Seated at the center of his Gorham playroom, one expects to find Reuter in a satin robe with a Meerschaum pipe close at hand. He has that air about him, a cool knowledge which he doles out with a sly smile. Reuter doesn’t just talk about pinball, he pontificates.

“Pinball machines used to be ubiquitous,” he tells me. “You’d find them at airports, bars, restaurants and, of course, the arcades. Pinball machines were the kings of the arcade. Pinball ruled.”

He then goes on to explain loftier concepts, like the diminishing returns of video games, the boom and bust history of pinball economics, the deep psychology of the freaks and geeks who play the game.

“You can’t master pinball,” Reuter says, staring off at his machines with that knowing smile. “There is no perfection. Do you see?”

Immersed in a pastime that once nearly faded into obscurity, Reuter is the elder statesman, a man who lives with the flashing lights and the various bings and bonks of more than five dozen machines.

You heard me. Inside Reuter’s neat home in Gorham are more than 60 machines spread across two floors. He’s got 100 “pins,” all told. Walking into his playroom is like walking into a 1970s fantasy world where no quarters are required.

“I’ve had people step through that door,” Reuter says, “and fall right down.”

Ever since I was a young boy . . .

At the end of June, Reuter will host the New England Pinball Championship under the auspices of the club PinMaineia, which he founded. He’s been hosting these events for years, but it’s not pure altruism. When he first started drawing other pinballers to his home, he was somewhat like a spider inviting flies to his web.

“My goal was to keep pinball alive, sure,” Reuter says. “But the second thing I wanted to do was to know how good I really was. So, how am I going to meet the real pinball players?”

Reuter thinks he’s pretty darn good. He makes no bones about that. The tournaments provide a put-up-or-shut-up opportunity to prove it.

“I get a chance,” Reuter says, “to test myself against some of the best players in New England.”

But that’s next week, June 27-29. When I arrived at Reuter’s home two weeks ago, it was just an ordinary Monday league night for the dedicated men and women of PinMaineia. They arrived in a scattered way, some showing up early, many arriving late. There are no rigid meeting-style rules here. A pinballer gets there when he or she gets there. They don’t knock on the door, they walk right in. Some start playing immediately, others shoot the breeze a while.

“The first time I came here, I stepped inside and saw all those machines,” says Jay Ramey of Rumford, “I thought, ‘Oh wow. This is awesome.’ Then someone came over and asked me, ‘Have you been downstairs yet? You’ve got to see it to believe it.'”

Although most pinballers will tell you there’s no one particular class of people drawn to pinball, more than a few of them are pushing middle age. Many played pinball as youngsters and then grew away from it as the real world intervened. College, careers, families and obligations. As they grew older and their lives became more orderly, the lure of flippers and bumpers and that big silver ball sucked them right back in.

“I played all the time as a kid,” Ramey tells me. “My dad bowled three times a week and he’d bring me to the bowling alley. I got plenty of chances to play pinball there.”

Enter the real world.

“I just didn’t play anymore while my boy was growing up,” Ramey says. “There’s just not enough time.”

But when his son grew up, Ramey, now 46, heard the call.

I’ve played the silver ball . . .

When you want to get back into pinball, how do you do it? You might find a pinball machine in a random bar or motel lobby, but they are now often few and far between. You could go out and spend a few thousand dollars to buy your own machine — many do, and they rarely stop at one — but what to do in the meantime? Where can you find like-minded souls who know where the machines are?

It’s not rocket science, friends.

“I just Googled ‘pinball,'” Ramey says, “and ‘Maine.'”

Ramey quickly found Reuter and his tribe of players, and if there’s a pinball heaven, it’s probably right there in Gorham.

“Private homes,” Ramey says, “are my favorite.”

Of course, they are. At Reuter’s house, that lack of hard rules invites the slacker lifestyle. If a little nip tends to improve your game, well then go ahead and bring your own six pack. Come when you want, leave when you want. Play upstairs or down.

Make no mistake, though. When the machines light up and steel balls start to fly, there’s nothing informal about it. The players will bicker about regulations and the machines will remain mute until those issues are resolved. When the plunger sends the ball streaking up the rant, these people are in it to win it.

“I play better when there’s competition,” Ramey says. “No doubt about it.”

From Soho down to Brighton . . .

