Texas Pinball Festival 2024 part 7: The trip home, final thoughts, and takeaways

This entry is part 7 of 7 in the series Texas Pinball Festival 2024


I drove home Sunday night, after the other event I attended earlier in the day. (This other event won’t be blogged here but I may blog it later elsewhere.)

There was a lot to reflect on during the trip home and after returning. There were a few notable single machine scores among my entries. As you may or may not have noticed, Garrett Shahan, the 2024 IFPA Texas state champion, was in this tournament. My 14th place on Kiss (Bally) was higher than Garrett’s score by a mere 10 points (577,720 to 577,710). For that matter, it was a good 84K and 11 places higher than Eric Stone’s score. To be fair, Garrett did squeak ahead of me on Jacks Open by just over 1500 points (among others). Eric, of course, more than made up for this shortcoming elsewhere on his way to qualifying for and winning the tournament (A division).

Taking a closer look at the final tournament standings, I found quite a few surprises among the list of players I ranked ahead of this year. Going down the list, these are just top 1000 ranked players, more or less in order: Scott Woods, Jack Revnew*, Dan Newman, Jokton Strealy, Danielle Peck, Dean St. Onge, Cassie Begay*, Luca Stinchcombe, Phil Nguyen*, Jesse Huber, Matt Rowbottom, Rick Miller*, Scott Stinchcombe.

Now, this is not without some caveats. The asterisks denote players who either did not get to play all 25 Wizards entries or chose not to. A lot of these players were also in the Classics tournament. I mention this because I overheard considerable chatter about how the players who qualified for the Classics playoffs had little time to play Wizards entries. (Though, apparently, at least many of those who finished near the top in Wizards who were also in Classics manged to play at least most of their entries in both.) Of particular note, Jack Revnew did win Classics at the possible sacrifice of his Wizards standing. If that’s what it took, I’d say it was a worthy strategy.

Had I had the budget to enter Classics this year at the time entries were open, I may well have chosen to play both Classics and Wizards. As it was, the NTX tournaments did take up a fair amount of time on Friday. I still had fun at those tournaments despite not doing very well. It was nice to be able to play a fairly casual tournament in between Wizards qualifying attempts. I would go as far as to say I “got the sucking out of my system” in those events. (That is, I would rather lay an egg in these causal side tournaments and do well in Wizards. Assuming there was only one event where I would do well in, of course.)

I got to spend some time on the show floor, perhaps not as much as I would have liked to. The main draws for me were Labyrinth (again) and the new Scooby-Doo game. There were some novelties and rarities. Perhaps most notable was the Pinball Action arcade cabinet. Prior to this show, I had not seen one in person ever, despite being familiar with the title. A lot of the older titles, particularly electromechanical games, are ones I would normally never get to play.

Overall this was the most satisfying experience at the Texas Pinball Festival I have had to date. Looking back at everything, I have always felt it was important to find the mistakes when things went wrong. However, in this case I also want to look for the good moves and good ideas that led to things going right.

I think the difference maker this year was staying at a hotel with free breakfast (Holiday Inn Express) versus a rather expensive paid breakfast with few options I found appealing (Hotel Indigo). I know it’s a rather clichéd marketing slogan and I risk sounding like a Holiday Inn fanboy. But I’m sticking to it: the choice of the Holiday Inn Express this year may well have been the smartest move of my travel planning. Dare I say it, that move may have been the one to have contributed most to my best Wizards tournament finish yet. To be fair about it, the Embassy Suites (the hotel adjoining the conference center) also offers a free breakfast.

Time for a little sidebar here. I am usually not a morning person. For the Friday and Saturday at TPF this year, I temporarily became one out of necessity. (To a lesser extent, I was a morning person on Thursday as well for the trip up to Frisco.) This, too, may have been part of it. However, this comes back to my desire to get my money’s worth out of my hotel expenses. Either way, I don’t think it matters much which is the cause and which is the effect. I feel one can’t go wrong with a good breakfast before each day of a tournament.

Also, I did try to keep a more positive attitude throughout the qualifying sessions for Wizards as well as the NTX  tournaments. Particularly on Saturday morning, when I really wasn’t sure how things were going to play out, I kept telling myself what was still possible and that I was still in much better shape than last year and the year before.

