. The machine had unusually sensitive tilt compared to the others I had played. No worries, Centaur has a relatively easy multiball. I tried to concentrate on collecting the orbs, but the second ball went right into the right outlane and the posts didn’t do much even when I have learned the early Bally outlane-to-inlane saving reflex from my Viking. What comes to the 3rd ball, well, at least I could hit it couple of times before a rather unceremonious center drain. Oh man that was horrible. 1 point when I really didn’t need that!

AC/DC offers rather interesting risk taking chances in the form of the song jackpot. I tried playing it safe and just rode the Rock’n’Roll train and kept repeating the left ramp until the song jackpot was high enough and jam multiball was lit. Tatsunori got a strong lead from the start, and kept going strong with the multiballs. I managed to nail one 5M+ song jackpot, and after my 3rd ball I was 2nd with 25M, while Tatsunori had 47M, Trent around 5M and Roberto 18M. Trent didn’t catch me on his last ball, so at least I wasn’t last this time. Roberto again made a nice recovery and drained at 24M, but the bonus got him just past 26M. 3 points for this one.

And then it was time for the last game of IFPA 11 qualifications - Space Time. I remember this game from the very first pre-IFPA tournament I attended when I first arrived to the USA, and I even got the timing right for the tunnel. Even when I had couple of house balls, at the last balll things looked good, Tatsunori got 43k on it and I was at 38, but then instead of hitting the center target and getting 5k, I hit the rubber post next to it and center drained, ending the game at 42k. Trent and Roberto both went way past that, with 52k and 50k respectively. So, 1 points for the very last game, bummer.

While waiting for the rest of the groups to finish, I chatted with Tatsunori for a minute. I couldn't tell which of us had come further away, but Google maps revealed a surprising fact. Tatsunori's flight was 10 and half hours, mine were a bit over 12 hours. So there! :)

The outcome

I got a tied 51/64 position with Michael Trepp and Jochen Ludwig. Even when I was naturally disappointed how the very last round turned out, it was nice to see I had my moments in there, with the world’s greatests. Perhaps with a little luck I could have made it past the qualification. I really hope I can keep the #2 position in Finland for the rest of the year, as I really want to give the world championship another try next year in UK.

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