Reuter bought his first pinball machine in 1988, “before it was a trendy thing to do.” Before long, he had two machines, then four, then a dozen and on it went until he needed to seek out a friend with more space to store them.

“His house started filling up pretty fast,” Reuter says of his friend.

Good news! Just as Reuter’s collection was really starting to climb, his house in Gorham burned down. When it came time to rebuild, Reuter used the opportunity to construct his new house with space to accommodate his collection.

“I decided to make a bigger house with a playroom,” Reuter says. “I can fit 55 to 60 machines in here, depending on how they’re set up.”

The tournaments began, but the pinball players tended to have the same complaints about them. The tournaments were bracket style, meaning if a fellow had a bad first round, he was knocked out. For the rest of the weekend, that sad sap would be resigned to leaning against a wall and watching others play the game they so love.

Reuter’s mind fired up over this conundrum. With input from other players, he devised a different tournament style; a new paradigm informally called pingolf. The concept is fairly simple: As it is in golf, a competitor will play to the end of the tournament no matter how well or how lousy he or she performs. They play in groups of three or four. A player’s win-loss record will determine his next opponent, a self-sorting system that automatically pits players against others at equal skill levels. Pinball Darwinism.

I must have played them all . . .

“It’s pretty slick,” Reuter says. “Whether you win or lose, you get to play all day long.”

That’s good, because the people who play tend to have insatiable appetites for the game. One man in his 20s talked about the time he played for 12 hours straight. He came away with a feeling like a hangover and muscles that ached and twitched.

“It’s definitely a physical sport,” says Jake Erskine of Portland. “It’s muscle memory. It’s eye-hand coordination. You use your whole body and you’re physically exhausted by the end of it.”

One could argue that the same is true of modern video games, such as those played with the Wii. But pinballers by nature will have none of that. During the pinball dark ages, when machines were hard to find, they found video a poor substitute for their favorite game. This is where Reuter begins to pontificate on the matter of diminishing returns.

“A generation couldn’t find pinball. They grew up on video, instead,” he explains. “But pinball is the opposite of video in a sense. Video is pattern based and eventually you beat the game. It’s like a movie – once you’ve discovered the punchline, it’s not fun anymore. The better you get at it, the more boring it becomes.

“With pinball,” Reuter says, and this time he’s all business, “the more fun you have. Get it?”

Got it. And so do the legions of pinball players assembled at the machine for league night. I try not to question them too much while they’re actively playing. I just observe. Some thrash around as they work the flippers, kicking legs and swinging hips. Others stand like statues, eyes narrowed, all concentration.

Some continue conversations while they play. Others are silent; they become part of the machine.

“It becomes almost a form of meditation when you really get into it,” says Theresa Nessel of Portland. “You’re focusing on this little world. You can lose yourself in it sometimes.”

Nessel, 30, started playing seriously two years ago. For her, like so many others, pinball has grown into something greater than a mere game. It’s a sport, yes. But it also offers an element of personal training.

“You challenge yourself,” she says. “You’re always going to lose in the end, but you’re challenging yourself; always trying to get better.”

But I ain’t seen nothing like him . . .

It’s not just PinMaineia, of course. Leagues are popping up all over the place. Nostalgic men and women bolstered by disposable income are buying up machines all over the place. According to Reuter, it happens in one of three ways. A buyer will seek out the best and newest machines, hunt down the game he or she played as a kid or they will discover an old and dusty machine in Uncle Ned’s garage.

A pinball machine can be bought for just a few hundred dollars, although that machine is likely to be battered and badly in need of repairs. A serious collector might spend $10,000 or more on a single machine. Reuter’s “Addams Family” pin has an estimated value of between $5,000 and $8,000. Released in 1991, the “Addams Family” pin is, after all, the bestselling pinball machine of all time.

“The machines are rugged and durable,” Reuter says, “but they’re on almost all the time. The ball is heavy and its flying all over the place, smashing into stuff.”

New players are particular hard on a pinball machine, Reuter says. But with proper cleaning and maintenance, a machine can be kept in good shape.

“They either hold or gain value and they’re endless entertainment,” Reuter says. “If you wanted to get into a hobby that makes sense, this is a great one.”

Not bad, considering that between the 1940s and mid-1970s, pinball was an illegal pastime in most American cities. Deemed a game of chance and, thus, a form of gambling, pinball was the target of police raids in which thousands of machines were seized.

