• Image about Portland
Louis K. Meisel Gallery, Inc./ Corbis

Portland, Ore., is known for its weather (drizzly) and its way of life (green). But it’s also the pinball capital of the country.

It’s just before midnight on a drizzly Thursday in Portland, Ore., and Dan Stender, an air-traffic controller from Sacramento, Calif., is yelling at a pinball machine. “

Come on, man!” he cries out at the dot-matrix display above his favorite game, Theatre of Magic, as he watches the steel sphere slide past the pair of cream-colored flippers he had hoped would keep the orb in the game a little longer. Instead, it careens off the bumpers and sets off a symphony of flashing lights and bleeps and bloops, his point total climbing into the millions. 

Stender, 32, is reasoning with no one but himself. The pinball fanatic came a long way to add Oregon to the list of nine other states in which he has pulled back the spring, and while he’s disappointed in his game play, he’s happy to be here. This is Portland, after all — a city with more public pinball machines per capita than possibly anywhere else in the world. 

  • Image about Portland
D. Hurst / Alamy
“Before I came, I searched for two things online: pinball machines and roller coasters,” he laughs. Based on his hobbies, he says, “my co-workers ask me if I’m a 12-year-old boy.” 

Roller coasters aren’t so ubiquitous in a city where it rains nine months out of the year, but there are pinball machines aplenty in this West Coast refuge for fledgling bands and fixed-speed bicycles. At last check, the website PortlandPinballMap.com (updated daily) was tracking 425 pinball machines in 205 locations around the city of 566,000 people. That’s four times the “pins,” as they’re known among devotees, in all of New York City, which has some 7 million more potential players.

Portland boasts pinball gangs — groups that coordinate playing sessions among its members — and pinball repair companies with technicians on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There are old-school, electromechanical machines as well as the latest microchip-laden incarnations in every corner of the city. There are pinball websites with profiles of pinball players and pinball blogs with calendars of weekly tournaments held around town. Last April’s local Pinbrawl tourney was 2010’s fourth-largest pinball event in the world, based on the number of flippers who showed up to compete.

“This is something I can see. It’s in real life.”
“We’ve noticed a strong surge in tournaments over the past 18 months in Portland,” says Josh Sharpe, president of the International Flipper Pinball Association, based in Chicago. “They’re holding a tournament every week, and there’s been a snowball effect. Players coming out for the tournaments have led to a huge increase in earnings for the operators and location managers where the games are located.”

In other words, says Logan Bowden, a Portland-area pinball technician with Quarter World, “This is the pinball capital of the USA.”