This was shaping up to be a watershed moment in my time in competitive pinball regardless of what happened. This was the right outcome at the right time. Anything resembling the last two years may well have had me planning a wind-down of my time in competitive pinball.

This is the harsh reality: a lot of other major tournaments are like this. If it’s not a limited-plays format like Wizards and Classics, it’s a a “Herb format”/best card. (This is where each qualifying entry is based on a “card” with several game scores, typically something like 5 out of a bank of 10 machines.) Both are similar as if one isn’t good enough to qualify, that’s it, tournament’s over. Both are quite intimidating formats to even a moderately seasoned player like yours truly. I can only imagine the shock of a first-time tournament player at Wizards or Classics and feeling completely lost.

Everything I said in the last couple of years regarding self-care still applies. Taking breaks between games to get away from the noise level helps as usual. For some reason, though, the tournament room did seem a bit quieter this year. Maybe it was just the volume levels being turned down on the games that have speakers. Maybe it was just my perception. Or, maybe I’m starting to experience hearing loss (hopefully not).

There are a few other things that I did learn. One is that even practice on the same titles as those appearing in a tournament does not guarantee improved performance. The operator of a Whirlwind or Terminator 2 in a self-described dive bar won’t set up the machine the same as the one in a tournament like Wizards.

I do think that a couple of the games this year may have been set up a bit too hard. I believe in a fine line between setting up a game to be a challenge to play in a tournament, and modifying it to the point where it really isn’t game XYZ anymore. (Sometimes “ruining” or “butchering” would be more appropriate descriptions, to be honest.) It’s surprisingly easy to cross this line without realizing it.

Besides the aforementioned Whirlwind and Time Machine, I feel Sorcerer in the Classics bank also qualifies here. From what I heard, it was butchered to no longer have multiball for the women’s tournament. There were also suggestions to use the slightrly shorter “lighting” flippers and/or make the ramp just harder to hit. The designers did nothing to accomodate “lightning” flippers as these did not exist in 1985. In fact, they did not start shipping with games until sometime in the 1990s. As a further note of interest, these shorter flippers only came about because of some European distributors. How they became so popular in the US (and possibly other markets) is anyone’s guess.

It was awesome to get to meet and hang out with some awesome people, most notably the eventual Wizards champion Eric Stone. We got to talk and hang out a bit during the tournament as well as on Thursday night. There were other players and show attendees whom I got to meet and talk to a bit but not to the same extent. I know I gave the blog address to a couple of people so if you are here as a result of that, I appreciate you checking out this series of posts even if they are a bit long.

I’m not going to try to analyze just how much better I needed to do to get into B division or A division this time around because it’s more or less academic. There are also other variables in play as mentioned previously. Most notably, whether or not there was necessarily enough time for players in Classics to play all of their Wizards entries, as well as what seemed like an above average number of machine failures, make any comparisons dubious at best. This is not to say Eric Stone and Jack Revnew didn’t earn their respective victories; they did, of course. But it’s difficult to make comparisons given some of the things that happened this year that usually don’t.

Finally, I would like to offer my thanks to the organizers of the Texas Pinball Festival and the tournament organizers, without which I would not have had the opportunity to compete in the tournament and experience what can only be described as an absolutely epic weekend.

And with that, it’s time to start counting down to Houston Arcade Expo (or whatever out-of-town tournaments I make it to before then).

Texas Pinball Festival 2024 part 6: Miscellaneous photos (mostly show floor)

This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series Texas Pinball Festival 2024

So with all that tournament action, you may well be thinking I had no time to actually go onto the show floor and just play casual pinball. Well, actually, I did get some games in; I don’t drive for over 4 hours and 250 miles just to stay in the tournament room the whole time.

There are too many different scores here to go into all of them in detail. Of particular note is the new Scooby-Doo game from Spooky Pinball, as well as another quick (lousy) game of Labyrinth I was able to squeak in.

In total, counting the games I didn’t post, I probably got about 40-50 casual games in on the show floor. That’s not nearly as many as a show like Houston Arcade Expo where I’m not (usually) in the tournament room for hours on end, but I still feel it’s a respectable number.