In any amusement hall . . .

For me, walking through Reuter’s rooms is like walking through my own blurry past at places like D&A Billiards or The Pegasus in Waterville. The machines don’t just look familiar, the flashing of their lights and throbbing of their bumpers connects me to the halcyon days of the arcades. “Stellar Wars,” “Black Holes,” “Embryon,” “Flash Gordon,” “Xenon,” “Ali,” “X-File,” “Planet of the Apes” . . .

“Xenon,” says one man of about 30. He utters the word in the breathy tones of exhalation. He gazes almost lovingly at the pallid face of the woman-machine hybrid staring from the back box. “This is the one I used to play at the Dream Machine.”

Although Reuter talks at length about the “ass backwards” laws of supply and demand that rule the pinball market, the chief factor in its resurgence seems to be nostalgia.

In Lewiston, one collector who also competes in the league keeps more than a dozen machines in the auto garage out of which he runs his business. The man, who prefers not to be identified for this story, buys the games, fixes them up and either rents them out to area businesses or keeps them for himself.

There’s a “Jaws” in his collection as well as a “Funhouse” with its horrifying clown face staring from behind the back glass. Both games sparked strange and complex memories from my own youth. The silver ball seemed to whisper “Come play with me, old friend. Spend a few hours and a couple dozen quarters. Maybe you’ll win a free game, hey, hey, hey.”

I played and by God it came right back. There really IS muscle memory. Like riding a bicycle, you never forget.

That deaf, dumb and blind kid . . .

But if you’re not a collector or not part of a league, the chance to work the flippers doesn’t come often. Although there are a few pinball machines in the Twin Cities area, they tend to sit forgotten in dark corners. They seem to be there one day and gone the next.

Your early impression might be that the game continues to wallow in obscurity, but there are hundreds of people in this region alone and thousands – probably millions – elsewhere who will tell you differently. Pinball is king again, not of the arcade, but definitely of garages, basements and playrooms built for pinball exclusively.

Down in this Gorham basement, league night goes on.

“John’s place,” says Ramsey, “is an oasis among the hectic lives some of us lead.”

The players move from machine to machine, playing one game after another. They show no sign of tiring. There’s no indication that the spell is wearing off.

“It’s something different,” Nessel says, “every time you play.”

I wanted to get a few more words from her, but wow. Her ball is still in play and her points are racking up. The machine is blinking and groaning and bonking almost as if pleading for mercy. Nessel is in the zone. This might take a while.

She sure plays a mean pinball.

Pinball in the Twin Cities

Locations include:

* Sparetime Recreation, 24 Mollison Way, Lewiston

* Fastbreaks, 1485 Lisbon St., Lewiston

* Little Joe’s Bar & Grille, 740 Sabattus St., Lewiston

* Barnie’s Bar & Grill, 740 Sabattus St., Lewiston

* Family Time, Auburn Mall, Auburn

New England Pinball Championship

The championship will be held June 27-29 in Gorham. Here are the details.

When:

Friday, June 27: 2 p.m. to midnight

Saturday, June 28: 10 a.m. to midnight

Sunday June 29: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Where:

25 Hickory Lane Gorham

To Enter

$60 for the weekend. This includes free play on all machines, entry into three tournaments and a commemorative T-shirt.

PayPal available. Send to [email protected] .

Checks to John Reuter, 25 Hickory Lane Gorham, Me. 04038

Spectator fee

$10 per day or $15 for the weekend. This includes free play on all non-tournament machines. Kids 6-12, $5/$10. Under 6 free.

There will be three events with cash prizes:

The Main Event: An 18-round match play championship with a final round shootout for the top four finishers, resulting in the crowning of the New England Champion. All day Saturday. Trophies, plaques and cash will be awarded to the top four finishers in A and B groups. A Division records will be carried forward after the cut.

The B Division. After the first nine rounds of the main event, the bottom half of the bracket will be cut and the B division will be formed. All records will be wiped clean and a B division champ will be crowned from this group. The four top finishers will also play in a final round shootout.

The team championship. Everyone will be invited to compete in a four-person team event using a pin-golf scoring format. Players will be seeded according to their skill level, and cash and plaques will be awarded to the top teams.

The Lobster Pot Classic: A coin drop tournament. This event helps support PinMaineia. Fifty percent of the cash box receipts go to the high scorer on each machine.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.