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At 16, Ben Gold Was A Video Arcade Legend. But Only Now, 27 Years Later, Is He Being Recognized For It.

At 16, Ben Gold Was A Video Arcade Legend. But Only Now, 27 Years Later, Is He Being Recognized For It.
Mark Graham

On August 11, 1983,

Ben Gold walked into heaven. The details seemed preposterously unlikely. He'd found it in a shiny, 44-foot-long 1953 GMC bus. The bus was parked in Ottumwa, Iowa, a town whose primary attraction was a coal museum that had closed 90 years ago. Presumably because people knew what coal looked like. But now the bus was there. And so Gold, a scrawny Dallas teen one month shy of his 17th birthday, boarded the bus with four of his friends and peers. Around them were assembled the nine most popular video games ever, powered by an internal generator, no quarters required. And this would now be his life. Ben Gold, Stargate master, was the fifth member of the inaugural U.S. National Video Game Team.

The button-mashing, joystick-slinging group of teenage gamers had been assembled by a man named Walter Day, who'd somehow managed to convince the world, briefly, that his Twin Galaxies arcade in downtown Ottumwa was teenage Mecca. It started months earlier, after dedicated gamers across America had spent months mastering games and started wondering "How good am I?" never knowing how high their scores ranked beyond the confines of their neighborhood arcades. Frustrated, they would call the manufacturers of these games and ask, "What's the top score?" On Millipede, Donkey Kong, Galaga, Stargate. Whatever.

The manufacturer—Williams or Midway or Atari or NAMCO, the biggies—would always offer the same response: "Dunno, but there's this guy in Ottumwa who has this scoreboard..." The manufacturers thought it was strange there was some guy in Iowa keeping score. Nonetheless, they said: Call Walter Day, the scorekeeper.

And so the kids would call Walter Day. And they would ask: "How good am I?" And he would tell them: Good, not good enough, better than most. They would find out the record as posted on the Twin Galaxies International Scoreboard, then set off to break it. And then they would call back, and Walter would say: "The best."

Ben Gold was the best at Stargate. Later: Millipede and Q*bert. Billy Mitchell was tops at Donkey Kong—was till last Monday, matter of fact. Others had their games. And they all had Walter and Ottumwa, where, in the early 1980s, the world's best gamers gathered every so often for a showdown and a long hangout. And, for a brief and glorious moment in the early 1980s, a few of these boys even became national celebrities—like Ben, who, in January 1983, was crowned on national television as The World's Best Video Game Player. It was around that time that Day sensed his moment. The National Video Game Team was born.

"Video games were the most popular hobby at the time," says Billy Mitchell, whose appearance in the 2007 documentary King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters would cement his reputation as the best-known "golden-age" gamer. "I'd gotten better and better at the games I was good at, and to think you were the best created a driving passion. You wanted to meet the other guys who were like you. They were the smartest guys I'd ever met."

At 33, Day was twice the age of these gamers: Mitchell, who sported the wispy tough-guy moustache of the '80s late-teen scene; Steve Harris, a high-school dropout eventually bound for the magazine world; Tim McVey, who a year later would be the first dude to ever bust a billion points; Jay Kim, a late-comer and, at 14, the youngest of the bunch; and Gold, the bar mitzvah boy who went to Greenhill School and who, on his 16th birthday in September 1982, set the world record on Stargate after spending 36 hours on a single quarter.

Gold never really thought of himself as the member of some team—thought it was nothing but hype, Day's last, best chance at keeping games in the spotlight and his on-life-support arcade alive. "Overstatement," is how Gold puts it. "Me, as a 16-year-old, I saw it as us being out there, not as the U.S. National Video Game Team."

But a road trip without parents? Hell. Yes.

He arrived later than the others, some of whom had been in Ottumwa for days. He walked into the arcade and found his teammates sprawled on mattresses spread across the floor in the back room. He asked them, cheerily, "What's for breakfast?" They yelled at him, "We haven't eaten for a week!" Mitchell and the others were too scared to call home and ask for money. They were terrified their parents would make them come home this instant, young man!

