Pinball champ Joe Said in his basement, surrounded by his collection of pinball machines. Photo courtesy Cristin Gasson

In a Digital World, Maryland Pinball Champion Revels in Resurgence of an Analog Game

BALTIMORE - A line builds on a recent Thursday night outside The Windup Space, a bar on North Charles Street that seems relocated from another era.

Inside, men with beards battle it out on old Ataris over beers, taking breaks to check their iPhones. A DJ remixes a once-popular Journey song.

Lining the walls are pinball machines that feature celebrities -- like Mata Hari and Elvira -- that long ago lost their cultural currency.

Joe Said is hunched over the "Haunted House" pinball machine, head down, legs spread shoulder-width apart, wearing a faded blue T-shirt and cargo shorts and a dark bushy beard that conspires with his heavy eyebrows to conceal his face.

He hovers lightly over the flipper buttons, ready to respond to the approach of the silver ball. He is focused only on the machine beneath his fingers, focused on winning the pinball tournament taking place here tonight.

“When I’m playing, I concentrate on myself, my strategy,” says Said (pronounced CY-eed). “I’m not concerned about my opponents, their scores, how good they are.”

Pinball players gather for tournaments at Maryland bars like The Windup Space, on North Charles Street in Baltimore. CNS video by Alanna Delfino.

Before video games emerged in the 70s and 80s -- in arcades, and in homes -- pinball was the time-waster of choice for many young men and women. But it couldn't compete with Nintendo, Xbox and PlayStation.

So it went underground, kept alive by a subculture of rebels like Said who love obsessing over an analog game in a digital world.

“It’s nostalgic,” says Said, who, at 36, is the top-ranked pinballer living in Maryland, according to the International Flipper Pinball Association standings. “People from my generation remember playing with their dads and as kids, and now they can play again with their kids.”

As a child, Said had a fascination with games, says his father, Paul Said.

He would play chess for as long as someone would agree to play with him. He wouldn’t listen to people who told him something was impossible; he had to figure it out on his own, says Dug Miller, a high school friend.

“Telling Joe something wasn’t possible is completely pointless,” Miller says.

At 15, Joe Said was accepted into a boarding school, the Indiana Academy, a public, two-year high school with 300 juniors and seniors talented in mathematics and science located on the campus of Ball State University.

“I remember one day Joe came to me and said that we were scheduled to meet with an advisor from Purdue University, which I thought was odd, as he’d only just finished his junior year of high school,” Paul Said says.

Much to his surprise, Joe Said had applied to the university and was accepted, without finishing high school and without ever mentioning his intention to the family.

It was at Purdue that Joe Said discovered his first small-scale pinball subculture, says Paul Wolfson, one of his oldest friends. On the bottom floor of the student union building on campus, there were a couple of pinball machines.

Joe Said and his friends would play casually, escaping from school work, real work and other sorts of drama that college kids cannot stay away from.

At Purdue, Joe became an entrepreneur. He dropped out in 1999 before getting his degree, co-founding a company to provide products and services for the blind.

Joe Said, 36, of Frederick, Md., plays in a tournament at The Windup Space in Baltimore. Capital News Service photo by Drew Rauso.

Start of Something New

“Real intelligence is not from school, at least for me it never was,” Joe Said says. “Awareness, about the world, about everything, that’s a lot more similar to intelligence than most people know.”

He continued working with the blind services company until he was bought out in 2009. He moved to California in 2008, where he immersed himself in the tech startup culture . But he eventually soured on the state and wanted to come back east.

Wolfson, who was living in Brooklyn, invited him to come see New York City in 2009. “I knew he had always liked playing pinball,” Wolfson says. “I also knew that by the end of his time in [California], he wasn’t very happy, so I lured him to Brooklyn, talking about this new pinball lounge and how cool it was and he should come check it out.”

Satellite Lounge, a now-defunct pinball bar in Williamsburg, became the hangout spot of choice.

