Texas Pinball Festival 2023, part 1: The drive up from Houston, hotel check-in, and settling in

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Texas Pinball Festival 2023

Before I start telling the story for this year, I want to flash back to the posts covering my experience last year. I will be doing a lot of comparison and contrast with that experience.

We start with the tournament entry and pass purchase. Last year, the tournament waitlists from 2020 were cleared. (The 2020 and 2021 festivals were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic). This left me a chance to get in the tournament; it was potentially small, but ultimately I did get in and play. This year, I knew I was going, and so I was at my computer when the tickets and passes went on sale (I don’t remember the date off-hand, but I may come back and add it later).

And so, I’m in, and not a lot happens until a few days before the event. Except that the anticipation builds, and I actually take vacation time from work (unpaid) this time around. In retrospect that was a wise move as I can’t imagine dealing with work in the middle of trying to get ready for the trip.

So fast forward to Sunday night. Colin, the lead tournament director, tells us that two volunteers are needed for the registration desk shift immediately prior to the tournament, and he had zero. Actually, if you want to get technical, he typed “ZERO” in all capital letters just to make sure we all saw it. Not that I blame him; as an event organizer I’d start to freak out if it was that close to the event date and I had no volunteers for a potentially vital shift.

And so, after sitting on the fence about volunteering this year, I took one of those two shifts, with the main benefit being that I would get to practice on my own with the other volunteer for that shift, and not have to fight through the queues. This dropped my stress levels significantly. (I’ll get back to this in part 2.)

After taking care of a couple of last minute details, I finally set off for Frisco early in the afternoon on Thursday, March 23. In order, my stops were: Golden Chick on Remington Valley Drive and I-45 (near Airtex Drive) for lunch; Buc-ee’s in Madisonville for fuel and a T-shirt; the rest area in Navarro County (going towards Richland); and a convenience store in/near Rice for a drink and snack. Along the way, near Fairfield, was the only notable traffic delay for road work, and that delay wasn’t but a few minutes.

After getting into the area just north of downtown Dallas on US 75, I ran into some traffic. I decided to detour down some side roads. Specifically, my route used Knox Street, Abbott Avenue, Armstrong Parkway, Inwood Road, and finally Royal Lane and Quincy Lane to take me back to the Dallas North Tollway. The original directions from my satellite navigation software were to stay on US 75 to I-635, then get on the Dallas North Tollway there. As it was, I may not have saved a lot of time. However, I don’t like just sitting in slow-moving freeway traffic.

I finally arrive at my chosen hotel, the Hotel Indigo on Avenue of the Stars. I’ll go into more detail on this later but this turned out to be a great choice for a hotel. My room was near the end of the hallway on the sixth (top) floor. Throughout my stay, at least once I realized I had to go back down to the car to get something. This was a bit of a chore between the elevator ride and near-worst-case walking distance within the hotel.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t mind getting the extra exercise, but I’m already doing a fair bit of walking. I’m walking to and from the hotel, walking around the conference center, and walking to and from the 7-Eleven. It adds up rather quickly in fatigue (and shoe wear, for that matter).

About the only real minuses to this hotel were the lack of a mini-fridge and lack of an in-room microwave. (Supposedly, there was a community microwave somewhere on the first floor. I never cheked into this as I don’t normally use microwave ovens.)

(Quick sidenote: I didn’t ever get around to writing the post on Rant Roulette regarding last year’s lodging situation, so I’ll summarize it here: I wound up at a cheap hotel otherwise known for being a good brand, but this particular location was awful. The joke I made was that the address may as well have been on Tobacco Road, between the in-room smoke smell and people smoking just outside their rooms.)

So, back to Thursday night. I settle in to the hotel room. After unpacking and taking a quick break, I drive down to Domino’s (Gaylord Parkway and Preston Road). I chose Domino’s to cash in a free pizza from the rewards program. (I was going to do this  at some point during the stay, it just happened to be the first night.) The reward was for a free medium two-topping pizza. I opted for pepperoni, ham, and onions paying the extra $2.38 (after tax), for the extra topping. Drinks came from the nearby 7-Eleven (Gaylord Parkway and Parkwood Boulevard). I chose two one-liter bottles of Brisk Tea (two for $3). My usual 7-Select sweet tea (which would have been two for $2.50) was sold out, unfortunately. This parallels last year’s experience of cashing in the free Qdoba entree.

