Chicago Pinball Expo - Chicago, IL, USA - Westin Hotel - 17-19/10/2019

With my upcoming 40th birthday trip being planned, I wasn't sure if second trip to the USA was doable this year, but with some careful financial planning I managed to squeeze it in back to back with the EPC'19 in Denmark.

I've been meaning to come check out the expo for some time now, I was especially interested in the Stern factory tour and many rare pins in the show. As an icing on the cake one of my favorite pinball series, Elvira, would be getting a sequel which was to be released in the expo and no other than Cassandra herself would be there too!

All three Elvira games. I SO need this at my place!

Me and my buddy Olli-Mikko flew out directly to Chicago, but started this tour with a short sight seeing trip to Milwaukee, Wisconsin before returning to Chicago. The expo itself was inside of a conference hotel and while the room prices were a bit rip off-ish, I really appreciated the fact that I could just put on my playing gear and walk from my room directly into the expo hall.

The welcome dinner party, with some Spanish pins in the background!

In addition to having 100s of pins free to play, the expo naturally also had tournaments. The main tournament had a lineup of the very latest Sterns, including the brand new Elvira's house of horrors. The classics tournament had EMs and a selection of early SS games.

Both tournaments were based on your 6 best scores on games of your own choosing, main tournament included 12 entries total and no buy-ins, the classics again had unlimited buy-ins.

When we first arrived, we were wandering around, watching as the show was being set up and found ourselves in a room with a buffet and a plenty of people. A waiter asked if we were one of the pinball people and we naturally said yeah. They promptly gave us a table and told us to dig into the food. Everything looked so good, so we didn't mind the offer. It wasn't until a bit later when we noticed how everyone there had t-shirts of all kinds of arcades, distributors and so forth and we realized that by "pinball people" they probably meant organizers of the event and not us two random Finnish guys. But whatever, free food!


I started off with the main tournament. This was a bit tough spot for me, as I'm not that well versed with the latest changes to the Stern's newest games and the only game I really knew well, Star Trek, had a line so long it wasn't funny any more. So I played Beatles, Black Knight Premium, Elvira, Dead pool, Munsters and as a wild card Star Wars home edition.

I tried the new Elvira couple of times in the free play lounge and came to the conclusion I'd probably just try starting the multiballs and see where it goes. Short plunging, then making the mansion lock was relatively easy shot and after a rather poor first try, I got 54M on it, which was apparently good enough to score some points.

I had a rather decent start on Dead pool, I drained my last ball with Mechsuit multiball lit, which was a bummer but with 268M I guess people had done worse on it.

The Munsters was hard for me, I had never played the variant with the miniplayfield before and I couldn't do anything with those miniatyre flippers and tiny ball. 

I left The Beatles with 3.3M and played Black Knight's premium variant as my last game. Oh man was the upper playfield useless. This is one of the games where I strongly prefer the pro version. I got  105M on it, which to me was pretty embarrassingly low score, but it still netted me my 3rd best game in the whole qualification.

The outcome was 53rd position in the main, which was enough to qualify.

The classics lineup
The classics was a lot worse show for me. In many cases I drew the short straw and had things like tilting the game from plunging, annoying flipper issues and so forth. I played 18 games total and decided it wasn't worth my money to play more.


My 53rd place netted me couple of byes and I started off from the round 3.

I got to pick the games here, my opponent their position. My first pick was the new Elvira, where I got two unbelievable house balls and I couldn't catch my opponent's good lead on my 3rd ball. My second game was on Dead pool and it was just as bad.

That's it once again. A face plant in the playoffs and to the losers' side I go from the first opponent.

My games on the losers' side started off with Munsters, that I won mostly because the opponent had even crappier luck than I did. Next up was Black Knight, where I couldn't find the upper playfield lock shot and got totally annihilated.

The very last game was probably the only good game I had that day. I played pretty good Mech suit multiball and was at 320M with the opponent at 140M at the start of his last ball. But by playing a multiball after another he finally caught me and that was it, Chicago pinball expo tournament was over for me. At least I played one good game there, even if I lost that one.

