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King of the Silver Ball: All about Nudging, Tilting and High Scores at the Happy Dog Pinball League 

Every Tuesday evening during the season, the area's pinball enthusiasts flock to Detroit-Shoreway for a battle of skill, reflexes and hand-eye coordination and some retro arcade fun at one of Cleveland's best bars. As the third season of the Happy Dog Pinball League inches closer to the grand finale on June 7, we checked in with Brian Hill, who started the Happy Dog league.

So you're in the third season of the league now. How many people are competing in this thing?

We've got 30 people in the league. There's a wide range of skill levels represented in Ohio, in general, and in our league, there's some guys in the top 500 in the world rankings and we have some people who have never played competitive pinball ever in their life. The league's formatted so that all skill levels are competing against each other: The pros are playing the pros; the newbs are playing the newbs.

What does a good pinball player do? I'm assuming it's not just rapidly whacking the side buttons like I did when I was a kid.

A good pinball player only hits one flipper at a time, stays in control, throws the ball down, catches it, and aims for flashing shots. The strategy gets really deep for higher level players, but there's easy things for new people to do that can improve their game a lot.

I'd love to hear some of this high-level pinball strategy.

It's all about making risky decisions for higher reward and having the skills to execute, which a lot of times involves using special flipper skills like drop catches, post passes, lane passes and tap passes. There's a ton of different moves you can do. And it's just knowing the rules of the game.

Who's the best pinball player in Northeast Ohio?

Rankings-wise, it's John Delzoppo, who plays in the league. He's my pinball-buddy — we kind of get into it. I think he's already broken into the top 250 in the world or he's close to it.

What's John Delzoppo like then?

John's a pretty zen player. He sticks his left foot against the left leg of the machine and then he doesn't move until he has to. On the other hand, we have totally crazy animated players, too. They jump around, kick, slam on the machine. If they lose the ball they're yelling. You won't just find one type of person at the league.

Is there any pinball shit-talking?

There's always shit-talking. Around here, it's pretty friendly, but everyone gets teased and it just makes all of it more fun. There's always some guys who want to beat other guys, so there can be some grudges that come up after getting beat by the same guy.

So what's happening on June 7th?

Along with the Happy Dog Pinball League season three finals, which will be going on all afternoon, we're also having an open tournament for anybody that wants to play with cash prizes. You'll be playing on stage, we'll have a DJ — Party Sweat is going to be there — I think that starts at 9 p.m., and at midnight we'll determine the winners, give out prizes, and just play some more pinball.

How long do individual games last? When I'd put my quarters in as a kid, it wouldn't last too long.

It really depends on the game. Like Lord of the Rings can go on for a half hour, 45 minutes, but some games the average time will be like five minutes, three minutes. It's different for each.

So at Happy Dog, you've got Attack From Mars, Demolition Man, Tales of the Arabian Nights, Terminator 2, The Simpsons; what's your favorite one there?

Attack From Mars. It's a combination of the theme, the flow, it has an interesting rule set. It has whatever that magical thing is that makes you want to come back and play one more game. No matter how many times you play it, you just want one more. You keep putting your quarters in because you almost got that high score.

Least favorite?

My least favorite one is... I don't know. And I don't want to give up my weak games to my competitors.

Is there much variation from machine to machine? Like could someone dominate on one and completely suck on another?

Yeah, you'll hear about flow players versus stop-and-go players. There's guys who play on-the-fly, where they don't stop the ball and they're hitting the ball on reflex every time and there's certain games that are better for those guys. And then there's guys who take it slow: They try to stop the ball as much as possible, and there's games more conducive to that.

I didn't realize there were different styles of play.

Oh yeah. And nudging is its own art.

What's that?

Nudging is moving the machine itself to save the ball from going down the middle or the right or left out lanes.

Damn, that's allowed?

Yeah, as long as it doesn't tilt. Generally you get two warnings from the game before it tilts. The third time you move it too much is when it tilts, and you lose your ball and you lose your bonus. As long as it doesn't tilt, you can do whatever you want.

So what's one thing an average person wouldn't know about pinball strategy?

There's been a lot of taking advantage of what's called "valid playfield," lately. A lot of games, you can plunge the ball and if you don't hit any switches, you get the ball back. If there's a skill shot in the game off of the plunge that is worth a lot, you can miss it, lose the ball, and it'll give you the ball back and you can try and make that shot again. There are just a million things with pinball, and it's really fun when you start finding out, and you want more people to start finding out.

Contact Brian at happydogpinball@gmail.com to learn more.

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