After dinner, I took inventory of my personal care items. I immediately had the sinking feeling I left my (face) shaver handle and blades back in Houston. I put my clothes back on and uttered some very bleepable words to myself. Then it was time to make a quick run to Target before they closed for the night. (This was at 9:30 pm; Target was set to close at 10 pm.) My total came out to $10.27 ($9.99 plus tax minus the 5% RedCard discount). But more importantly, I now had a Harry’s handle and blades I could use for the duration of my stay. Honestly, even though this was technically an avoidable expense, I was probably due for a new shaving handle anyway.

At this point, it was time to wind down. I took a badly-needed shower and did a couple of other personal care tasks. After checking a few things on my laptop computer, it was time to call it a night. I had a busy weekend ahead of me.

Texas Pinball Festival 2023, part 2: Friday qualifying and a brief trip onto the show floor

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Texas Pinball Festival 2023

After getting a good night’s sleep and waking up early Friday morning, it was time to head up to the tournament room. This year, the registration desk position during the practice hour was my only shift. As previously mentioned, the volunteers for this shift got their own practice time in the half-hour between 9:30 am and 10:00 am, without having to fight the usual practice queues–a really nice perk on its own.

As it turned out, the other volunteer on the shift did most of the registration-related work; I helped move a game as well as put up a sign regarding unavailability of one of the doors as an entrance to the tournament room. Practice went smoothly; I feel like I got a feel for each game in the lineup except for Taxi (which I skipped over and forgot to go back to–oops!).

And so after taking a brief walk around the concourse to clear my head, I began my qualifying attempts. Following is the log from DTM, with commentary interspersed. (This year times were in local time from the beginning, so no adjustment was needed.) 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 24, 10:22am Foo Fighters 27,243,320

I chose to start the qualifying run with a game I had never played before. The only reason I chose this game is the queue was either short or non-existent (I think the latter, but I didn’t take notes on things like this).

Mar 24, 10:29am Firepower 70,900 *
Mar 24, 10:33am Firepower 85,100
Mar 24, 10:37am Wild Fyre 61,560 *
Mar 24, 10:45am Spirit of 76 16,440 *

A lot of real stinkers here. I know I’ve put up much better scores on Firepower, I have never played the latter two games before but these are clearly not my best efforts (though I would do better later, as noted).

Mar 24, 11:20am Taxi 1,188,200

My first attempt on Taxi, the game I skipped during practice. It was really hard to make the ramps on this game, it felt like one of the Taxi machines I had played in the early 1990s in arcades that just didn’t give a toot about maintenance.

Immediately following this game on Taxi was when I was queued up to play Alien Poker. Escher Lefkoff, the #1 ranked player in the world at the time of this tournament, put up a score of 1,147,980 which was good for first place on this game at that point in time (it would eventually settle down to 13th). I could have chosen to switch queues after seeing that, but I instead chose to step right up and try my best.

Mar 24, 11:36am Alien Poker 588,020

I forget where this score was right after I played it, but it would eventually settle all the way down to 53rd. I want to say it was somewhere near the bottom of the top 20.

Mar 24, 11:40am Alien Poker 50,170 #

This was an immediate re-queue on the same machine as I believe nobody was waiting (or the player in queue was not present when called). I did so poorly this time that I actually tilted one ball during this game–not good.

Mar 24, 1:02pm Volley 45,030 *
Mar 24, 1:08pm Volley 53,610 *

I enjoyed playing Volley. I had

Mar 24, 2:11pm Godzilla 13,296,860

This score on Godzilla was one I knew straight away was not going to get it done. I quickly decided to move on to other games.

Mar 24, 2:28pm Grand Prix 318,280
Mar 24, 2:49pm Grand Prix 297,460 #

Another case where I immediately re-queued on the same game and it didn’t work out.