Texas Pinball Festival 2024 part 5: The playoffs, and aftermath of the tournament

This entry is part 5 of 7 in the series Texas Pinball Festival 2024

And so the Novice division playoffs would begin. The playoffs would be an eight-player group matchplay, similar to that I have played at the end of many other tournaments years ago. For the semifinals, seeds 1, 4, 5, and 8 are in one group, then seeds 2, 3, 6, and 7 are in the other, with the top two of each group advancing to the finals. (We actually had a player absent so the seeding as shown on matchplay.events had seeds 1-6, then 8 and 9. But the principle remains the same.)

My group would be rounded out by Bryce Bush, Brad DeShong, and Don Baker. Our first game was on Terminator 2. Now, having practiced this game at Little Dipper recently was a huge help, even though this particular machine played much differently and I put up a couple of absolute stinkers during qualifying. I would start off fairly slow, but get a multiball going early, unfortunately missing a 3X jackpot shot. Later in the game, I would start another multiball, cash a 2X jackpot shot, but miss a super jackpot shot later in the same multiball (which would have been absolutely huge–50M!). I would pick up a few more points during Payback Time and wind up signing off with a 105.3M+ without even needing to play my third ball. Brad would come closest with 25.0M+.

On we went to Viking for game two. I should have been able to put together at least a decent score given what I did in qualifying. Surprisingly, I never broke the house ball curse and would sign off with an extremely disappointing 61,240, not even good enough for third.

That meant my tournament life would potentially come down to the third and final game of the round, Metallica. I went into the final ball trailing with a score in the range of 7M to 7.5M, needing only to catch Brad’s 11.2M+ to move on. For good measure, though, I had a monster ball signing off with 48.7M+, including a high-scoring Electric Chair Multiball and a bunch of other things I didn’t really keep track of. A true no-doubter, and a huge boost to my ego. To be fair, I thought I needed to catch Bryce’s slightly higher score. I didn’t want to leave anything to chance, given what it took to get here.

If only the finals would go as well.

There would be a pause while we waited for games in the higher divisions to finish. We would also await a single-game playoff between Kelly Moncla and Robert Hooton for the final spot in Novice division. Kelly would win that playoff and advance to the finals along with Sven Johnson, Bryce, and of course yours truly.

First up would be Time Machine. Now, the setup for this game was difficult to the point it almost wasn’t Time Machine anymore. On these settings, multiball was effectively impossible. Progress towards multiball was not spotted by making ramp shots, and worse, this progress was reset at the start of each ball. The only workable strategy, barring incredible luck making the targets to light locks and thus multiball, was to keep making the Starwarp ramp (the ramp with the swirl). To say the least, I had difficulty with this. I would scrape up enough for third place with 743K+. Bryce would of course clean up with 3.1M+.

That was bad enough, but then we would move on to Avatar. This was another game I avoided during qualifying for a reason. I had chances to maybe get things going in my third (last) ball. However, nothing really materialized, so I would finish this game with a disappointing 5.3M+. I needed to finish first to have any realistic hope of winning. This is where I really had to remind myself that no matter how badly it might go, this was still the best I had ever done at a tournament of this size.

The final game of the playoffs would be Kiss. At this point I’m playing for pride. Bryce has at least second place in the game nailed down by the time my last ball comes up, so the best I can possibly do would be to finish second overall (and I would have had to play either Sven or Kelly for a tiebreaker to do that in addition to winning this game). I had some luck but I wasn’t able to replicate anything close to the score I put up in qualifying.

Novice division is a pretty big step up from the bottom quartile of the rankings. (That’s where I was the last couple of years.) Fourth place within novice division is at least a start and something to build on for next year. My tournament ranking for IFPA purposes is 60th, a rather large jump from last year’s 124th. (The B and Novice division playoffs do not impact IFPA rankings.)

I win the plaque pictured in the gallery, plus $40 in cash (not shown).

The most important thing I would get from playing this year’s tournament, however, was hope. The glimmer of hope that seemed to fade in the months after last year’s TPF has finally become much brighter.

