It's hot inside Pinball Cove at Shorty's, and it smells like boys. Dozens of them have been drinking beer and excreting stress for more than four hours, immersed in the darkened room's inexplicably undersea-themed décor. It's Sunday afternoon on the day of Shorty's Ninth Annual Pinball Tournament, a head-to-head, best-two-out-of-three, double-elimination-format contest of skill, of chance, of honor, of who can hold their liquor best. This is "the big dance," someone says. Doors opened for practice and preliminary lubrication at 11:00 a.m.; according to a dense page of printed rules bearing the Shorty's seal (a clown with a cigar clutched in his teeth), "Drinking to excess is desirable."
First prize: a vintage Williams Little Chief pinball machine depicting a close-up of its namesake in feather headdress against a background of a tepee, a powwow, a native dance being performed in a meadow nestled among iconic mountainsides. It stands patiently awaiting its winner. A sign on it simply says: "DON'T."
Announcements are broadcast throughout the bar every few minutes; first unintelligible, then heart-stoppingly booming, they call the next contestants to their bouts. In the very back, Shorty's new Trophy Room is open for a sneak preview and to house the announcer/referee, a bespectacled man hunched gravely over an enormous page of brackets that he's slowly filling in with microscopic handwriting. Next to him on the bar—which will eventually have high-backed, upholstered swivel stools à la the 13 Coins—lies a considerable pile of Pabst Blue Ribbon schwag. Presumably these product-placement hats, wristbands, etc. will be presented to those placing 2nd through, maybe, 52nd.
Back in Pinball Cove, the atmosphere is tense. Knuckles are cracked, muscles stretched preparatory to play; matches in progress are watched intently. In the past, it's said, unscrupulous contenders might blow smoke in the faces of their competitors. Now, post-smoking-ban and still early in the tourney, invisible zones of respect surround those in action. (According to the regulations, "Players may employ satanic incantations, voodoo hexes, spells, and other means of gaining spiritual advantage, but may NOT physically or verbally interfere with their opponent's ability to play, under penalty of forfeiture." Threats of violence risk expulsion.) A man wearing a T-shirt that reads "Crazy Flipper Fingers PDX, OR" around a skull-and-pinball graphic turns away from the Medieval Madness machine midmatch with a look of barely contained fury. Another T-shirt proclaims "CANADA, EH!" A nonsensical loser remarks drunkenly, "I can't believe I lost to a Canadian. At least we have freedom in this country." Revenge international-style is vowed next month at a tournament in Vancouver.
The competition, culminating in "a dramatic one-game showdown on the grand-prize machine," will go until midnight at least. The announcer urges the consumption of more beverages upon the crowd as a contestant slams both fists down on the glass of Elvis: The Pinball Game in frustration.