Mar 24, 3:33pm Wild Fyre 276,550

There’s a big six-hour gap after this last score. This was the point at which I went back to my hotel room and took what I had planned to be a short break, but which wound up being around a four-hour nap. The original plan was for me to pause qualifying and watch one or both of the movies being screened in the seminar room; I woke up close to 8 pm when the documentary about Roger Sharpe had already started, and I still had not eaten dinner yet.

I had dinner (a beef quesadilla with a Coke) and after finishing up, walked back over to the tournament room to finish playing my entries. Toward the end of the qualifying run I was choosing games based on the likelihood I could improve upon my previous score and thus improve my ranking.

Mar 24, 9:42pm Walking Dead 27,156,700

I thought this was a decent score but it was about 1.4M short of the threshold to get even a single ranking point (Shawn Lee’s score of 28,537,190 was the eventual cutoff).


Mar 24, 9:52pm Mars Trek 216,300 *
Mar 24, 9:58pm Black Knight 475,710
Mar 24, 10:10pm Mars Trek 517,600
Mar 24, 10:19pm Atlantis 29,830
Mar 24, 10:25pm Firepower 38,300 #
Mar 24, 10:40pm Spirit of 76 40,760
Mar 24, 10:45pm Volley 64,410

Finally, a somewhat decent score on Volley, though this too wasn’t anywhere near what I would need to rank (Christopher Doyle’s score of 73,740 was the cutoff).

Mar 24, 10:55pm Foo Fighters 10,296,500 #
Mar 24, 11:13pm Attack From Mars 653,167,330
Mar 24, 11:21pm Taxi 758,960 #

It was oddly appropriate that I end qualifying with three real stinkers, the last on Taxi. I’ve done so much better on Attack From Mars, but this time just couldn’t get anything going.

And so it ended. Dee-duh-duh-deet-deet, deet-deet.

At this point I’d like to note that this year, we had wi-fi available at no charge–a really nice touch, which enabled me to live-toot every single score without any technical issues whatsoever. I’d like to give a big thanks to Embassy Suites for this welcome change from last year.

The only thing left to do now was see if I would hang on to qualify for novice division, as any hope of making A division and B division had sailed. I wouldn’t know this until Saturday morning; I left the tournament area Friday night with some hope of still qualifying in novice.

With all 25 entries played, I headed down to the show floor to get in a few games before deciding to call it a night.

Miscellaneous/pre-tournament pictures:

Tournament entries:

Show floor scores:

Texas Pinball Festival 2023, part 3: Saturday

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Texas Pinball Festival 2023

I woke up Saturday morning and immediately checked the standings. My memory is a bit fuzzy here, but I believe the first time I checked I was still hanging on to the last spot in novice division, but I do remember I would finally be knocked out of contention well before noon.

My first stop this morning was the 7-Eleven for breakfast, and then on to the show floor. Highlights of the day included getting to play the new Pulp Fiction and Galactic Tank Force pinball games.

Notable scores of the day include:

  • Mata Hari, 426k+
  • Mouse Trap (video game), 81160
  • Banzai Run, 1.21M+ (second player of three player game, despite it being the lowest of the scores in that game, it was my best all day)
  • Target Alpha, 230k+
  • Pulp Fiction, 1.43M+ (third player of three-player game)
  • Funhouse, 13.2M+

This is not a complete list but just what I consider to be among my better efforts. My apologies for some of the weird crops; a lot of the exhibitor stickers with phone numbers were pasted on the backglass, in some cases very close to the player scores. In some cases the name of the game is not legible but can be validated by other backglass art. Also, this gallery is not entirely in chronological order as two scores had to be documented with video and I would then extract a frame from that video to include in the gallery.

Texas Pinball Festival 2023, part 4: Sunday and the drive home

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Texas Pinball Festival 2023

Sunday, as it usually does, went by pretty quickly seeing as it is the last day of the show. I got in a few quality games over the course of the day, more than the photo gallery would indicate at first glance (as I only post a picture of my highest score on each title).

The main highlight of the day was getting to play Big Bang Bar at the Wormhole Pinball booth. I still call it a highlight as it is noteworthy, even though I was not really wowed that by the game. However, I get that it’s a rare game that for a long time only existed as a small set of prototypes, and I appreciate the chance to get to play it.

