The Lumberjack student newspaper
Photo by Valen Lambert | Arcata pinball league players battle for victory.

Cal Poly Professor Hosts Weekly Pinball League at Dead Reckoning in Arcata

Zen and The Art of Pinball

by Valen Lambert

Originally printed March 1, 2023

The 80’s is still alive at Dead Reckoning. Tucked in the back of the bar is a pinball lover’s retro-neon sanctuary, buzzing with the clacks and dings of the shaking machines and steel pinballs blasting against paddles. You can try your hand at the Godzilla or Ghost Busters games, or maybe you’re more of a Revenge on Mars kinda guy. They’re fun, and have definitely eaten up a decent amount of my pocket change, but there’s a whole community surrounding this arcade favorite. 

Every Tuesday night from 6:30-8:00 p.m, Arcata’s pinball league takes to the bar’s seven machines for their weekly tournaments headed by Cal Poly Humboldt’s very own professor of biological sciences and pinball wizard, Jonathan Montgomery. Everyone is encouraged to join. 

Montgomery is bent over Revenge on Mars while the crowd and I watch him with the focus of a sports game. He talks to me attentively without breaking his pinball focus. Montgomery got into pinball during his graduate program in Riverside, where he had joined a league. After moving back to Arcata to teach in 2019, he missed having the community of a league and decided to start his own. 

Believe it or not, the International Flipper Pinball Association writes up a whole internationally recognized framework for the organization of pinball leagues, which Montgomery forms the tournaments around. Folks pay-in a dollar and are randomly assigned to a team. After three games, whoever has the most points takes all the cash. 

How does one even get good at pinball and take home the gold? Montgomery, who has the highest pinball score at Dead Reckoning of 1.2 billion points, says you first have to stop “double-flipping”, where you push both flippers up at the same time.

“You end up making a larger gap for the ball to fall through,” Montgomery says. “And secondly, the machine only has so much power. The flippers are weaker if they are powered together”. 

The next step to pinball stardom is cradling, where you catch the ball, hold it, and time the flip-up to exactly where you want it to go. The sport takes a lot of muscle memory, but despite the rings, dings, and neon lights, people are drawn to it because of its meditative qualities. 

“The thing I love about pinball is you get in this flow, and this sort of really focused state,” Montgomery says. “It takes all your attention”. 

Montgomery also favors the physicality of the game, where you’re actually getting to hit a ball around instead of stare at a video game screen. But a lot of the magic lies in the community of pinball, which was something I noticed when I approached the group as a lone pinball noob and received nothing but warm welcomes and good conversation. 

“Even if you don’t know that a pinball community is near you, it’s there,” says Montgomery. “There’s always a crew of nice, relaxed, people who want to play a fun, Zen game.”

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