It was just before the start of the Texas Pinball Festival, the annual gathering of pinball enthusiasts and collectors who brought their prized machines to Dallas/Fort Worth over the weekend for three days of quarter-less play, and an odd quiet filled the 30,000-square-foot play area.
Machines from pinball's heyday filled the space at Frisco's convention center, and their silence made the room seem like an abandoned amusement park in a Scooby-Doo episode. I half expected to see cobwebs hanging from the once mighty machines, but they all looked pristine and polished. A handful of machine owners and venue organizers scrambled to get ready for what could be a historic day in pinball history.
This year's festival featured an attempt to set a new Guinness World Record for the Most People Playing Pinball at Once, a record set last year in Canada by just 100 people. The pressure could not be bigger for the organizers, who were trying to simultaneously manage the festival and coordinate the movements of 300-plus people, all to preserve America's pinball honor.
Paul McKinney, the head organizer for this year's festival, oversaw the record breaking event that took up most of the three day weekend. "I've got blisters on my feet and I just finished unloading my truck yesterday afternoon," McKinney said. "I've still got some games to unpack."
The people at Guinness pride themselves on thoroughness and accuracy in every record that graces the pages of their book. The first step, McKinney said, is getting the moral support to even attempt such a feat because of all the preparation and documentation demanded by Guinness.
"They have a lot of structure around them and rules, and after going through and doing a world record attempt and looking back on it, I realize why they have those in place," he said. "If you don't do it their way, it's really hard for them to look at the video and confirm that the record was broken."
McKinney brought in some accountants to help keep track of the number of people playing. The challenges started right at the front door with some people who jumped ahead of the line before they were allowed in and tickets that were torn incorrectly and had to be removed from the count for the record.
"It's our hanging chad, basically," McKinney said.
I bolted for the nearest "Twilight Zone" machine I could find, a personal favorite not just because it references my favorite show of all time but because it's the pinball equivalent of a peyote trip on a stretch of barren wasteland with a plunger that requires finesse over strength and a playfield with invisible (magnetic but still technically invisible) flippers.
McKinney had stewards and witnesses walk the floor during our attempt to count heads and discount games that had technical problems. Each participant from the people playing the games to the floorwalkers to the accountants who did the final tally completed their own forms, confirming the count before a notary signed off on the full stack.
The team also had to provide video recordings of the attempt from the floor plus an overhead view from the ceiling, which required some strategically placed Go-Pros to get a bird's eye view.
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"When you've got a 40,000-square-foot ballroom with a 30-foot ceiling, you have to get a little creative," McKinney said.
By the end of the 15-minute attempt and hours of calculating and confirming, McKinney and company counted 272 pinball players. That more than breaks the record, but the Guinness people still have the final call.
"Now that I've got one of these under my belt, the next one will be much easier next year," he said.