Hudson Heights Weather

Monday, December 5, 2011

Pinball Buffs Come Together for Washington Heights Pinball Open

by Kimie Bunyasaranand

Photo by Kimie Bunyasaranand

The side room of Le Chéile, a new uptown restaurant and art space, is abuzz with activity early on Saturday afternoon. 

People of all ages, from young children to elderly men and women, stand with knees slightly bent, firmly clutching the sides of two rows of pinball machines. The focused expressions on their faces barely waver at the flashing neon lights and loud clinking sounds. Only when the small silver ball bounces dangerously close to the bottom of the machine do they flinch, in an anxious attempt to save it.

Photo by Kimie Bunyasaranand
“It’s a challenge. Every time you play, you want to do better and better,” said Penni Epstein, a graphic studio and ad agency director. “When you’re playing, you’re only thinking about this.”

Epstein is a member of the Brooklyn Pinball League and one of the several dozen players who participated in the inaugural Washington Heights Pinball Open last weekend. For 17 hours over the course of two days, pinball amateurs and veterans played games like Avatar, Mars Trek and Lost World for a chance to be crowned champion.

The tournament was hosted by Le Chéile co-owner, Dave Hollander, as one of the many cultural and fundraising events held at the restaurant.

“Part of our whole gestalt is that we do events inside and outside the walls of Le Chéile,” said Hollander. “Music, art and stuff like this.”

Hollander emphasized that he wanted to re-define what a bar has to be. “There will never be TVs in this bar,” he said, as Irish musicians played in the background.

Registration was open to all, and for $10, entrants could play three games on a machine of their choice. According to Hollander, over 80 entries were received on Saturday, and several individuals paid for multiple entries. The game is addictive, and some players are careful not to empty out their wallets too quickly.
Photo by Kimie Bunyasaranand
“I just played five straight games and lasted maybe six minutes,” said Dale Ordemann, 50, who had come all the way from Hackettstown, New Jersey. “I’ll probably play one more entry and then have to call it quits, or I’ll spend too much. It’s just for fun.”

Other players have a different goal in mind. Francesco LaRocca runs the Brooklyn League and is a fierce competitor. While playing, his wrists and fingers are the only things that move as he stares intently at the machine. And when something doesn’t go his way or he loses a ball, he yells out in frustration and shakes his fists vigorously.

“I’m very competitive,” he said. “I play to win, not just participate.”
And there’s monetary incentive involved as well. The four highest scorers receive a certain percentage of a pool from entry fees and a handcrafted trophy. Other top competitors receive certificates and replicas of pinball machine backdrops as prizes. 

Hollander said the tournament was a huge success and hopes to host tournaments at Le Chéile in the future. “I’d like to make this an institution,” he said. “Eventually, I’d like to field our own team in the New York League.”

Kimie Bunyasaranand is a student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. You can follow her on Twitter @Kimie_B.

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