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On a warm Thursday night in July, 11-year-old Josh Henderson of Chicago nervously shuffles on the patio of Lyons Classic Pinball. He’s waiting for Kevin Carroll, the long-haired, sleepy-eyed owner, to scribble the name of his next opponent on a piece of poster board taped to the outside window.
In the 6 1/2 years since it first opened, Carroll’s establishment has become a celebrated destination for pinball addicts. His third-Thursday summer tournaments routinely draw players from around the country, and, on some nights, the world.
“We’re on a cross-country family trip,” said Mark Henderson, Josh’s father and promoter.
“We structured it around places where Josh could compete in pinball.”
Still, most players who come to Lyons are from Colorado. There’s Adam Lefkoff, 42, from Boulder, who brings his 6-year-old son, Escher, along for the ride. According to Lefkoff, who’s ranked as a top-50 pinballer by the International Flipper Pinball Association, Lyons Classic Pinball has the best-maintained collection in the country.
Leaning over on the railing, there’s Donavan Stepp, from Denver, also 42. Stepp’s reputation precedes him as No. 22 on the IFPA’s hallowed rankings.
Over there, in the blue Spider-Man T-shirt, that’s Basil LeBlanc, eyeing the March Madness-style bracketology of the tournament. He moved to Loveland from Orange County, N.Y., after a trip to Lyons got him hooked on the silver ball.
“I don’t play too good, but it’s fun,” says LeBlanc.
Inside Lyons Classic Pinball, the glowing and clinking machines are huddled into three dimly lit rooms. The wall-to-wall carpeting, the low ceilings, the range stove hidden behind a bamboo curtain all eerily evoke the quintessential American rec room circa 1973.
Like every aspect of the game, the price hardly has changed. Almost every machine still costs only 50 cents. Older machines are a bargain at 25 cents. Newer, high-tech games, such as Lord of the Rings, require three quarters. Back on the front porch, Josh has learned that Stepp is his third-round opponent.
“You may choose,” he tells Stepp, who reaches into an upside-down top hat and blindly draws a button — the egalitarian method for choosing games at Carroll’s tournaments.
Josh is probably the best young pinball player in the U.S., says his father.
“In another year or two, he’ll have more upper-body strength,” he said. “He’ll be able to manipulate the machine like all the greats.”
Stepp reads the name of the game on the button he’s drawn.
“Andromeda,” he announces, prompting murmurs from the small crowd gathered around them. It’s a game that Josh has never encountered before, despite his estimation that he’s played “about a million” machines in his young career.
Stepp, of course, knows Andromeda, a challenging game with an angry leonine temptress in a revealing bodysuit glaring down from the backglass. He handily beats Josh, who slams his water bottle on the floor and storms outside, fighting tears on a bench facing the darkened Aspen Leaf Motel.
By 11 p.m., the Hendersons are on the road back to Chicago, though they’ll land in Pittsburgh next month for the Professional Amateur Pinball Association world championships. After a nail-biting final round, Stepp is this week’s champion, clutching the first- place purse of $110.
A few stragglers remain inside, playing for fun.
“They come from so far away just to be here, just to play,” Carroll says.
“I stay open a little late most nights. This is the only place where people understand.”