As a side note, I had another event to attend this weekend (in the DFW area), and I had considered bailing on TPF to go there for part of Saturday (instead of Sunday) had my tournament prospects gone out the window yet again. All things considered, I’m quite glad about this year’s outcome.

Finally, I should add a side note here. My dinner after the tournament was at Dave’s Hot Chicken (over in Plano). I made the mistake of getting hot tenders. Their idea of “hot” lines up with my idea of “barely edible”. (I did eventually finish, but I’m definitely not making that mistake again.)

Texas Pinball Festival 2024 part 4: Saturday qualifying

This entry is part 4 of 7 in the series Texas Pinball Festival 2024

So Friday ended, and Saturday morning rolled around. I slept in slightly later. However, I did make sure I got downstairs to the breakfast room in time to eat. (Breakfast on weekends was 07:00-10:00.) With breakfast out of the way, I would make my way into the tournament room around maybe 09:30.

Mar 16, 9:38am Jacks Open 60,050 *
Mar 16, 9:46am Super Spin 70,940
Mar 16, 10:01am Kiss 577,720
Mar 16, 10:15am Diner 2,843,780
Mar 16, 10:30am Avatar 3,758,370
Mar 16, 11:14am Terminator 2 27,764,120
Mar 16, 11:47am Foo Fighters Pro 53,659,340
Mar 16, 12:24pm Whirlwind Entry Voided (739,820)
Mar 16, 12:46pm Jacks Open 130,910

When selecting my games, I very carefully picked which games I played for my final entries to give myself the best chance of qualifying for playoffs somewhere. In this situation, one can take nothing for granted. Note that I played no Diner, Avatar, or Foo Fighters earlier in qualifying. I played these specifically to have the best chance of boosting my overall ranking. Terminator 2 I played again as my previous score was nowhere near representative of what I could do, and I felt I could improve.

For part of the afternoon I was flirting with squeaking into B division. Again, I knew the score on Whirlwind was so crummy so time for another “just void it”. I felt pretty good about the Jacks Open score I posted at the end. Finishing qualifying on a high note like that was a huge relief.

I would take my lunch break at around 13:30. On the menu this time was what was supposed to be kind of a Philly cheesesteak with brisket. Except this particular cheesesteak was stretched across three slider rolls, instead of on proper sandwich bread. Worse, the cheese made it a bit of a mess. Somehow I still managed to eat it.

After eating, it was time to head back up to the area near the tournament room, taking a peek in periodically to see how things were progressing.

Unfortunately making A division playoffs just wasn’t in the game plan this year. As the end of qualifying drew closer, it was obvious B division wasn’t happening and I would be in the Novice division playoffs, though given the way things had gone previous years I wasn’t all that sure even of that until the tournament directors announced the end of Wizards qualifying. I took nothing for granted, but one final refresh of the standings confirmed that indeed, fifth seed in the Novice division playoffs was mine.

As 16:45 approached I made my way back up to the tournament room and prepared for my first time in the Wizards playoffs. At stake, a possible $200 and a trophy.

Texas Pinball Festival 2024 part 3: Friday evening

This entry is part 3 of 7 in the series Texas Pinball Festival 2024

The Embassy hotel’s food service would not start until 16:00 (4:00 pm). I found myself quite hungry around 15:00 (3:00 pm). So, during a break in the rain, I ventured over to the 7-Eleven. This store is catty-corner from the hotel/conference center (see map below).

While far from my first choice for lunch for a variety of reasons, I scored two slice of pepperoni pizza, three buffalo chicken rollers, and a fountain drink for $6.50 after tax. From a financial standpoint, this was a pretty big win.

And then it would be time for the second NTX Pinball tournament: a three-strikes tournament with bounty chips. The way the bounty chips worked was as follows: each player gets a bounty chip to start the game; the player finishing first in a game gets the chip(s) from any players eliminated; chips worth $5 each at the end of the game but can be kept as souvenirs with the unclaimed money going to the charity.

This would go by rather quickly. I would last four rounds, meaning I was only able to avoid catching a strike once. Worse, I would play two of the three games where I received strikes on the livestream. (None of my games from the earlier tournament made the livestream, for better or worse.)