So off they went—all hormones and quarters, in search of high scores, some even involving video games—five slightly beaten-down but nonetheless cocky younglings outfitted in tight-fitting Twin Galaxies tees (with their names printed on the back) about to be unleashed on the countryside, their only escort, Day, an early-period-Genesis Phil Collins look-alike and perennially aspiring folksinger who'd need to stop every few hours to meditate and recharge.

 

Day, who would go on to write about his adventures in gaming in an out-of-print 983-page doorstop called the Official Video Game & Pinball Book of World Records, has another name for it: Destiny.

"It was meant to happen, and for some reason we were all safe," he says. "Today it's a grittier time, a more dangerous environment. Now, I would never take responsibility for other people's kids. It didn't even dawn on anyone: What's the 33-year-old guy doing in a bus with all these kids? Whoa, Nelly! What was I thinking?!"

But before the very first scheduled stop in Dayton, Ohio, destiny and the bus broke down, for the first time but not the last. The five boys were asleep on the floor, wedged between those video games. Ben Gold woke up, and he knew: This is the end.

And until six weeks ago, it was.

It began when he traveled to Houston, at the Galleria, in the arcade. Ben's father, Stan, deposited his 13-year-old so he could take care of some business—needed the boy out of his hair. Stan Gold was in the business of selling drapes, but his heart wasn't in it. So he turned to comic books and amassed what father and son describe as the world's largest collection of first-edition comics dating back to the birth of Superman. Stan was in Houston for a comic book convention.

Ben hitched a ride, as he often did, because he collected baseball cards, which were once sold at comic cons before they became overrun with Star Wars action figures and B-grade celebrity signings. Back then, before the investment vultures descended upon the hobby, a kid could get an old baseball card for cheap. He loved his baseball—played it too, even decorated his room floor to ceiling with images of ballplayers, his wallpaper shrine.

"When I start something," he says, "I go deep into it."

But he was losing interest in ball cards. That Babe Ruth he really wanted? It was 30 bucks now. Goddamned vultures.

"I just took him to the arcade because he was getting bored," Stan says. "I gave him some money and said, 'Have fun.'"

Dressed in his usual attire—T-shirt, sweats, tennis shoes—he walked into the arcade and saw the 30 mostly old and unplayed machines (Depth Charge? Are you kidding?). He tried to figure: Which one to play? He noticed a crowd of maybe 10 gathered around one game, but couldn't see much over the shoulders of kids older and taller than he. He got in closer and saw it, heard it—the rhythmic dunh-dunh-dunh of Space Invaders.

He noticed immediately there was protocol: If you wanted next, you had to place your quarter on the screen. Ben grabbed one and put it at the end of the line. Finally, his turn at the left, right and shoot buttons. And so it began.

"It was a rush for me," he says. "Like crack cocaine. I've never had drugs before, but it was something so intense and immediate. I was transformed. Everyone disappeared behind me. I was sweating, pressing. I had no idea how to play. You learn it over time, the rhythm of the game." When it was over he felt dazed, but grabbed another quarter and stuck it in.

Stan came to get his boy, and they rode back to Dallas. Ben didn't tell his father about the game, but it was all he could think about.

Next day they get back, and Ben's got one thing on his mind: Find Space Invaders. Schlepped to every 7-Eleven and pizza joint in walking distance from the folks' home near Hillcrest and Belt Line. Didn't have to go far—a mile up to Pipe Organ Pizza, where, amidst the cartoons on the big screen and the occasional explosion of bubbles, sat a Space Invaders.

He began his new routine: homework before school, go to school, daydream about video games during class, play baseball or maybe do cross-country, then find a way to get to Pipe Organ. "I didn't care if it was 110 or 22 degrees out," he says, "I had to get to the arcade." It went on like this for all of 1980.

