"My goal was to prove I am the best player ever," declares Stetta, "even if I had to settle for just knowing it myself." He proved it, all right, but despite being the most successful pinballer of all time, he has won only $2,125 in cash and $6,000 in prizes in his 16-year career. Oh, and he has also won several pinball machines. Has it all been worth it? "No doubt about it," he says without hesitation.
Whereas Stetta has pursued his goal with extraordinary single-mindedness, pinball's path has followed a more circuitous route. The game's origins can be traced back to the 17th century and a French game known as bagatelle. The modern game first became popular in the early 1930s, with a table game called Baffle Ball. Pinball enjoyed some success but soon fell into disrepute when some machines began offering cash payouts. Targeted as gambling devices, pinball machines were banned by New York City in 1941; to show his disdain for pinball, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia whacked several machines with a sledgehammer and dumped them in the East River. Other major cities also banned the game. Pinball remained illegal in New York City until 1976, after which it enjoyed a brief upswing, until its popularity was eclipsed by video games in the early '80s. Pac-Man did as much damage as La Guardia, and once again pinball was in the doghouse.
But about five years ago the video audience began to tire of memorizing game patterns and of being at the mercy of the computer. Many discovered the relative freedom—some players call it the Zen—of pinball, and the game's popularity returned by 1991. The current resurgence has led to the formation in the U.S. of pinball leagues as well as professional tournaments, which draw players from as far away as Europe, Japan and Australia.
The day after the qualifying round, the finals of the PAPA contest begin in Manhattan's Lone Star Roadhouse. The Lone Star is abuzz with nervous whispers about pinball strategy, technical discussions about how to most effectively nudge the machine and horror stories about faulty flippers and cruel bumpers. In one corner of the room a few players lament the recent trend toward score inflation; it has been a sore issue since Bride of Pinbot came out two years ago with the first billion-point shot. At the other end of the room a debate rages over what percentage of a player's score is skill and what percentage is luck; the consensus is about 25% luck.
One thing, however, is perfectly clear: The final 16—all men, most in their mid-20's—are a serious bunch of pinballers. All of them unabashedly refer to themselves as athletes, most are certain that pinball will soon become an Olympic event, and a few have designed their own padded pinballing gloves. Stetta has even gone so far as to create a special pinball diet: sprouts, grains, nuts, fish, tofu and water.
Narrowing the field from 16 to four requires five hours of all-out pinball, and the championship round proves that there is no single correct way to play. Rob Rosen-house, 27, a video-store manager from Morris-town, N.J., listens to his Walkman as he shoots, his feet planted squarely on the ground, his hips swiveling like those of a Hula-Hooper. Lyman Sheats, 26, a software developer from Wayland, Mass., stands with one foot atop the other, hunched awkwardly over the machine. William Law, 23, a travel agent from Manhattan, is virtually motionless. And Stetta, of course, is Stetta.
In the qualifying round Stetta seemed to be doing calisthenics as he played, but in the finals it's full-bore acrobatics, his hands a blur as they pound the flipper buttons, his feet jitterbugging to an out-of-control beat. And when the last ball drains, the tournament, and the triple crown, are his.
A final fanfare sounds from the game's speakers, and Stetta rejoices, wiping off his forehead and hugging his wife. Then, with a solemn look on his face, he turns his back on the crowd and methodically enters his initials, RJS, into the pinball machine.