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But why pinball, and why Portland? The machines have become something of a rarity in recent years, with Chicago’s Williams Entertainment, formerly the largest U.S. manufacturer of pinball machines, shuttering its production line in 1999. What’s more, the only company that still makes the devices — another Windy City outfit, called Stern Pinball — estimates that 85 to 90 percent of its machines wind up in people’s homes, not in arcades or bars. According to Jody Dankberg, Stern’s director of marketing, that’s because in addition to being expensive to buy, the machines are a headache to work on, with a half mile of wire and 3,500 parts in each game.

But even in the age of motion-sensing video-game controllers, high-definition graphics and at-home consoles hooked up to massive televisions — and despite the fact that elsewhere, pinball has receded into the kind of quirky, niche hobby that only people with a fondness for antiques can really get into — the game still retains its hold on Portland.

“There are a lot of games on location in Portland,” Dankberg says, referring to machines that are in public venues rather than in private homes. “That means they’re available for everyone who enjoys pinball.”

Ben “Sauce” Applebaum, a 25-year-old school-bus driver and pinball-repair technician, is an avid player who’s been at it ever since he was 3 years old and living in Tyler, Texas. But he didn’t become a full-blown pinball junkie until he moved to Portland from New Orleans five years ago and discovered that there’s actually a city in America where pinball isn’t a relic of the past but a thriving part of the culture. 

Applebaum arrives at one of the city’s best-known pinball hangouts, Bar of the Gods, on a recent weeknight dressed in a red leather motorcycle jacket and matching pants to meet Bowden for a few rounds on the bar’s Sopranos pinball game. 

Now You Know: Pinball was banned in New York, L.A. and other major cities between the 1940s and ’70s because it was viewed as a form of gambling.
“Hit the ball with the flippers,” is Bowden’s best advice for new players as he and Applebaum take turns smacking the left- and right-side buttons so hard that the table moves just enough to kick the ball away from the “drains,” those maddening, flipper-less channels on each side of a pinball machine. 

Applebaum sets his jacket down, pulls up the sleeves of his hooded sweatshirt, takes a sip of his drink and eases back the spring, launching the ball at a large fake fish in the game’s display. Bowden, 30, has been talking Sauce up all night, unashamed to admit that the younger player is, in this case, the better one. But on this round, Applebaum’s turn ends quickly, with the ball sliding right between the flippers and out of contention within seconds of its launch. 

Both guys say they like pinball because it offers an amount of control and interface that isn’t available on digital consoles like the PlayStation 3. With pinball, you physically yank back the plunger and watch the ball you rocketed into the game bounce around and up and down and from left to right. As long as you successfully avoid a tilt, there’s a certain amount of banging and sliding a player can inflict on the machine itself to thwart the ball’s trajectory. 

“This is something I can see,” Applebaum says. “It’s in real life.”