Practice took time, patience, money. His folks pitched in. Stan and Enid didn't mind so much. They could tell: "I thought he was very capable," Stan says. Ben's grandparents drove him sometimes, then acted as chaperone and champion of their little boy, so proud. His friends kinda got it? Because, yeah, who didn't love playing video games. Dude. But, still: All the time?

His parents' friends didn't get it. They'd say Ben was throwing away his life and that Stan and Enid were terrible parents for letting him waste that big brain of his. But his parents had a different take:

 

"To have a child excel in something, I think it's quite exceptional," Enid says. "When you can see him or her excel in something and really love what they're excelling at...And he loved it"

Adds Stan, "Our peers, who said, 'You can't do this or that'? Well, first of all it's none of your damned business. And second of all, this is the way we choose to raise our kids."

And it's not like any of their damned kids ended up on That's Incredible!

Ben did his best practicing in his sleep. He would dream about games. Most gamers say the same thing: Come morning's light, all would be revealed.

Because, by then Ben had become obsessed with breaking high scores. He'd see someone else's three initials up there and needed to replace them with his own signature: BEN. But only the important games, the ones he liked—Defender and Centipede, especially, at least at first. Asteroids? Ech. "It wasn't a game I'd dream about."

But the others?

"When you started a new game, it's like something you'll never have again –seeing that first Defender machine and saying, 'How will I destroy that?'"

At Pipe Organ Pizza, "That's where I learned to have a methodology of studying every game. You don't study people. You study the program. It's me against the programmer, and the programmer had a disadvantage, which is: The programmer had one shot to get it right. And very rarely did they get it right. Almost every game has a glitch. Centipede had a glitch that if you put three mushrooms next to each other, you can have the centipede trapped, and all you have to do is kill spiders. That's why Millipede came along. It was the attempt of the programmer to say, 'Ha, ha, ha, you beat me this time, now try to beat this.'"

Ben was obsessed. It's all he thought about. And girls, at the age of 14, were a waste of time.

And he needed real competition, not kids wasting the folks' few cents at Pipe Organ Pizza. "You know how iron sharpens iron? I couldn't find my iron."

Then Ed Massey opened ProVideo, at the corner of Preston and Belt Line (the luck!), and suddenly Ben had a warehouse full of it—40 games tucked away in an enormous carpeted space in a strip center anchored by a Furrs cafeteria. The ProVideo gaming tokens read: "WHERE THE PROS PLAY."

Massey was an investor by trade—dabbled in renting out big rigs, drilled for oil, sold cell phones back when you carried them around in tote bags. Far as he figured it, video games were as good as slot machines.

Ben played four, five hours a day, till 9 p.m. closing time. Every day. It was there he perfected his games, and where he grew into the look that would fill almost every photograph ever taken of him then: a head full of sweat-matted dark hair, his face a scowl of concentration and conceit, his scrawny legs protruding from a fine pair of bright red short-shorts. Word got around: "I was the video game guy."

There was, finally, in September 1981 a competition: The best Centipede players in the world were gathering in Chicago. ProVideo served as the site of the local shootout: Whoever got the highest score in three minutes won a ticket to Chicago. Ben lost to a dude named Mike—stoner with a 'stache. But Stan and Enid bought their boy a ticket anyway. Ben was in paradise, man—200 Centipede machines set to "free play." Eventually, he was crushed in the competition.

And he said to himself: "I'm not ready to be a national player. I'm gonna be a national player, but I gotta figure out when the moment's right."

He fell in love with other games. For a time, Tempest—the first 3D game, and the first played using a rotary dial instead of a joystick or buttons or a trackball. But it didn't click with him, not like Defender. Playing games are "like learning a language when you hit critical mass. New words no longer confuse you. It's like a snowball rolling down a hill." Defender was like that, he says.

It was the game he played in his next competition—a 7-Eleven-sponsored statewide tourney. The format: Play three games of Defender 10 minutes each, and the player with the best average score goes on to the next round.

