Pinball Wizard: Atticus Palmer Aims for National Gold

Suburbs don't get much tidier than Coral Springs. The boxy patch of West Broward is made up of neighborhoods of modest ranch homes planted evenly on shady, manicured lawns. It's Mayberry 2.0, a David Lynch movie before shit goes bad. Behind the front door of one such modest suburban house...
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Suburbs don't get much tidier than Coral Springs. The boxy patch of West Broward is made up of neighborhoods of modest ranch homes planted evenly on shady, manicured lawns. It's Mayberry 2.0, a David Lynch movie before shit goes bad.

Behind the front door of one such modest suburban house — a three-bedroomer on NW Tenth Street — is a living room like a million others, except this one is lined with five blinking pinball machines. Another 11 rigs are tucked away in the garage. The man of the house — who, thanks to a Duck Dynasty beard and shoulder-length hair, looks like he could be hauling around guitar cases for Metallica — is a friendly engineer named Jeff Palmer. His only son, Atticus, is a cheery 15-year-old with a Nicolas Cage fixation who likes to dress up like Doctor Who. Put them together and you're looking at Florida's first family of pinball excellence.

"We're not," says mom Nancy, "like the other families in the neighborhood."

The younger Palmer is currently the Florida flipper champ. He clinched those bragging rights at a nail-biter tournament at Club 66 in Boynton Beach in February. And this week, the whole Palmer clan is heading off to Lyons, Colorado — just outside Denver — for the International Flipper Pinball Association's U.S. National Championship. Atticus will be the youngest competitor at the event.

"You have people who are flying in from all over the country," Jeff says. "He's going to be playing against literally the elite people from the United States."

The Palmers' pin success comes amid a pinball resurgence. Fueled by the internet's enthusiasm for all things retro and a new world ranking system, its popularity is surging across the United States. Last year, 13 tournaments with 168 competitors were held in Florida. Now, five months into 2014, Florida has already seen ten.

Back in the day — before Xbox, Nintendo, Donkey Kong, or even Pong — there was only pinball.

The first mechanical pinball machines were largely games of chance; you shot a ball and tilted the machine to control its trajectory. The flipper wasn't introduced until 1947. But by then, most major American cities had outlawed the game as another form of gambling. In 1942, New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia personally ordered raids of pinball parlors to destroy the damn machines that were stealing nickels and dimes from "the pockets of schoolchildren."

Pinball became a wink-wink backroom pastime. It developed an outlaw aura. By the time the Who's rock opera Tommy hit in 1972 with the tale of the "Pinball Wizard," some bans were still in place, but the game's popularity had exploded.

The 1970s and '80s were the classic period of pinball, with companies such as Bally and Williams filling bowling alleys and pizza parlors with the machines. But by the mid-1990s, videogames — both in the arcade and at home — delivered the KO punch. The parent organization that ran international tournaments, the International Flipper Pinball Association, went inactive in 1995. All the major pinball producers shuttered save one.

But there's an unwritten rule that forgotten fads once beloved by nerds will one day rise again. The internet helped collectors sniff out old machines.

The master stroke came in 2006, when a reignited IFPA began ranking players worldwide.

"Before that, there was no real way to connect players from across the globe," explains IFPA President Josh Sharpe. "Back in the '90s, there were pretty strong tournaments in Sweden. For us U.S. players, we didn't really care. There was no way to know who was good or bad."

Under the new worldwide ranking, players flipping at IFPA-sanctioned events could earn points and track their progress against players everywhere. Tournaments exploded as a result. In 2006, there were 50 pinball matches worldwide. By 2013, there were 1,604. Already in 2014, 718 tournaments have been held.

Jeff first fell in love with pinball back in the glory days, when he was growing up in Virginia. His own dad played, and he introduced his son to the game.

"Fast Draw, Joker Poker, Paragon," he says now, listing classic pins. "Those would have been the games from the mid- to late '70s. From that point, I would look for more pinball machines out at skating rinks, malls, bowling alleys."

Jeff and Nancy met while they were students at the University of Central Florida. They immediately had something in common — she grew up in small-town West Virginia, where one of the only forms of entertainment was an Evel Knievel pinball machine.

In 2000, Nancy was bedridden with what was later diagnosed as lupus. Atticus was just a baby. Jeff was working, then shuttling home to care for his family. "I told him, 'You don't go out with your friends anymore; you just work and take care of us,' " Nancy says. " 'Buy a pinball machine.' " The family found a 1990 Fun House machine. It featured the usual bumpers, flippers, goblins, and clowns.

