Free State Pinball League

FSPA league play at John's Place. FSPA league score keeping on the pool table at John's Place. FSPA league official Paul McGlone presents a trophy to B Division player Kevin S The Washington Post features the FSPA pinball league at John's Place.

FSPA sponsored a pinball league at John's Place in Fairfax, Virginia. Click photo to enlarge.

The Free State Pinball Association sponsors pinball leagues near Baltimore and Washington, DC. I joined their Spring 2012 league in Fairfax, Virginia to play competitively for the first time. I didn't qualify to compete for a trophy, but I had fun and learned a lot about playing pinball.

National Pinball Museum visitors frequently mentioned the nearby Free State Pinball Association (FSPA) pinball leagues, so I wanted to try it myself. The association's web site listed a league near my home at John's Place a seedy bar and restaurant in Fairfax, Virginia.

Welcome to the League

Several players welcomed me when I arrived for Week 0 at 8 PM on January 16, 2012. After a few practice games, they invited me to join them for preplay competition to record game scores to use in case a player misses a week. We played about half of the dozen games available. Undated preplay scores had to be submitted by the start of Week 3.

Over 30 players gathered the following Monday for Week 1, the first week of league competition. Returning players were seeded into a ladder based on their past performance. New players, including me, were generously distributed near the middle of the pack. We would rise or fall based on our merits.

We were divided into eight groups, mostly of four players and a few of three players. Each group would play four games that evening. My group was assigned Jack·Bot, WHO dunnit, Volcano, and Star Trek: The Next Generation. I wondered how the league could compare player performance on such diverse games.


FSPA has an ingenious scoring system that awards more league points for better game scores and additional bonus points for game domination. In a four player group, a game's highest scoring player earns three league points. The other players earn two, one, or no league points based on the game score ranking. The top player can earn a bonus point if he or she beats the sum of the next two player's game scores. The bonus is given to player three if the top player does not earn it. Similarly, the second player can earn a bonus point if he or she beats the sum of the next two player's game scores. That bonus is given to player four if the second player does not earn it.

I earned 2, 3, 2, and 0 league points on the games we played, for a total of 7. The other players' totals were 3, 9, and 13. Additional league points were awarded based on our overall performance, 3 for first place, 2 for second, and 1 for third, as before. Bonus points for domination also were awarded. I earned 1 point for third place and 1 point because the top player (with 13) did not dominate the next two players (with 7 and 9, totaling 16). My final score was 9 of a possible 20. Not bad for Week 1. The top two players would move up the ladder the next week; I moved down to Group 6 along with another player.

Honing My Skills

I retained some flipper skills from my college days, but the FSPA players consistently demonstrated advanced ball control that seemed almost magical. Where I could swat the ball as it approached a flipper, they could catch the ball, release it, and flip it toward a chosen destination. I could keep the ball in play; they could rack up many more points.

Although FSPA league play can be competitive at times, players patiently explained their techniques and the rules of then many games we played. Week by week my skills improved.

Fairfax Pinball Open

Halfway through the season, on February 25 and 26, FSPA conducted a weekend tournament open to all players: The Fairfax Pinball Open. Contingents of players arrived from Pittsburgh, New York City, Richmond, and elsewhere.

FSPA members brought pinball machines from their basements to augment the dozen games already at John's Place. The extra games were powered by a portable generator rented by FSPA. Computers were setup to track players through the qualifying rounds.

FSPA split the main tournament into two skill levels: A and B. When I tried to qualify for Division B, my three game scores earned only 10 qualifying points based on my relative ranking. Each division allowed only 32 players in the playoff; the cutoff was around 100 qualifying points. I also tried to qualify in the Classics Tournament, with similar results.

The playoffs on Sunday were structured as double elimination brackets, with the top half of the qualifiers seeded into the winner's bracket and the bottom half of the qualifiers seeded into the loser's bracket. The bottom half of qualifiers were effectively in a single elimination tournament. Each bracket was settled with two players playing two games. FSPA veterans tracked the scoring using bracket charts sprawled across a pool table.

Three mini-tournaments offered more chances to compete:

  • AC/DC Unofficial Launch Party Tournament
  • Volcano Split-Flipper Tourney
  • Volcano Mystery Score Tourney

Tournament winners took home some portion of the entry fees. Maybe I'll finish in the money next year.

The Season Ends

After ten weeks of play, the league finals were held on April 16. The league had been divided into three divisions based on ladder position after Week 8. Players were ranked by league points within each division. The top five players in each division qualified for the finals. I was player number 6 in the C Division.

The five qualifying players in each division played against each other in pairs. The top three players after those games advanced to the finals for another sequence of games.

First place players will received an engraved trophy model of a pinball machine. All qualifying players could choose prizes from the prize table, with more prize points available to higher ranked players.

A month later, FSPA invited players from all spring league locations to a party in a member's home. His basement contained more than 20 pinball games of all vintages. A delicious meal, a few organized competitions, and a cadre of fellow pinball players provided a satisfying conclusion to my first season in a pinball league. I'll be back.


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