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Full Tilt

Bells, balls, and bursts—the life of a pinball king

Senior year at Swarthmore was particularly special for Matt Wall ’87, but not for the typical last-hurrah reasons.

A fire that destroyed the Tarble Activity Center—then a sanctuary for students seeking recreation and a break from the pressures of college life —meant he’d gone three years without his favorite pinging, ringing, spring-loaded pastime.

But in fall 1986, the soon-to-be graduate got his joy back when he walked through the doors of the newly built, yet smaller, Tarble gaming space. He slid two quarters into the High Speed pinball machine, pulled the plunger, and watched his first ball spring into action.

“Pinball provided a release from the stresses of senior year,” Wall says. “To someone struggling with both the final workload and choices ahead about where to go in life, it was a welcome blanking of the mind that allowed me to reset each day.”

It was also a welcome moment when his love of the game flipped from occasional hobby to lifelong passion.

“In the process of doing anything competitively, you get to a point where you realize there is skill involved and that skill can be mastered through practice,” he says.

Although he doesn’t consider himself a pinball master, Wall has played in more than 200 tournaments and once ranked as high as No. 52 in the world pinball rankings.

It’s not a game he makes a living from—nor did he ever intend to—but in his prime, Wall earned as much as $4,000 in one year of competitive play.

Nice pocket change for the presidential historian, who majored in art history at Swarthmore.

Wall’s main career was as an internet software engineer and engineering manager. “I’m most closely associated with the development of the IMAP email protocol that now drives almost all the world’s email,” says Wall, who worked for Carnegie Mellon University, several startup companies, and Sun Microsystems before “retiring” from this to stay at home and raise his kids with wife Mika Hoffman ’86, executive director of the Center for Educational Measurement and Prior Learning Assessment at Excelsior College.

These days, Wall can be found practicing anywhere from one to 15 hours a week on a small collection of pinball machines that he keeps at his home in Niskayuna, N.Y.—in a state that banned the game in the early 1940s for its association with gambling. That irony is not lost on him. Pinball was eventually legalized in New York after a player impressed a judge with his ability to predict the outcome of his flipper shot.

But if you ask Wall, there’s no doubt that pinball is, and always has been, a game of physical and mental skill.

All competitive pinball players need endurance, Wall says. Pinball tournaments can require contestants to stand for anywhere from 10 to 24 hours straight. Some endure by adopting a stoic signature stance—legs spread wide, eyes ever on the ball, hands always on the flippers. Others turn to energy drinks for an extra boost. Wall prefers oranges and coffee for stamina.

His stance has changed over time, though, primarily to compensate for new progressive lenses that sometimes make it difficult for him to see the shiny metal ball at certain angles.

Sugary drinks and perfected poses aside, Wall says it all comes down to the mind. It’s why some pinball players wear headphones during tournaments to limit exterior distractions, and others dictate their thoughts out loud to intimidate observing competitors. Pinball requires a tremendous amount of mental skill, hand-eye dexterity, and focus.

“You’re sort of doing this constant risk/reward calculation about whether you should try for a trap or take a shot, and it is exacerbated by modern machines that have hurry-up modes where you get points but there’s a timer on them, counting down, always,” Wall says. “You need to always be thinking, in a fraction of a second, about what your next shot is going to be.”

Over the years, Wall’s passion for the game has taken him to tournaments in cities across the U.S. and Canada, where he’s met people from all walks of life. Playing for hours on end and watching some of the world’s best players compete, Wall has become somewhat of a pinball wizard.

But as he’s aged, the game has taken a backseat to, well, life.

After Swarthmore, Wall married Hoffman, they had two sons, and they moved cross-country for a job on the West Coast, where few pinball hangouts remained. A recent move back east allowed Wall to get back into competitive play after a 15-year drought.

It didn’t take long for him to realize a lot had changed.

During his break from the game, Wall’s ranking suffered and the pool of competitive players grew; he now ranks 1,168 among hundreds of thousands of active players.

“I’m not among the crème de la crème anymore because it’s grown so much,” Wall says. “You also lose a little something in your reaction speed when you get a little older.”

Attending a tournament now means planning a family trip, which suits his younger son, Isaiah, who seems to have his father’s magic gaming fingers—he recently won his first pinball championship.

Despite those changes and adjustments, Wall says he’s excited to be back in the game. He’s set a personal goal of making it back into the top 500, no matter how long it takes.

“I don’t imagine ever retiring,” he says. “As long as I can stand up, I’ll keep doing it—and even then there are some people who play sitting down.”

Most important, Wall says he’ll always be grateful for that High Speed pinball machine in Tarble that helped get him through senior year and left him with a hobby he can always come back to.

“At Swarthmore, I got the seeds of a lifelong education in balancing passion with ability and interest,” he says. “At a few points in my life, I have felt pinball was just an amusement and that taking it seriously was a bad thing, a distraction from living an adult life. But as I’ve come back to it in middle age, with kids of my own to play with, and new friends that I have made worldwide, I’ve come to realize it’s a personal portal of sorts on the world.

“Pinball is more than an excuse to travel, understand others, learn new things, and challenge myself."