Atticus' first memory is of being propped up on Jeff's knee as a 3-year-old, watching the metal ball bolt around a green monster's head on the family's Fun House rig. "I was just always interested in mechanical stuff when I was young," he says. "And the lights."

It wasn't until 2003, when the family picked up Stern's Lord of the Rings pin (an instant classic), that the 5-year-old started showing a natural talent for the game.

"At 5 years old on games like Lord of the Rings, he was doing things that adults weren't even coming close to doing," Jeff says. "He was beating them, he was putting up decent scores, and he could barely see over the top."

In 2011, Jeff and Atticus both began entering tournaments in Florida. The first one — the Southern Pinball Festival in Orlando — featured 64 competitors, including Jim Belsito, the 11th-ranked player in the world, and Zack Sharp, ranked second. Jeff placed sixth. Atticus came in 12th.

The Palmers quickly realized tournament play was far different from flipping at home. For one, the machines were calibrated to be more difficult. The slope was increased, so the balls jumped faster. They took away extra balls, so you had to do more with less. It was as if you practiced your jump shot in the driveway, then showed up for a basketball game only to find the hoop had been raised a foot.

But in his early go at competition, Atticus displayed the rare ability to put his anxiety on ice. Other pinballers might smash their hands against the glass or curse; Atticus would just play, his headphones pumping in Slayer or Metallica or Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up" on repeat. He began wearing dollar-store sunglasses with "YOLO" scrawled on the lenses.

"I try not to focus too much on what's going on," he says. "I just want to go and have fun and play pinball. I don't want this to turn into a giant monolith towering over me. If it's not fun, why am I doing it?"

Wise words for a 15-year-old. Atticus isn't some Tommy-like savant. Home-schooled since first grade, he's a well-adjusted kid who likes building stuff with Legos, playing Xbox with friends, and participating in the Fort Lauderdale Children's Theater. He's also preternaturally level-headed for a kid his age facing off against adults with decades of flipping experience.

"I've been playing for a long time and against people that let the moment get to them," says IFPA President Sharpe, who competed with the Palmers at Florida tournaments. "[Atticus] is a free spirit. Any game he plays, you can't tell whether he's playing for fun or in the finals."

At the Game Warp Tournament in July 2012, Atticus came in second out of 32 competitors. He kept putting in impressive performances throughout 2013. In June, Palmer father and son met in the finals of the Point Monsters Championship in Fort Myers. The game was Iron Man — a machine the Palmers have in their family room.

"We both know how to play it; neither one of us had an advantage over the other," Jeff says. "He outplayed me on that final game. He got first, I got second, and I couldn't have been happier."

IFPA's state championships are cumulative processes. After piling up points throughout 2013, the top 16 contestants were invited to play for the Florida title in February in Boynton Beach. Each matchup between players was a best-of-seven contest. After Atticus plowed through his first two competitors, he was nervous. Then he was in the finals with Sanford's Kurt van Zyl, one match away from the proverbial belt. After three rounds, Zyl had 382 million points, Atticus a measly 60 million.

This was bottom-of-the-ninth, tie-game, go-ahead-run-on-third stuff, two seconds on the game clock, down by a single bucket.

He had one last ball to play on a machine — a '90s pin based on the thumbs-down Keanu Reeves movie Johnny Mnemonic — he'd never played before that day and couldn't get the feel for it. By then, the Mountain Dew in his bloodstream was about all that was keeping him standing after eight hours of play. About 20 spectators watched. Some were chewing their nails. Nancy couldn't stand the tension and walked away. Jeff, on his feet near the machine, watched as his son slowly slipped on his YOLO specs.

"It's over," he said to a spectator at his side. "It's done now."

Sure enough, when the ball dropped, Atticus began banging away, knocking home points until his total climbed... and climbed... and climbed to 392 million. He was the champ.

"I was still processing everything when my dad ran up shouting," Atticus says.

In Colorado, Atticus will face a field of 31 other state champs. It's the first national championship and his first big-time exposure. True to style, he's not going overboard with practice. "I'll play a couple of games a day," he says. "I try to work on becoming as relaxed as possible, like I'm just playing another game of Iron Man at home."

"I'm guessing out of all the players there, he'll be the least nervous," says IFPA's Sharpe. "We'll see if that translates into big scores."

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