The scores from the final game did not take on my phone for some reason (or maybe I outright forgot to snap the picture) so I substituted a (much lower resolution) crop of a frame from the livestream.

With that, it would be time to head back upstairs and play some of my Wizards entries.

Mar 15, 6:31pm Kiss 271,500 *
Mar 15, 6:36pm Spin Out 54,200 
Mar 15, 6:44pm Terminator 2 10,085,870 *
Mar 15, 6:49pm Jacks Open 66,120 *
Mar 15, 7:05pm Avatar 3,039,710 *
Mar 15, 7:35pm Jaws 56,432,930
Mar 15, 9:48pm Metallica 3,215,950 *
Mar 15, 9:57pm Metallica 10,420,630
Mar 15, 10:09pm Whirlwind 1,594,040
Mar 15, 10:13pm Whirlwind 1,300,100 #
Mar 15, 10:14pm Whirlwind Entry Voided (590,010)
Mar 15, 10:27pm Viking 244,730 #

Most of these scores are not that great.

I’m going to comment on one of these here, as the high score I put on this game on location is one of the highlights of the last year on this blog. Yes, I’m talking about Whirlwind. (You might want to go back and read the post in question and/or an earlier post primarily about the same game.)

How does someone like me, who has put up 10M+ scores on a fairly consistent basis on location, manage to put up outright lemons like 1.5M+ or lower on the same game? Well, I’ll tell you. The setup on this Whirlwind was vicious. The upper ramp was easy to make, sure. But offsetting that generous part of the setup, we had a couple of nasty things. The first of these was devilish slingshots. Combine that with what’s best described as a right outlane from hell. It may as well have been made by the Kirby Company of vacuum cleaner fame/infamy. As in, it would just suck balls right off the playfield.

I’ll go as far as to say it rather boldly. The game may have had a Whirlwind playfield, translite, and cabinet, but it wasn’t really Whirlwind anymore. Maybe if I had been willing to burn more entries, I would eventually have put up better scores. Note the third game of this stretch was so bad I said “just void it”, which is the first time I’ve done so in three years of playing the Wizards tournament. Somehow, I didn’t blurt out some choice profanity in the heat of the moment. Hooray for small victories.

Originally, the tournament directors planned for Jaws to be exclusively for the kids tournament. For some reason, though (possibly games going down at an unprecedented rate), the directors decided to set it up for something appropriate to Wizards and put it in both kids and Wizards. (The kids got priority in the queue.) I will address this in another post, possibly not on this blog (and will edit with a link when this happens).

As it happens, I queued on Jaws right after Liam Bradley’s game played for the kids’ tournament. My score above was 56.4M+, not a terrible score but I had hoped to do better. (Liam’s score was in the neighborhood of 142.4M+.)

Now I didn’t know who Liam was at the time. Liam was actually in all three tournaments (Wizards, Classics, and Kids). He would have missed the A division cutoff by only two places. (A couple of higher seeded players didn’t show up for playoffs, allowing him to take a spot.) So I shouldn’t feel so bad for posting a score that wasn’t even half of his. I have no way of knowing these things in the heat of the moment. All I knew is I was playing behind a kid’s tournament entry, and I put up a much lower score. It’s really hard not to be demoralized by things like that.

Anyway, after the relative disaster that was my last play of this stretch (244K+ on Viking), I called it a night and decided I would attempt the remaining nine entries on Saturday.

Texas Pinball Festival 2024 part 2: Friday morning practice, NTX Pinball matchplay

This entry is part 2 of 7 in the series Texas Pinball Festival 2024

So Friday morning rolls around. I wound up waking up earlier than expected, though I would lay back down for a while to conserve energy before finally making my way down to the hotel’s breakfast area. For a variety of reasons, I do not eat eggs. I also didn’t find the oatmeal (?) particularly appealing. So, it was a few biscuits, bacon, sausage, cereal, and some orange juice. (Which reminds me, I really need to get in the habit of drinking more orange juice, and for that matter, eating a proper breakfast, or at least something that closely resembles one, more often.)

And then it was on to the tournament room for practice. I was able to get in a decent amount of practice on most of the games. I tried not to stay longer than the 60 seconds we were supposed to play but may have done so on at least one game (oops). There were two games I did not get to practice (Foo Fighters and Star Wars), though I was familiar with both. Star Wars would actually be taken out of the tournament fairly early on, so that was no big loss.

