You hear Rick Stetta's Trailer even before you see it. Electronic beeps and whistles emanate from his triple-wide mobile home in the Cape Cod Trailer Court and float southward toward downtown Sunnyvale, Calif. Around the trailer there's an explosion of sound and light as 18 pinball machines—nine in the family room, seven on the patio and two in the bedroom—compete for your attention. And pacing back and forth amid the din is Stetta himself, the best pinball player in the world.
"I'm trying to stay as calm as possible," says Stetta, flashing his wife, Barbara, a panicked look. "But this is the single most important event of my life—I've been preparing for 20 years." It's late January, a few days before the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association (PAPA) International Pinball Championships are to be held in New York City, and Stetta, 31, is on the verge of making history. Having already won the International Flipper Pinball Association's World Pinball Championships and the Pinball Expo's Flip Out, held in March and October, respectively, in Chicago, he's attempting to become the first person to take pinball's triple crown.
And damned if Stetta doesn't look somewhat pinballish: legs as skinny as the ones holding up his machines, hands that twitch like flippers, eyes as big and shiny as the games' eight-ounce steel balls. He's as close as one can get to being a pinball celebrity, and when he and Barbara arrive two days later at the Manhattan Sheraton Hotel for the PAPA tournament's qualifying round, everyone in the room turns to stare. When he is announced by Steve Epstein, founder and president of PAPA, as "the man to beat," Stetta turns bright red. And when the games begin, his nervousness appears to have eclipsed his skills.
In the one-day qualifying round each entrant must play eight different pinball games; the 16 highest total scorers advance to the finals. Top players consistently hit 10 million points per game, but in the qualifying Stetta begins to drain—that's pinball lingo for losing balls—at an alarming rate. He wins only three million points on the Surf'n Safari game, two million points on Star Trek. And there's some serious draining on Hurricane. "I'm dying." he whispers to Barbara.
The Addams Family, it seems, is one of the last games left between Stetta and pinball ignominy. He takes a few long strides up to the machine, wipes his hands on his jeans and pulls the plunger. The pinball game lights up like a miniature disco, the familiar Addams Family theme song—complete with electronic finger-snapping sounds—blares through its speakers, and Stetta begins to play.
Playing, however, is probably the wrong word for what Stetta does. Most people stick quarters in a machine, bang the ball around for a few minutes and hope for a free game. You know, play. Things are a tad different with Stetta. As the ball ricochets around the playfield, Stetta bounces with it, hopping from one leg to the other, slapping the flipper buttons open-palmed, shouting, twisting, pirouetting, grimacing. One moment he's on his tiptoes, the next he's down on his knees. His head bobs back and forth, he does quick stretches while the ball is in motion, he forms guns with his fingers and "shoots" the machine after especially high-scoring moments. No, Stetta doesn't play pinball. He performs it.
As he puts on his show, the rest of the competitors (there are more than 300 vying for the $1,500 first prize) gravitate to The Addams Family machine. After five minutes of frenzied multiball—three balls in play at once—Stetta nails the Triple Super Jackpot, and the audience bursts into applause. It's a 50-million-point shot, and even the machine seems to need a moment to catch its breath; there's an instant of silence before a lion roars loudly and the scoreboard lights up with fireworks.
His total for the game is 349 million points. With that, a spot in the finals is guaranteed.
Stetta is perhaps the first and only reasonably well-known pinball bum. He grew up in San Jose and began playing at age 10 when his mother tried to make him take bowling lessons but he refused to go farther than the bowling-alley arcade. "I was like most young boys: I wanted to be champion of the world in something," recalls Stetta. "Though, unlike most, I chose pinball. The game provides the perfect balance between physical and mental exertion, and when I was 15, I dedicated my life to it."
Instead of attending college, he played pinball. Instead of pursuing a career, he has worked at several 7-Elevens and Taco Bells as well as at the local supermarket—and played pinball. Now a single game can last him hours. He often finds himself stuck in endless games, in which he racks up so many free balls that he can't possibly use them all, so he simply turns the machine off. He often dreams of Xenon, a robot that appears in one of his favorite games. And his parents, not surprisingly, have had difficulty accepting pinball as a career choice.