“I remember thinking that I used pinball just as a way to get him out of [California] and that it would be just another one of his phases,” Wolfson said.

Joe Said has had a lot of phases, which tend to fizzle out after a period of obsession. For a time, he took a photograph of himself every day. He was obsessed with cooking for a while. And he said that he has been involved with dozens of startup companies.

But for some reason, pinball didn’t turn into just another quick-hit obsession. Pinball became a staple in Joe Said’s life.

“While Joe has always had an important relationship with gaming and his love for challenges, I think pinball takes it to the next level,” says Deva North, a friend from Purdue. “There is something visceral in playing a game not based on CGI crap, and for someone that wants to know how things work fundamentally from the core like Joe, pinball is a perfect outlet.”

And so the game came to represent stability, in a place where such a thing was almost impossible to find. “New York was insane, man,” Wolfson says. “It’s chaos there...I think being able to play pinball relaxed him, brought him back to college days and more peaceful times. It was like a nostalgic time machine.”

Joe Said’s love of the game grew while in New York. But in 2011, he decided that “the hipsters [had] invaded Williamsburg and ruined it,” and he left the city and the country.

Said went to Guatemala for three months, and later travelled around Europe and the Middle East among other places before settling in the Washington, D.C., area in 2012, entering various tournaments and playing in local leagues.

Justin Day plays one of the machines, entitled "Star Trek," at The Windup Space in Baltimore. Capital News Service photo by Drew Rauso.

Return of a Banned Game

For much of the 20th century, pinball was banned in the majority of American cities because it was thought to be a form of gambling.

In New York City, the ban was overturned in 1976 after Roger Sharpe, the co-founder of the International Flipper Pinball Association, convinced city lawmakers that the game was based on skill, not chance, according to his son, Josh Sharpe, now the president of the IFPA.

Sharpe did so by demonstrating that he could hit a specific section of the board at will. After New York lifted its ban, other cities followed, and pinball experienced a surge in popularity throughout the late 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, Josh Sharpe said.

That was the golden era of pinball. There were multiple machine manufacturers, only two of which remain today.

Since then, pinball has rescinded into the shadows. But it hasn't died out.

Pinball enthusiasts with private collections of machines in their basements helped the game stay afloat. And the game is now enjoying a public renaissance.

“Five years ago, I don’t know if there were any pinball tournaments in the area [between D.C. and Baltimore],” says Jake Peterson, organizer of The Windup Space’s event. Now, the Washington, D.C., area has become a hotspot for pinball, with various established leagues and tournaments every few months.

Said won the Maryland State Pinball Championship in February. In March, he won the Pinburgh B Championship. He is currently ranked 98th in the world by IFPA, the highest ranking pinballer living in Maryland.

Today, Joe Said lives with his girlfriend Cristin Gasson in Frederick. He spends most of his time playing pinball, organizing tournaments and buying machines.

In the first 30 seconds that a machine is posted for sale online, a computer program informs him of its availability, Gasson said, allowing him to quickly call the seller.

Their basement space is occupied by their collection of 17 machines. They have no plans to stop buying new ones.

Pinball used to be considered a game of chance, and was thus banned from many cities because it was thought to be a form of gambling. Capital News Service photo by Drew Rauso.

Josh Sharpe calls Joe Said the most passionate pinball enthusiast he’s ever met.

“Everyone knows him, and everyone knows how he isn’t in the same place for too long. But wherever he goes, a new tournament is created not long after,” Sharpe said. “The most impressive thing about it is that once he leaves -- and he keeps leaving -- those tournaments not only continue, but increase in popularity.”

Joe Said is also starting a non-profit using pinball to reach out to children with disabilities, called the Center for Pinball Education.

Said travels almost an hour once a week to play in a league in College Park and plays in tournaments almost every weekend. Why?

“I don’t do it for the thrill of winning. Sure, winning’s great, but it’s about the people, the experience,” he says.