Ben cleaned up in the local qualifier. The second round was in Mesquite, where he met some yammering jackass who wouldn't shut up about how "the rest of you don't stand a chance." But Ben studied the games and saw something that loudmouth didn't—the first two games were set on easy; the third, on "you move, you die."

 

They all breezed through the first two games. But on the third, that cocky son of a bitch didn't make it longer than six minutes. Ben went the full 10. "The guy's jaw dropped." Ben won and moved on to the regional semis. "I got my butt kicked."

It was time to get serious. So out came the scraps of paper, upon which Ben began writing down the dates and names of arcades, points scored and quarters used. The first entry is dated July 20, 1982. At ProVideo and then at GameZone (at LBJ and Preston Road) Ben played Centipede, Tempest, Robotron, Missile Command, Zaxxon, Space Duel, Stargate and Dig Dug. He deposited 22 quarters in all.

"I just wanted to be able to remember," Ben says, "to keep track of my progress, to make sure I was the best at everything. When you look at the most successful people, they write down everything."

In August Ben and his buddy Connel McCrohan started a Stargate duel, an ever-escalating war of scores: Three million. Four million. Five million. Finally, Ben got fed up. "I didn't enjoy playing games for eight hours just for the fun of it. And I always wondered: Is there some guy out there in Chicago who's better than me?" Ben later noticed he was getting, like, really good at Stargate, the impossibly harder Defender follow-up. He needed to know how much higher he had to climb.

Which is why he ended up calling Walter Day. They spoke for a long time, Ben asked him the high scores for all his favorite games. And each time Day told him, Ben gasped and would ask: "But how?" And Walter would explain to him the little tricks, the ways to beat the games. Day played himself, but he'd also learned from the other kids who had managed to find him.

"What's the record on Stargate?" Ben asked.

"Thirty-six million," Day said.

"I'm gonna beat that this weekend," Ben said.

"Great," Day said. "When you beat it, call me."

This is how you play a video game for 36 hours: You rack up enough extra lives to take bathroom breaks and eat. A good few-hour run buys you at least 10, 15 minutes to walk away from the game without worrying whether you'll game-over while taking a leak.

That's how Ben did it. He asked Ed Massey if he wouldn't mind staying open on September 25, 1982—all night. "I'm going to set a world record," Ben told him. Mr. Massey shrugged, said fine. He didn't make a stink out of it—didn't put up signs or sell tickets. Ben just showed up that Saturday morning, all by himself, plunked the token into the slot, and started playing.

His family, parents and grandparents and aunts and cousins, started coming in around 11, 11:30 that morning—they brought a nosh and some comfortable chairs. His friends were there too. Ben liked the company. He needed to talk to people while he played, especially during the marathon games. Otherwise he'd just get bored.

Stan slept at ProVideo that night. At daybreak he grabbed his son and made him step outdoors to see the sunrise. He told Ben, "You made it to the second day."

Thirty-five hours and 50 minutes—and a lot of Coke and junk food—after he began, Ben was done. The final score: 40,001,150 points. He could have gone longer, but the screen started to look weird—green, maybe?

Close to the end, Ben turned around and saw rows and rows of people crowded behind him. He smiled, recalling that not so long ago he was one of them—standing on tiptoes, straining to see the screen of that Space Invaders in Houston. It was a good time to die. He'd made his point. He walked away. The crowd applauded.

Ben also turned 16 that day. "I was tired." It was 9 p.m. He called Day and told him, "Well, I did it." Day asked to speak with Massey to verify the score. He did. And that, simply enough, was that. Ben was the new world-record-holder in Stargate.

With that distinction, Day welcomed him to the club. "He opened the floodgate for me to find my kindred souls," Ben says. "I thought I was this anomaly." Day showed him: There are others like you. For a few months already Day had been collecting names and games. He would tell Leo Daniel, who said he was the world's best Tempest player, about Billy Mitchell, king of Donkey Kong, then he'd tell Billy about Darren Olsen, this kid in Calgary who held the record on Centipede, and on and on. Day told Ben about all of them.

