Pinball Wizard

Hayden Harker in his garage along side his nine pinball machines

Written by Alexandra Olson

Shorty’s Pinball Bar in Belltown, Seattle is flooded with people ready to compete in the Fall 2009 pinball competition. Laughter, frustrated shouts, encouragement and idle chit-chat fill the room, making it nearly impossible to hear the frequent “dinging” sound signaling yet another high score. Looking around the crowded room in search of his friend, Eric Merchant, instructor of mathematics at the University of Oregon, is shocked to hear that someone has just scored more than 100 million points on his or her first ball. Pushing his way through the mob of competitors, Merchant’s eyes widen as he stares at the man with the high scoring ball. That man just so happens to be the friend who drug him to the competition. That man is Hayden Harker.

Hayden Harker is now a career instructor and the head undergraduate advisor to the mathematics department at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Merchant describes him as meticulous and abstemious, saying he takes almost everything seriously.

Harker says his passion for pinball did not start until he entered graduate school in 1998. Growing up in Kentucky, he had never been exposed to any sort of pinball community. While attending graduate school he met Eric Merchant. Merchant taught Harker everything he knew about pinball, showing him that it was not just a game of luck, but rather a game of skill. “Hayden is a very analytic pinball player,” Merchant says. “He knows things about the details of machines that require serious research.”

Harker develops his strategies based off of what era the machine was built in. He says that any game created before 1977 is considered to be electromechanical, meaning the machines record the score using wheels with the numbers painted on them and they rotate. From 1977 on, the games switched to using circuit boards. The use of circuit boards has allowed pinball games to display the scores digitally and encompass a more complex sets of rules. He says the main strategy is learning how to play and realizing that you can aim, just like swinging a bat at a ball. A good pinball player will pause before flipping the flippers, a skill called deadflip.

As soon as Harker discovered the strategies behind the game, he began to play about an hour a day. Harker and Merchant would go out to different bars in Eugene, have a beer and play pinball for hours on end. “When Hayden gets really frustrated with a game, he will take his hat off and throw it on the ground, like an old-time baseball player or something,” Merchant says. “It’s hilarious.”

Aside from teaching classes at the university and playing pinball, Harker recently became involved in pinball machine repair, a hobby he says is costly and time consuming.

Harker devotes much of his free time to maintaining and repairing his pinball machines

Stationed by a collection of nine machines in his garage, Harker points out one of his personal favorites, Flash Gordon. And yes, it is based off of the 1980’s science fiction film. Adjusting his glasses he runs his hands over the red and black metal frame, pointing out the specific parts he often has to repair. “Unlike video games, pinball machines break more quickly because of the metal ball that flies around whacking into stuff,” he says.

Stepping up to the Flash Gordon machine, Harker rests his fingers gently on the buttons that maneuver the two paddles used to control the metal ball inside of the game, properly referred to as the flippers. He is wearing his favorite pinball attire, a shirt he received in the 1970s from a friend, that has “Tilt” written across it in iron-on letters. And then he begins, playing the game with mastered skill and strategy in mind. When he has beaten the game, he smiles and says that he has spent 5,000 quarters-1,250 dollars on pinball games over the last decade.

Harker says that the Eugene area has a very small pinball community, but he also mentioned that per capita, Portland has the most pinball machines in the nation. In the past decade, he has traveled many times to Portland to compete in competitions, a scene he describes as a “hip and grunge kind-of-thing”.

“There is a geekier side to these competitions, but there is also people who have just grown up playing pinball,” Harker says. “There are pinball clothes and tattoos everywhere. People have balls and flippers with flames on them. Just like every sub-culture you have the hardcore people wearing bad jokes on their t-shirts.”

One of Harker’s favorite pinball memories is a pin golf tournament at a friends house in Portland. His seven year old daughter tagged along to play. The goal of the game was to score 500,000 points on the Flash Gordon machine with only three balls. “She got the score by using only one ball,” Harker says enthusiastically. “Most of the adults there could not do it in one ball. I feel a little nerdy being proud that my daughter can play like that.”

Now with a family and a career, Harker does not get to play nearly as much pinball as he would like. However, one day, if he can devote enough time, he wishes to travel to Pittsburgh to compete in the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association’s yearly national championship.

Ultimately, Harker said he loves pinball because, “No matter how good you are at, you can fail. So it makes you want to come back for more.”

Additional Links:

Professional and Amateur Pinball Association:

University of Oregon department of mathematics:

Shorty’s Pinball

Hayden Harker’s profile in the International Flipper Pinball Association:

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