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First of All

Sagel Frazer explains why it’s a good idea to go first when playing in a pinball tournament. Originally published in Skill Shot issue 50.

First of All

By Sagel Frazer

The first thing I learned about competitive pinball was to go last if I could and it was bullshit. This is a fairly incoherent and unstructured rambling about why. It applies primarily to matches between two players as that is what people in the Seattle area are most likely to encounter in weekly tournaments. I’ll probably get distracted. I’ll probably end up talking about something else. But first, start going first.

The pressure in a pinball match used to start for me before the game even began. I had to worry about winning a coin toss because going second is supposedly valuable. Don’t get me wrong, it is – if you’re extremely good, have mastered playing under pressure, know a variety of scoring strategies for the game you’re playing, and have actually practiced achieving specific point objectives. The reality for most of us is that we practice pinball by accident. We play by ourselves or casually with friends and with no more of an objective than to do well and not to drain. We aren’t concerned overmuch with any score but our own. The only time this can happen in competitive play without a lot of mental gymnastics is going first. I used to worry about winning a coin toss. Now I really don’t care. I get to go first almost all the time and I get to play the only ball of the match in which another person isn’t involved.

The most unfortunate thing about competitive pinball is that as often as the outcome is the result of playing well, it is just as regularly due to the competition playing poorly. I don’t know how many matches I’ve won in part because the other player was convinced I was going to win, but I’m pretty sure it’s substantial. I know the look on somebody’s face right before they make themselves lose, I’ve made it myself enough times. That being said, encourage your opponent to win for you. Picking to go first throws a lot of people off. I’ve had people try and talk me out of it or automatically attempt to start the game when they lose the coin toss. Go into a match with the expectation you are going to win. People are intimidated by confidence. And before anybody gets uppity, I’m not advocating actively trying to make an opponent play poorly, but there’s nothing wrong with being aware of the impact your choices can have and benefitting from them. Finally, opening a game with a good ball is the single greatest advantage you can have. The better you get and the more you practice going first, the more often it will happen. This is especially beneficial when playing somebody better than you. Most of the times I’ve found myself losing a match with a large skill differential in my favor are when they had a great first ball and I let it get to me. I look at going first as an opportunity to make a statement, to let the other player know what you’re capable of. If they can respond, great. If they can’t, great.

But what if you want to actually benefit from going second? Learn rule sets. A handful of games have nuances that give decisive benefit to position such as shared ball locks or progressive jackpots. Learn multiple scoring strategies which will allow you to make decisions based upon your opponent’s score. Watch ball returns during the other player’s first ball if you’re playing an unfamiliar machine. Finally, practice losing. The next time you’re playing pinball by yourself and you have a terrible first ball, set a scoring objective for your second balI – like to pick something I should be able to regularly get to and then double it. Do the same on your third ball. At some point I realized that what I was doing when I played on my own was reinforcing the idea that I would have a bad game and that I could just keep playing until I had a good one. Now every bad game I have is an opportunity to practice playing from behind. If you’re going to play second, you’re going to have to play from behind on at least one ball every game.

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