Then he had a proposition for Ben: "Why don't you come to Ottumwa? LIFE's doing a photo shoot. You can come meet everybody." And much to Ben's surprise, his parents said, "OK."

 

Mitchell, for one, liked Ben right away. Ben was a couple of years younger than Mitchell, and maybe a good foot shorter, but Ben didn't take shit from anybody. There was a camera crew documenting the LIFE shoot. They went over to talk to a kid who said he was the best at Tempest. Turns out, he wasn't. He was "full of sugar," as Mitchell puts it, and as the kid told the camera how to beat the game, Ben piped in, loud enough for the mic to pick it up: "That's bullshit, man. Bullshit! Bullshit!"

Mitchell laughed. That's when they became friends.

"Until the LIFE shoot, every place I went I looked for high scores, someone to pound," Mitchell says. "You'd go around and find the toughest kid in the schoolyard and put him away with one shot. When I got to Ottumwa, I said, 'All right, now they've put all the big boys into one room, and now it's time to see who's champ.' You couldn't pick a better forum. I got 849,000 on my first guy on Donkey Kong that weekend. My first guy. It was that event that put me, put us all, in a spiral of competitiveness. I wasn't going to let anyone beat me."

Their photo would appear in the January 1983 issue of LIFE—the 16 so-called "Video Game V.I.P.s" posed in the middle of downtown Ottumwa standing behind six video games. And four cheerleaders. Ben got stuck in the back, at the far right, in a shadow.

He was, by his own admission, the last guy you'd ever think would go on national television two months later and walk away The Most Famous Video Gamer in the Country.

The brotherhood was born. The boys swapped numbers and spent the next several weeks talking to each other late into the night—swapping strategies and recounting glories on new titles. Where once they took months to learn games, they could destroy them within a week's time. They'd talk till 1, 2 in the morning, running up enormous phone bills—into the thousands. Stan and Enid didn't mind, though. Better that than have their son out late, God knows where, doing God knows what. They finally broke down and bought him a Sprint phone card.

Not that Stan and Enid understood what Ben was up to. Sometimes he'd speak about nothing but video games at the table. They nodded, listened patiently, sometimes asked him to talk about something else. He couldn't.

On January 8, 1983, Walter Day asked some of the best gamers in the country to come back to Ottumwa. There would be a parade, he promised, and a contest. Top three finishers would appear on That's Incredible!, the ABC series on which John Davidson, Cathy Lee Crosby and Fran Tarkenton presented the weird, the wacky and the occasional Christ-that-looks-dangerous stunt. Competitive video-gaming, it appeared, fit right in.

Ben, of course, was there. So was Todd Walker, a beefy, baby-faced boy out of Milpitas, California; and Darren Olsen, a curly-haired kid from Calgary. Also in attendance: Eric Ginner, world's greatest Centipede player; Steve Sanders, in time a Joust legend but also known as the guy who faked his way to fame as a would-be Donkey Kong king; and Steve Juraszek, profiled in a January 1982 Time magazine cover story on the boom in video gaming.

For two days, 19 kids competed on five games, and at the end, the winners were, in order: Walker who decimated the crowd, Olsen and, just behind him, Ben, who cleaned up on Millipede. "That was my game." Which is how, a few days later, he wound up on an ABC soundstage in Los Angeles.

"In just the last few years, video games have become a sport unto themselves with teams, magazines, competitions and all the trappings." So said former Minnesota quarterback Fran Tarkenton, the man who took the Vikings to three Super Bowls in the 1960s and won none of them. He and Davidson introduced the five games, on which each player had to reach a target score before being able to move on: Cosmos (50,000 points needed), Burgertime (8,000 points), Millipede (90,000 points), Donkey Kong Junior (30,000 points) and Buck Rogers (20,000).