Immediately after practice, I manage to find the NTX Pinball booth/area for the morning matchplay tournament. We originally expected check-in to start at 09:45. I would learn the organizers announced a revised time of 11:00 for a variety of reasons. So, I would go back up to the main tournament room and play the first four of my Wizards entries in the interim.

(As in previous years, an asterisk (*) denotes a score that was later superseded by a higher score. An octothorpe (#) denotes a score that was lower than the previous high score to that point that does not qualify for an asterisk (i.e. an entry that many players would just ask to be voided).)

Mar 15, 10:06am Viking 642,660
Mar 15, 10:21am Getaway 151,724,350
Mar 15, 10:35am Time Machine 1,129,670
Mar 15, 10:49am Super Spin 33,130 *

Of particular note, I felt really good about the Viking score. I had a long ball and ran up quite a few points. This despite the feature lamps doing weird things which made it effectively impossible to determine game state. This Viking score would eventually be good for 24th overall in the standings, not too shabby.

And then it was time to head back downstairs to the NTX Pinball booth for the first of the two tournaments I would participate in there. That would be the “Beat the Clock” matchplay tournament.

We would have a total of 26 participants and, despite the rather late start, wind up playing a total of 7 rounds before the clock hit 14:00 (2:00 pm). For many rounds I’m just going to summarize each round as I may not remember too many details and all I have are final score pictures and scores after each ball, if that.

Round 1 was World Cup Soccer, I would play fourth after Daniel Martin, Daniel DeBobes, and Victor Garcia. Playing the fourth player slot should, in theory, give me an advantage. There was one main detail of this game that I remember.  I finally locked the ball and had multiball ready to start… and then immediately drained after a missed shot to the TV scoop. I would sign off with 316M+. This would still be good for third behind 583M+ from Daniel M and 435M+ from Victor.

Next up would be The Walking Dead. I consider this one of my better games to play. Immediately after finishing, I felt like I put up a reasonably good score of 51.9M+ (playing second). Unfortunately Tom George would blow it wide open on ball 3 and sign off with 135.8M+ pushing me down to second but still ahead of Cody Jones (playing first) and Grant Birdwell (playing fourth).

We would move onto the third round. The game would be RollerCoaster Tycoon with Victor Garcia, Tom George, and Stuart McPherran. I never really got a lot going on this one, falling just short of 2M, where Tom, the eventual third place finisher, would put up 3.45M+ with the other scores just going up from there. So far, that’s a second, a third, and a fourth. It’s starting to not look too good for this one.

The fourth round would find me on Black Jack grouped with Marty DeBobes, Brian Fults, and Alex Kee. I would put up a decent 146,800 in a five-ball game. Unfortunately this score was easy for Marty and Brian to beat. Finally, Alex would squeak past my score with 150,330. So another fourth place, but not by much.

Round 5 would find me on Silverball Mania with Brian Fletcher and (again) Alex Kee. I didn’t really understand this game very well. However, my final score would wind up at what I thought was a decent 244,930. This, unfortunately, was still not good enough to beat either of the other two players in this group.

Round 6 would begin and apparently I managed to anger the random number generator gods. Silverball Mania would be the game again, but this time with Grant Birdwell (first in order) and Zach Christopoulos (third in order). I would squeak out a first-place finish with 266,320 just ahead of Grant’s 251,520. I was relieved to finally win a game though the time was approaching 14:00 (2:00 pm) rather quickly.

Round 7 would see me assigned to Dirty Harry playing second in order between Brian Hayden and Brian Fletcher. I would manage to post a 397.8M+ good enough for first, ahead of Brian H’s 350.8M+. This was despite not understanding the game or really having much of a strategy.

I would finish 18th with 9 (nine) standings points. Tom would win the tournament. By now I’m long used to seeing the tournament director finishing at or near the top. I don’t mind it nearly as much as I once did (though I guess it helps that I was once that TD that finished first).

I would take a break and then find lunch shortly after this tournament before preparing to play the other NTX Pinball tournament of the day.