Havin' a Ball: At the Texas Pinball Festival in Grapevine, "This is A Way of Life."

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pinball_daugherty.jpg
Daniel Daughery
Butch Peel repairs one pinball machine that didn't stand up to the experts' night of nonstop play.
More than 100 pinball machines, all set to free play, and not a deaf, dumb, blind kid in sight. It might sound like some crazy pinballer's fantasy, but it came true this weekend at the Texas Pinball Festival.

Collectors and enthusiasts from around the country descended on Grapevine to show off their skills and their machines.

"Enthusiast" might be too mild a word for some of these guys. "Painting? My wife does that," says Wesley Goodwin. "That's a hobby. This is a way of life."

He's not joking. Vendor at this year's show, John and Jan Biles keep six machines around the house: Rocky, Star Wars and Indiana Jones in the extra bedroom; Secret Service and Operation Wolf in the living room; and Revenge from Mars in the breakfast room. John's the first to admit he might be obsessed.

For a pinball collector who wants his machines to work properly, though, obsession is a necessity. In 2009 only one company in the world still produces pinball machines, Stern Pinball. If you need a part for a discontinued game (and this is nearly all of them), you might go to a parts supplier and pay top dollar for officially licensed mechanisms and artwork. Many might say that's no fun. Better to keep your ear to the ground and tune in to the barter network-- or, even better, strike out in search of your own big find. For Goodwin this is what it's all about: "the thrill of the hunt."

Successful pinball hunters know how to meet operators and arcade owners. Just like vending machines, independent operators lease their machines to bowling alleys and pizza parlors. After six months of having a heavy metal ball smashing around its insides, a machine needs some TLC, so the operators bring in a newer model, usually with a more marketable theme. The old machines might get repaired, sold off or stashed in a warehouse.

"When you go into these operator warehouses, you feel like Indiana Jones," says Goodwin. "This one I went into, I must have been the first human to set eyes on those machines in 20 years." Scot Hudy, who's never known a life without pinball machines, recently hit the mother lode, finding a warehouse with 500 machines. He bought the lot for 30 thousand dollars, upgrading the inventory of his pinball store-repair shop, Back From the Dead Pinball.

Unlike old cars -- where you might see the same engine, transmission and display panel used in an MG, a Triumph and an Austin-Healey -- each pinball game is uniquely designed, an orchestra of lights and sounds, mechanical parts and artwork, all conducted by a specially programmed computer. Butch Peel, an electrical engineer, explains that designing each facet of a pinball game requires a team of people. He says that along with the expensive costs of making a pinball game, the constant maintenance required by each machine has led to the industry's decline.

This downward trend makes pinball die-hards like Peel savor the simple joy of the game. "No two games of pinball will ever be alike," he says. "It's not like a video game where you push a button and Mario jumps the same each time. ... It's a system of reward and punishment, where the prize for a good shot is control of the pinball."

So what makes a good pinball game? Peel says it's all about how the orchestra plays together to give the player a complete experience. His opinion, shared by many, is that Medieval Madness is the best pinball game ever made. As he talks, he's overhauling this very machine, tightening screws, testing electrical connections and dusting off the signature red dragon. On top of being the consensus best, Medieval Madness is also one of the rarest modern pinball games, fetching as much as $7,500 at auction.

That sounds like lots of money, but talking to this do-it-yourself pinball wizards like Biles, Hudy, Goodwin and Rick O'Brien, who trekked to the festival from Albertville, Minnesota, it's obvious their priorities are somewhere else. Biles puts it best: "I've spent more money than I'll ever get out of it. ... The best part is seeing someone play and enjoy a machine that I've worked on."

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