I can best describe the theme and ambiance of Big Bang Bar as a weird combination of Star Trek, Party Zone, and Diner. The gameplay was reasonable, but the belches and vomit references were kind of a distraction. I have no idea how good a score of 46.6M+ is relative to expert or wizard level but I’d like to think it’s at least decent.

I also had a game of Sky Jump with a most unusual player benefit malfunction. One of the drop targets apparently kept registering hits, lit for 500 with the 10X light on it, so 5000 points per hit. And so, this is how I “scored” 584K+ or possibly more. (I lost count of the number of times the score counter rolled over, but it was at least five times.)

Finally, there was Baby Pac-Man, which I only rarely get to play. I never got into this game when it was new in the arcades. Even back then, it was hard to find. I realize my score is good but not that great. The pinball portion of the game is a lot harder to master than it would appear at first. It does take a combination of good video game and pinball skills to truly master.

I think it’s a shame that more video/pinball hybrid games like this were not made, as done properly this could have led to some very good games, or even some worthy of being called timeless classics. We have Caveman, Baby Pac-Man, and Granny and the Gators; that’s it. (I’m not counting the myriad video modes in so many pinball games made after 1990.)

The only multiplayer game in today’s play was on Banzai Run.  I was the first of the three players taking first place in the game.

The drive home was relatively uneventful. I did make several stops along the way resulting in an arrival time much later than I had originally planned. Originally, my goal was to make it at least to Conroe or so by dusk. That didn’t happen, and the sun set while I was parked at the Buc-ee’s in Madisonville. To be fair about it, I am growing more familiar with more of I-45 each time I make this trip, and I have driven as far north as Huntsville for work.

I’ll wrap up with closing thoughts in the next and final post in the series.

Texas Pinball Festival 2023, part 5: Miscellaneous closing thoughts that didn’t fit anywhere else

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Texas Pinball Festival 2023

Now that I’ve covered most of the important and highlight events of the trip, as well as a few less-important details to try and keep the story interesting, it’s time to sum everything up and, perhaps most importantly, compare to what happened last year.

Regular readers of the blog may recall that I posted about last year’s Texas Pinball Festival including some advice for those looking to attend. In the middle of that post I mention the environment of the tournament room:

I mention the environment because it seemed even louder than a lot of arcades/bars I have played in. During the peak of qualifying Friday evening, there were potentially 24 machines (15 in Wizards, 8 in classics, and the kids’ tournament game) being played at the same time, many of them older electromechanical games with loud chimes and/or bells. Even if you turn the sound down to nothing on all of the solid-state and newer games (which will annoy some players as there are important aural cues on some games), there is still plenty of noise from the flippers, bumpers, kickers, drop target resets, and the myriad other mechanical gadgets in pinball machines.

With the noise level being what it was, I found myself having to take breaks and walk outside the tournament room for a few minutes just to be able to clear my head. It’s something I need to get better at dealing with. I don’t think this was the reason I did so poorly, but it did catch me by surprise a little bit.

Indeed, I learned that taking breaks from the noisy and semi-chaotic environment of the tournament room is a vital part of self-care. How frequent those breaks need to be is going to depend on the individual player, but I found myself taking breaks as often as after every game at one point, certainly no less often than every third game. Don’t just queue up on another machine because the scorekeeper offers to do it for you and you see there’s no queue, especially in a limited entries format like TPF Wizards and Classics.

The main thing that would push me towards immediately re-queueing without a break would be if the internet access was too flaky for me to do it on my own, like it was last year. Thankfully, this year, that wasn’t an issue; I was able to live-toot all my scores throughout Friday qualifying as well as access other internet functionality as needed.

From further down in the post:

  • Pick your hotel carefully. In order, my choices would be: The Embassy Suites adjoining the conference center, a hotel within walking distance (such as: the Hyatt House, Hilton Garden Inn, or Hotel Indigo just across Gaylord Parkway; the Hyatt Regency in the Stonebriar Centre mall; the Home2 Suites just outside the mall; the Drury Inn near Gaylord Parkway and Dallas Parkway/DNT), other nearby hotels within the shortest driving distance possible. Cheap hotels/motels, hostels, or Airbnb rentals more than about a 2-3 mile drive away should be your last resorts (pun intended) unless the budget just won’t allow anything closer/nicer. It may cost more to stay at the Embassy Suites or a hotel close to it, but not having to deal with DFW area traffic is worth it.