The outcome

I qualified in the main tournament as 53rd and got eliminated from the first round, also losing the first match on the losers' side, ultimately being 68th out of 156 players.

I was 62nd in the classic tournament out of 132 players.

About the expo and the Stern tour

The expo had spread over several halls, all full of pinball machines old and new. Almost everything, save the tournament games were set for free play and there was a roomful of just the latest Stern games. I also got to play Jersey Jack's Willy Wonka and American Pinball's Oktoberfest. Many extremely rare games were also for the visitors to play, including the Krull I had always wanted to try. Krull's speciality is a second playfield under the normal one, but unlike with many modern games, the lower playfield is full sized and you view it through a lens that makes it smaller.

Whee! A real school bus!

The Stern factory tour was one thing that sold me on making the whole trip and it naturally was a high point of our time in Chicago area. We got a ride there on school busses, never been on the US style ones before. Stern's factory was about half an hour from our hotel, which was probably enough in a bus meant for kid sized passengers.

The kid-sized seats were fun for the first 10 minutes. Not so much after that.
I really hadn't thought about how a pinball factory would look like, but it was pretty much how I would have guessed it. The playfields were assembled in a huge line, where the half-finished playfields moved on rails from one workstation to another. The worker would install some parts to it and then move it forwards.

A picture I was totally not allowed to take!
We also saw how the wiring harnesses and major components were built there on location. I had expected that all of that would be somehow automated nowdays, but we got to watch as the ladies there weaved one wire after another into a complex wiring harness, tested it and then started working on another one. Plastic parts came from China according to the warehouse manager, playfields were nowdays manufactured locally. The cabinets came from somewhere else as fully assembled units, they just applied the decals on them at the factory. We stopped to marvel for a second how fast they could do the decaling, for something that takes several hours for me to do, these guys finished a cabinet in just minutes.

One really funny thing I immediately noticed was the language used in the factory. Some of you who may have followed my past adventures, may remember that I started studying Spanish in January. Now came the first time where I could actually hear a lot of it. Even all the signs in the work benches were in Spanish. 

At the time of our visit Elvira's House of horrors, Black Knight and Jurassic Park were in production. In addition to meeting Gary Stern himself, I also met George Gomez for the first time in real life. I could have easily spend the whole day at the factory, but after the tour it was time to move on and return to the expo.

I've never been to ComicCons or other events with celebrities so I had no clue what the protocol is supposed to be. At first I was so stoked about the opportunity to meet Cassandra, but with almost two hour line and $80 fee convinced me to just enjoy all the new Sterns in the free play area. Still, managed to sneak one picture of her!

It's Cassandra and the Elvira HOH pinball team!
The expo had a lot of interesting seminars. I went to check out Making of Jurassic park and Elvira. Cassandra turned up in the latter too to answer questions about the game. 

Final thoughts

With a lot of rare games off my to-do -list, having visited the Stern factory and seeing the Chicago Expo alone were more than enough to justify this trip. As an added bonus we went to explore the neighboring states of Illinois: Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan. In Indiana we visited Gary, Michael Jackson's home town. The place was in rather rough shape nowdays and after an encounter with a very aggressive panhandler, we continued up north towards Michigan. There I drove us to Grand Rapids where we went to check out a local brewery restaurant.

I really loved the scenery around Lake Michican, we stopped at multiple sightseeing spots to just marvel the views. 

On my way back home I took different way back home than Olli-Mikko, who flew a direct route from Chicago to Helsinki on an Airbus A330. I again took a detour to London so I could check off Boeing 747 from my large planes list, before they all disappear in this era of mid-sized long haul planes.

Queen of the skies off my to-do list!

We'll see where I'll find myself the next year, but I probably can't afford two trips to the US. I'll still probably take part in the major European tournaments, especially the EPC.

Until the next time!

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