The boys from Ottumwa figured Todd would win again. But Ben led almost the entire way, sprinting from game to game while Walker and Olsen lagged just behind. And Ben sprinted—flailing arms and gawky legs, a sweaty mess. The cameras were in the boys' faces; you could smell the sweat. "At that moment," Ben says, "I became a star. I was exhausted, beat." When he conquered Buck Rogers, at last, he ran across the finish line.

 

When it came time for Crosby to put the gold medal around Ben's neck, she almost gave it to Olsen. "That's him over there," Tarkenton said, nodding toward Ben. She kissed each boy on the cheek as she draped them in gold, silver and bronze. Ben had hoped for prize money. A peck from Joe Thiesmann's then-girlfriend—and, later, a few interviews with the Associated Press, the Dallas Times Herald, PM Magazine, Dynamite—would have to suffice.

And that, right there, that was the big problem. Because as much as Ben loved playing games, as much as he loved his new friends, where would it all lead? There wasn't any money in it. Ben saw that early on. It wasn't like it is today out on the competitive gaming circuit, with guys like Jonathan "Fatal1ty" Wendel living in Vegas high-rises and collecting half a mil from the gaming manufacturers to promote their titles. There were a few paychecks here and there—Ben wrote how-to's for a few of the gaming mags of the day, like JoyStik. But it was pennies on the dollar.

There was at attempt to turn gaming into a syndicated TV show. Former teen idol Bobby Sherman was the host of The Video Game Challenge. "Video games are sweeping the world, and the revolution is just beginning," Sherman said. But the truth was, it was already beginning to wind down. Ben and record-holder Eric Ginner squared off in a Millipede duel in the pilot. It didn't sell.

Around the same time, July 1983, a man named Jim Riley put together the Electronic Circus in Boston. Ben wasn't invited—something to do with his telling Riley it was a bad idea, pitting all these friends against each other for money. "Riley didn't like Ben," says Billy Mitchell. The feeling was mutual. "He thought I was arrogant," Ben says. "I did speak my mind as a kid."

It was just as well: Riley had initially offered to pay the Twin Galaxies gamers thousands to show up and shoot it out, but cut their pay to a fraction of the original offer. They were lucky to get a couple hundred bucks for a week's work. Nobody showed. The Circus closed early. Ben could tell: The end was near. And somewhere on the road between Ottumwa and Dallas in August 1983, it came.

Walter Day has always thought of Ottumwa as the Dodge City of gaming, and when he assembled the U.S. National Video Game Team, he envisioned his boys as gunslingers traveling town to town taking on all comers. He envisioned throngs of kids wanting to take on the best of the best. He envisioned parades and TV cameras—noise and spectacle!

There would be none of that. Only a broken-down bus that had to be ditched somewhere along the road and hungry boys stuffing themselves with pizza whenever they found a joint with games willing to feed them for free. There were a few nice surprises along the way. They went to Nintendo HQ in Seattle and met with the marketing bigwigs, who bestowed upon the boys new handheld games and, more important, free food. Days later, the boys would trade their games for more food. They were broke.

Somewhere in Michigan, the bus was broken into and ransacked. Ben's detailed gaming journal was stolen. The boys screamed: "My clothes!" Ben shouted: "My book!" Billy Mitchell found it somewhere in the woods. It was all Ben cared about. He wanted to go home. Then Ben got sick—poisoned, he thought. The doctor came and gave him a shot in the ass. He screamed. The boys laughed. He wanted to go home.

"One night we went to see a friend of Walter's," Ben says. "He had the dirtiest, most disgusting house I'd ever seen—cockroaches crunching under your feet, a black bathtub. He asked if we wanted to sleep in the house. We said, 'No, we'd rather sleep in the bus.'" Again, he wanted to go home. And, finally, he did: Day, who had rented a car to finish the trip, dropped Ben off at his folks' house and took two other boys to DFW Airport.

