This article has bounced around in my head a while, and I know it’s not entirely coherent, but here we go.
Often, when someone who knows very little about pinball asks me about expert players, they assume the experts have some kind of wizard skills to bounce the ball back into play after it drains (death save, or bang back), or perhaps that they can shake the machine in a special way that makes the ball walk back up the outlane. In the novice’s experiences, the ball drains all the time, so their assumption is that wizards have to deal with that. Well, there are such techniques, some of them even acceptable in tournament play, but they’re not what makes a wizard.
What makes a wizard, first and foremost, is not draining. Once you have longer ball times, you can use that time to focus on everything else in your game.
So how do we increase ball time? Through ball control, shot selection, shot accuracy, and nudging. Ball control is obvious – using live and dead catches to get the ball under your control. Shot selection is important because there are many risky shots, where your chance of a sudden drain is very high, or where the kickout from that shot is dangerous. Think of the Axl hole on Guns n Roses. Shot accuracy is important because when you miss a shot, the ball is out of your control again (which is why a game such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula is so high-variance – almost every single successful shot you make takes the ball out of your control).
And finally, we come to nudging. Nudging, and knowing when not to nudge, separates the wizards from the rest. A wizard player is looking ahead three or four bounces, in terms of when they should or should not nudge, and in what way. Recognizing exactly which ball trajectories are dangerous, and which ones are already good and shouldn’t be nudged, takes a lot of time to learn. For this, there is no substitute for thousands of hours of experience. Experts are thinking things like “I have to push the ball up off of the top of the right slingshot so it goes into the left target bank instead of the left drain, but not so hard that it will come back down the center; preferably it will come to the left flipper for a live catch”.
The late great poker player Chip Reese once listened to a hand described to him by Annie Duke, where by the river, she was in an extremely difficult situation against two opponents. None of her questions led to what was, to him, the obvious answer: “You should have pushed all-in on the flop.” In that particular situation, that move was the equivalent of planning ahead several bounces in pinball.
Chip Reese also famously said this about the best poker players in the world: “When they are on their A game, they are all fantastic players, some probably better than my A game. The thing is, my D game isn’t much different than my A game.” That’s my definition of a pinball wizard, as well.