Pinball renaissance lights up Treasure Valley

14-year-old pinball expert loves the game. Watch out. It's contagious.

Aviana Smith is a pinball enthusiast who who has been playing pinball since she was 10 years old, traveling to — and winning — tournaments. Her family has 10 pinball machines (at last count) at their house. She'll even give you a couple of tips.
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Aviana Smith is a pinball enthusiast who who has been playing pinball since she was 10 years old, traveling to — and winning — tournaments. Her family has 10 pinball machines (at last count) at their house. She'll even give you a couple of tips.

The first pinball machine that got under Dan Costello’s skin was at Liquid Lounge in Downtown Boise. It was The Addams Family table, which became the best-selling table of all time after the machine’s release in 1992, the year after “The Addams Family” movie came out.

Along with the typical pinball trappings — flashing lights, chirps and jingles when the ball ricocheted around the blue and pink pins — the game incorporated hallmarks from the creepy family and its creepy mansion. The famous staircase served as the ball ramp, a standard for every table. Thing, the disembodied hand, slithered from hiding in the upper corner to deliver extra plays. Balls escaping the flippers fell to their doom through the open mouth of powder-white Uncle Fester.

That was eight or nine years ago, before Costello was good enough to play for a half hour on a single play. Before he spent five or six hours playing a single machine, chasing high scores. That obsession started with The Addams Family.

“That one really drove me crazy, really got me upset at the world,” said Costello, 41. “It’s a really challenging table, just infuriating at times. I loved it.”

Costello is part of a growing pinball cult in the Treasure Valley. Its acolytes gather in evenings or for tournaments at two bars catering to pinballers and vintage video game players, SpaceBar Arcade in Downtown Boise and Grinkers Grand Palace in Eagle.

Grinkers Grand Palace owner Steve Barbey said swelling pinball enthusiasm led him to add 1,750 square feet this summer and to add five pinball machines to his stable of nine.

The bar and restaurant, which is open to all ages, also has 154 nonpinball retro arcade games. But Barbey said the increasing number of serious pinball players contributes to Grinkers reaching capacity, forcing the business to turn away customers on busy nights.

Pinball players go by many names: Pinballers. Pinheads. Silver ball masters. Flipper kings and flipper queens. Anything but “pinball wizards.”

Local pinballers track and contribute to a website and smartphone app, Pinball Map, where players update pinball table locations, movements and conditions across the nation. The app tracks 66 machines in 36 Treasure Valley locations.

A Facebook group, Treasure Valley Pinball, has 80 members.

Many Grinkers players jostle on the leader boards and compete in sporadic tournaments, which usually draw between 15 and 25 players.

“It’s a battle,” Barbey said. “When somebody’s score falls, the dethroned record holder will oftentimes come back day after day until they regain their position.”

Grinkers Grand Palace has shipped pinball machines from 28 states costing between $2,000 and $8,000 apiece.

Members of the Smith family that lives near the intersection of West McMillan and North Cloverdale roads are Grinkers regulars. Dwayne Smith’s initials, DAS, are sprinkled across leader boards. AVA, the moniker chosen by his 14-year-old daughter, Aviana, appear on several. Dad remains champion of the Smith house, though Aviana eliminated him in a recent Grinkers tournament.

Dwayne Smith, 50, fell in love with pinball as a 10-year-old in Clovis, Calif. He would grab some change and ride his bike around the corner to a Shop-n-Go to play the ’70s-era machine there.

Several years ago, Debbie, the family matriarch, encouraged her husband to buy a pinball table for their house. He bought a used “Taxi” game and had it shipped from Michigan.

The Smith home now includes 10 tables in two rooms and the garage.

Debbie Smith, a casual player, no longer bats an eye when another table materializes.

“I didn’t even freak out when I sent him out for cat food and he came home with a pinball machine,” she said. “Because he also brought home cat food.”

Do we need to have two of the same Jokerz table? Of course we don’t. But we do.

Pinballer Debbie Smith

Dwayne Smith says there’s still room in the garage for more pinball tables, and he could store tables if the space runs out.

“How many tables is the right number? All of them, I guess,” he said.

Everybody who comes here gets free pinball lessons. I have friends who say, ‘I’ve never played pinball before.’ Well, that’s going to change.

Pinballer Aviana Smith

The Smith collection has room to grow before it rivals the 20-table arsenal owned by Art Burget, a 51-year-old Meridian resident who works in the software industry. He owns the eight pinball machines at SpaceBar. The rest live in his game room and his three-car garage. He parks one car there. Pinball tables occupy the rest.

Burget rarely ventures away from home to play, but he has noticed pinball play intensify at SpaceBar lately. The 21-and-over bar and arcade had four tables when it opened in 2012. Today, Burget says, the bar’s eight tables are busier, and with more players keeping balls alive and achieving the objectives built into each table rather than flailing through 90-second games.

“The number of people on those machines has increased dramatically,” he said.

I prefer to buy them broken down.

Pinball machine collector Art Burget

Burget isn’t very good at pinball. He plays about a game a week. He placed last at a recent tournament at Grinkers and nearly last in a the huge Pin-A-Go-Go tournament in Dixon, Calif.

His passion lies in fixing the machines. The wrench work started when Burget fixed pinball and video game machines as a summer job as a student at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston.

Burget’s wife, Brenda, plays occasionally, usually a Star Wars game. She enables her husband’s habit, sometimes encouraging him to dolly several 300-pound machines into the living room to entertain guests.

Most days he spends time in his garage fixing coils, tightening posts, replacing broken flippers and all of the other little parts and pieces that need upkeep.

“Usually, when I take a break for a few weeks, it’s because my wife says it’s time to spend time with her,” he said.

I’ve heard the term ‘pinball widow’ thrown around. You definitely need to keep it to a reasonable use of time rather than being too obsessive.

Pinballer Dan Costello

Costello, who started the Valley Facebook page, said the local following makes a kind of “nerd cult.” He likens the community to online gaming guilds. However, pinball players differ in that they eventually match faces to initials, becoming friends.

“There’s no replacement for standing at the same machine, watching people play, listening to the sounds, smelling the particle board when it heats up,” Costello said. “Especially when you are chasing the same high score, there’s definitely an intensity to the social connection.”

Dwayne Smith recently visited Burget to negotiate a pinball machine trade. Smith offered one of his Jokerz tables. He has two. Burget said he would trade one of his tables, or maybe two.

Smith was late getting home.

“Watch out if you get too many pinball people together,” he said. “We talked for almost three hours.”