Pinball in the Wall St. Journal

Originally written in the Wall Street Journal.

CUYAHOGA FALLS, Ohio—At the recent Battle at Stonehedge pinball tournament here, Jessie Carduner cursed her ninth-place finish and vowed to get professional help.

“I’m thinking about getting a hypnotist,” said the 51-year-old linguistics professor at Kent State University. Ms. Carduner, who is 4 feet 10 inches tall and wears high heels so she can get a better view of the game, says she practices up to 30 hours a week but gets jittery at competitions.

She is one of a growing legion of fans powering a pinball renaissance. They are drawn by snazzier machines, trickier games and a new ranking system that compares players from all over the world. Leagues and tournaments like the one in which Ms. Carduner competed are mushrooming.

The International Flipper Pinball Association in New York now counts 27,000 ranked players, up from 500 eight years ago, and 1,600 tournaments a year, up from 50. Though half the players are from the U.S., aficionados span the globe, from Norway to New Zealand.

Pinball, which grew out of an 18th-century French variation of billiards known as bagatelle, had its heyday in the 1970s, becoming a fixture in arcades and malls. Players controlled flippers to whack around steel balls, racking up points by hitting targets. But with the emergence of videogames in the 1980s, pinball faded in popularity, kept alive by a cult following of fans.

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