I did in fact follow my own advice and stay at the Hotel Indigo this year. I consider it money well spent as having a good night’s sleep and not smelling the faint odor of stale cigarette smoke all night was a huge confidence booster.

As a side note, the hotels partnering with the Texas Pinball Festival and offering discounted rates will drive this more than the proximity to the event, though obviously it makes more sense for the hotels closest to the event to offer these deals.

The field of competitors this year was different this year so it won’t be a true apples-to-apples comparison. I have never played that many of these tournaments with this type of a qualifier. I get that it’s a necessity when you have this many players as it exceeds the practical limits for match play, strikeout, and similar formats involving direct competition. Arriving to the tournament well-rested and well-fed was a huge confidence boost, and I felt like I had a more realistic chance. While the eventual difference was only 15 places (and still well within the bottom quartile of the entire field), I had a more satisfying experience overall. (I’ll address this in more detail later.)

Another piece of advice I offered was about budgeting for food:

  • Food tends to run a bit on the expensive side in the immediate area of the hotel. The food trucks may have relatively reasonably prices, though the selection is going to be a bit limited. (For example: on Saturday it was an egg sandwich truck and a barbecue truck. One of my friends recommended against the barbecue truck, and I usually avoid eggs. I decided to roll the dice anyway with the barbecue truck and the food was at least decent.) $15 to $17 per meal plus a bit extra for snacks should be enough with a little cushion. My order at Which Wich inside the mall still ran close to $15 and I had expected it to be a bit less.

I avoided the mall this year, and the egg sandwich truck was the only option this time around (I think this was on Friday), so the food truck option was a no-go. I wound up with street tacos served by Embassy Suites, which were at least reasonably priced. For dinner both days, I went back over to Parlour Social at the Hotel Indigo. Part of what factored into this decision was that Hotel Indigo had held $50 for incidentals. This wouldn’t be released until at least the Monday after I arrived back home. If I remember right, with drink and tip, the quesadilla was around $21, more expensive than but also more satisfying than the likes of Which Wich or anything else in the mall.

The more things change, the more they stay the same:

  • Allow extra time for traffic-related delays, even on the rural sections of highways. I had to deal with a complete freeway closure on my trip in. (ironically, I detoured specifically to try to avoid this, only to wind up right in the middle of the traffic jam after re-entering the highway.)

This time, too, I had to deal with construction and a short delay. Thankfully it wasn’t a complete road closure this time. Of course I had to deal with Dallas rush-hour traffic as well, which was less of an issue on my previous trip.

Regarding parking, maybe Embassy Suites read this and decided not to leave money on the table this year:

  • Embassy Suites was kind enough not to charge (at least most) TPF attendees for parking in 2022. I came out to find open parking garage exit gates despite having to take a ticket on both Friday and Sunday.

I walked over to the conference center and kept my vehicle parked at the Hotel Indigo (except for the Domino’s and Target trips) for Friday and Saturday. On Sunday this year, the cost was $10 to park in Embassy’s garage. I paid this $10 because I didn’t want to risk the Hotel Indigo deciding to tow me off their lot, which they technically could as I was checked out by that point. I could have parked in one of the few spaces on Avenue of the Stars north of Gaylord Parkway, but decided not to as these spaces were likely intended for guests of the apartment complex (Origin at Frisco Bridges) and I also would have had to walk back across the street when everything was over.

I can now personally vouch for this advice:

  • Remember that driving in the DFW area usually either means taking toll roads, or a much longer (in time) trip across the adjacent feeder roads or other surface streets. If you are flying in and staying at the Embassy or a hotel within walking distance, you might be able to get away with not renting a car and just taking a cab or rideshare (or possibly even DART, if you’re up for the walking distance) to/from the airport.

