Professional Amateur Pinball Association World Headquarters. Photo courtesy PAPA.

One of the biggest weeks in the history of competitive pinball is about to unfold in Pittsburgh—and you can take part.

Beginning this week, the Professional Amateur Pinball Association (PAPA) will host three consecutive international pinball tournaments at their world headquarters in Carnegie.

The PAPA 19 World Championships run Thursday, April 7 through Sunday, April 10. It’s the only time of the year that the PAPA HQ—and their 500+ pinball machines and nearly 200 arcade games—is open to the public.

“When we open the doors, this has to be the largest pinball arcade open,” says PAPA Tournament Director, Doug Polka. “I don’t know of anybody that has more games in one place than we do.”

Not only are fans welcome to come and try their hand at some casual silverball, they are also welcome to compete. There are four divisions at the PAPA World Championships, beginning at “A” for professionals down through “D,” for amateurs. Last year, over 500 competitors participated in the PAPA tournament.

“We recommend that people who aren’t on the competitive scene don’t just stroll up and dump money in A,” says Mark Steinman, PAPA’s Director of Operations. “It’s a game of skill and odds are you’re not going to win, but you’re welcome to try. If there’s someone rolling in off the streets, I would recommend they play the D division.”

Participants in the D division may purchase a ticket for $5 and play four pre-selected machines anytime during tournament hours on Thursday and Saturday. The scores are tallied, assigned a point value, and top scorers are invited back to the finals Sunday.

In addition to the A, B, C, and D divisions, there are also divisions for seniors, juniors, women, classic pinball machines, and split flipper play. In all, over $45,000 in prize money will be awarded—not to mention bragging rights and the championship banners that hang from the PAPA rafters.

PAPA is a brand of the Replay Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that promotes the preservation, restoration and enjoyment of pinball technology, with an emphasis on the player experience.

Photo courtesy PAPA.

This year, the PAPA World Championships are bookended by a pair of invite-only tournaments: the PAPA Circuit Final on Wednesday, April 6 and the International Flipper Pinball Association (IFPA) World Championships, April 12-14.

The PAPA Circuit Final is the culmination of 18 nationwide PAPA circuit events, while the IFPA Championship is an annual international tournament—last year’s was held in Stockholm—limited to 64 of the best players worldwide.

“The analogy we use is that PAPA is the Masters, while the IFPA World Championships more closely resembles the US Open,” says Steinman.

“I think this will be the strongest field we’ve ever had for the PAPA World Championship,” says Polka, “and probably IFPA too, because this is the first time they’ve ever been in the same location.”

PAPA and the IFPA are the two largest competitive pinball organizations in the world, and Steinman estimates that 95% of all competitive pinball tournaments use the unified PAPA/IFPA rules.

Pittsburgh resident Cryss Stephens, currently ranked #14 in the IFPA World Pinball Player Rankings, is one of just a handful of players who will participate in all three of the upcoming tournaments. He is also one of about a half-dozen Pittsburgh pinball players who rank in the top 100 worldwide.

PAPA World Champion Trophy.
PAPA World Championship Trophy.

Stephens says that there is a camaraderie that exists among the Pittsburgh contingent of top tier players, but if two face-off in a tournament, “anything goes.”

“If you’re playing against someone you don’t want to eliminate, you still play your best game,” says Stephens, “but if one of [the Pittsburgh guys] gets knocked out they still tend to stick around and coach.”

The talk leading into this year’s tournament? Steinman says it’s whether or not Keith Elwin—last year’s Division A winner and current #2 player in the world—will continue his “reign of superiority.” (The #1 player in the world, Jorian Engelbrektsson, of Sweden, is newly a father and will not be in attendance.)

“Everyone keeps waiting for him to fall off,” says Steinman. “Tiger Woods is nothing to golf compared to what Keith Elwin is to pinball. He picks the tournaments he wants to win.”

If three world championships weren’t enough, Pittsburgh’s summer of pinball is just beginning: the largest pinball tournament in the world, the Pinburgh Match-Play Championship, takes place July 28-31 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center as part of the ReplayFX Arcade & Video Game Festival.

PAPA Headquarters is located at 100 Keystone Drive, Carnegie, PA 15106. Entry is free during the PAPA World Championships, April 7-10; tokens and tournament entries will be available for purchase on location. More information is available at the PAPA World Championship webpage.

Brian Conway is a writer and photographer whose articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune and local publications. In his free time, he operates Tripsburgh. Brian lives in the South Side.