It was, for all practical purposes, the end of Ben's days as a gamer. Twin Galaxies closed on March 6, 1984. Ben finished Greenhill, he says, "putting my passions into other stuff in 11th, 12th grade. I got intense at mathematics. I was in the advanced class, did competitions."

There were girls too. They didn't get the video game thing. No need to bring it up now.

"They became an interesting problem," he says. "I mean, we'd always talked a lot about girls, but in Dallas, I started hanging out with 'em. I never figured out how to use the video champion thing. So I just met them as Ben Gold, nerd."

 

He spent a year in Austria in 1987, learned five languages, got his masters in international relations from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, went to Romania to teach, fell in love with Maria, married, moved back home, got a 9-to-5 job selling human resources and payroll outsourcing for Paychex. His third child, a girl named Anna, was born last week.

Occasionally he thought of his former glories, like when the filmmakers behind the documentary Chasing Ghosts spent a few days in Dallas in 2005. But that doc, which debuted at Sundance, was never released in theaters and instead aired once on Showtime. And that, Ben figured, was that.

"Legendary Arcade Champion."

That was the title bestowed upon Ben Gold on August 7 of this year in Ottumwa, when he was among the first 28 men inducted into the International Video Game Hall of Fame. It was, by most hall-of-fame standards, a rather low-key event—for God's sake, it was held in an Ottumwa hotel banquet hall, far away from the spotlight.

Nevertheless, Gold was joined by an estimable assortment of golden-age pioneers—not only those who played the games, but those who made the games, including Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari; Ralph Baer, creator of the Magnavox Odyssey, the first home video console; Sigeru Miyamoto, creator of, among others, Donkey Kong and The Legend of Zelda; and Masaya Nakamura, founder of NAMCO, responsible for the likes of Pac-Man, Galaga and Dig Dug.

The young woman who introduced Gold that Saturday night stumbled over her remarks; she could barely get out his accomplishments: Ben Gold, she said, "has held world records in Stargate, Millipede and Q*bert during his video-game career," and his Stargate world record qualified him for inclusion in that famous LIFE magazine photo.

The Ben who came out to get his award—a flat Plexiglas cutout of an old gaming machine– looked nothing like the gawky, cocky Greenhill School student who, years earlier, went on prime time national network television and was proclaimed The Best Video Gamer in the World. That kid had been replaced by a bespectacled man with a shaved head; he was attired in a dark business suit, a stark contrast to the casual-casual of most attendees. Gold was all sincere smiles and warm gestures—toward Ottumwa, toward Walter Day, toward what had been long ago.

"I was considered crazy in Dallas," he told the audience, "but when I met everybody, I realized I wasn't crazy, I was just passionate about something." He said of his days as a world-record holder traveling the country with his buddies: "These experiences were fantastic—the camaraderie, the brotherhood, the friendship." But it was long ago, he said, a "big blur. For 20 years I put this behind me. I didn't think about video games."

But in recent weeks, since the hall of fame announcement hit the Internet, Gold has done little else—when, that is, he's not working for Paychex or taking care of his newborn. He's been written about and spoken about more in the past six weeks than during his heyday. The obscure local hero, a footnote of the past, is ready to reclaim the title: "Legendary Arcade Champion."

Only two weeks ago Gold's family—his wife, their two young children and Maria's son from a previous marriage—drove to Farmers Branch City Hall on a drizzly Tuesday night to watch Ben receive an Official Proclamation from Mayor Tim O'Hare, who, like any 41-year-old raised in arcades, was clearly tickled at the prospect of meeting a gaming god. In front of a packed council chambers—dozens were squeezed in for a public hearing regarding a proposal to privatize the library—the mayor said he'd read about Gold's hall of fame induction in the paper and thought it befitting of acknowledgment.

"We are proud to call him a Farmers Branch resident, and congratulations," O'Hare said. The mayor then challenged Gold to a game of Pac-Man. But that was never really Ben's game.

A few of Ben Gold’s scrapbook memories

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