After taking another look, even if taking DART, I recommend budgeting for a cab/rideshare for the last 1.6+ miles (shouldn’t run over $10 even with tip). I made a mistake last year when looking at the walking distance; I thought it was closer to one mile than two. It’s not that the neighborhood is necessarily that bad, but a long walk in Texas heat can very quickly become tiring.

With all but the lightest luggage loads, I personally would take a cab/rideshare the entire distance from the airport. (Cab fare to the Embassy in Frisco is $42 or so from Love Field, $46 or so from DFW International. This doesn’t include a tip.) Many years ago, I did ride Metro back home from the Greyhound bus station but this was with only a small carry-on. (The trip I had completed on Greyhound was from Columbus, Ohio, and remains the longest trip I have taken on Greyhound to date.)

Back to more tournament lessons I learned this year. It’s kind of obvious that my lack of experience with this type of tournament format is showing. Despite feeling like I had a better experience overall, not a single score this year was above the average threshold for qualifying for A division. The cutoff was 764 and the player on the bubble was Eric Leon, making the nominal average 64 points per game or 34th place (meaning, someone who was able to put up 34th place across the board would have made it into A division).

My best performance from the point of view of the final standings was Black Knight. On that game, my score of 475,710 ranked 37th for 61 points. To make the magic 34th place, I would have needed to do better than Donavan Stepp’s score of 491,120. (Yes, Donavan was the eventual third place finisher over the entire Wizards tournament. And yes, that’s a difference of only 15,410 points. A lot of the margins between the higher places, say 5th-10th down to 40th-50th, were this small across most of the games relative to the scoring on each individual game. Only once you get up to the very top do the margins between scores start to widen.)

The bar for B division isn’t all that much lower: 610 points set by Ryan Altermatt. This translates to a nominal average of 51 points or 47th place across the 12 scores that count. The Novice division’s cut-off was 347 points, set by Blase Licce. That translates to a nominal average of 29 points or 69th place across the 12 scores that count. That’s three scores of mine that were B division caliber, and four that were Novice division caliber.

More than half of my best attempts from the tournament were only good for goose eggs. (By “goose egg” I mean 0 standings points, or 98th or worse.) This didn’t include my score on Foo Fighters, but did include games I should have been able to score higher on.

After my glass-ceiling-shattering performance on Whirlwind at Poison Girl, it was a significant disappointment to me when I learned it wouldn’t return to the tournament lineup this year. If nothing else, I would have relished the opportunity to once again play the game under tournament conditions to see how much I had improved over last year. (In fact, if memory serves, none of the games this year were the same as last year in either Wizards or Classics.)

A lot of these games I had never played in the wild before, much less in a tournament setting: Alien Poker, Wild Fyre, Mars Trek, Volley, Atlantis, Grand Prix, and of course Foo Fighters. That’s 7 out of the 15 in the Wizards tournament. Spirit of 76 I may have played once or twice at a previous show (either Houston Arcade Expo or TPF), and Black Knight I’ve played some but not on tournament settings. Congo was a game I had played before but elected not to play during the tournament.

Even on the games in that lineup that I have the most  familiarity with, I still put up a lot of just plain lousy scores. Anything under a billion on Attack from Mars, for example, definitely won’t get it done. Those are perhaps the most disappointing ones, because I know I’m a better player than that.

There are a lot of player names on the list I recognize, despite not playing in very many local tournaments over the past couple of years; some because they are high ranked players, some because they play(ed) in local tournaments. There are some I would realistically expect to finish above (i.e. players that I feel I am better than), some I would realistically expect to finish below. Examples of the latter would be the obvious ones like Escher Lefkoff, Raymond Davidson, Phil Grimaldi, Colin MacAlpine, Steven Bowden, etc. I’m not going to name examples of the former, but suffice it to say there are quite a few locals who I feel I am better than, who played in this tournament and finished higher. (To be fair, with only 35 spots below me, that’s not  a whole lot of room at the bottom.)

The main takeaways I have from this year are: first, I should not count on a high finish to catapult me into the running for the IFPA Texas state championship; and second, I probably need to practice more and on a variety of different titles versus playing the same games over and over again. That might involve more travel; it might just involve changing scenery and playing in more locations in the Houston area.