Pinball wizards: Glen Burnie club brings inaugural year to a close

Ben Weathers
Glen Burnie pinball club gets ready to close out its first year.

Justin Day's long love affair with pinball began as a child at the boardwalk arcades of Ocean City and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.

"I remember going to the boardwalk and my old man would say, 'Let's play some pinball,' " Day, of Glen Burnie, recalled.

He remembered his father giving him pointers. Don't press both of the flippers at the same time; use the flipper to try and catch the ball, he'd tell him.

Now 34 years old, Day is a league official for the DMV Pinball league, which competes six times a week at locations in Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Maryland — including Tuesday nights at Glen Burnie's Crabtowne on Crain Highway.

"It's just like a pool league or darts league or something like that — it's just way cooler because it's pinball," he said.

The pinball league is nearing the end of its inaugural year. Players competed in three eight-week seasons in 2015.

The league hopes to expand to four seasons in the new year, Day said.

The league's last finals tournament of 2015 is Saturday at the Black Cat in D.C.

At the end of each season, the league gives away a pinball machine, paid for by league dues, to a player at random, Day said. League players pay $40 for every eight-week season. They can play free with the Crabtowne Pinball Club on Tuesdays, though.

There are about 80 players in the league. Crabtowne is one of its most popular locations. Day is also co-founder of the Crabtowne Pinball Club. While the club wasn't official until 2015, it comprises many Crabtowne regulars who have been playing the machines for years, Day said.

The club meets at Crabtowne every Tuesday night, even when there is no league play, Day said.

As many as 30 players will play four games a night, with three people randomly assigned to a machine. While the league consists of three different divisions, top tier players, as well as intermediate and beginning pinballers, are often grouped together at the same machine, Day said.

"In pinball, everybody is trying to teach everyone," said Pierce McLaine, 31, who oversees competitions at the Black Cat and Lyman's Tavern in D.C. on Sundays and Mondays. "We want everyone to be the best players; we want the top to be more crowded."

Getting the ball rolling

The league is the brainchild of Joe Said, 37, of Frederick. Unlike Day, Said didn't even play pinball until he was in college, he said.

Said became hooked on the game about seven years ago while living in New York City, when one day he randomly entered a pinball tournament in Brooklyn.

"I just played one tournament and got hungry for more," he said.

Said spent the next several years traveling the country to compete in pinball tournaments. He moved to Maryland in August 2012.

Soon after arriving, he bought nine pinball machines and began hosting tournaments at his home.

"I had people coming from all over the place, driving like five hours," he said.

Said spent the better part of last fall organizing the DMV league. When Day heard Said was working to organize a league, he approached him about Crabtowne being one of the locations. Said quickly agreed.

The league's first season began last January.

With different locations throughout the week, players who are unable to make it to Crabtowne one Tuesday can drive to Baltimore or D.C. to compete, Day said.

Part of the appeal to pinball is that it's a game that everyone knows. However, to be successful, players have to learn skills that are somewhat counterintuitive, Said said.

"Everybody knows how to play pinball, but it's all about making that 25 cents worth more playtime — getting more value out of quarters," Said explained.

"There totally are fundamentals just like at Little League when you learn to throw and catch — those same kinds of things need to be learned for pinball," Day said.

Another appeal of the game is it brings a wide array of people from different generations and cultures together, Day said.

Players in their early 20s often mingle with businessmen in their 60s, according to Day.

"Nobody talks work when they're here," Day said. "It brings people together that would never even cross paths."

Even though the game is mostly played by men, a few women have recently began competing at the Crabtowne location.

"Guys are starting to bring their girlfriends and wives," Day said.

McLaine, who, like Day was first mesmerized by pinball on the boardwalk of Rehoboth Beach, said he is recruiting players to make the league more diverse.

"Getting people to take that first step of competition is hard, (but) once you get people on board and they start playing — everybody loves it."

The league's next season will take place in January. The Crabtowne Pinball Club meets at 8 p.m. every Tuesday at 1500 Crain Highway S.

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