Ben Gold's in the Video Game Capital of the World With His Old Pal, the King of Kong

Yesterday, legendary local video gamer Ben Gold began writing for Unfair Park about his return to Ottumwa, Iowa, home of the Twin Galaxies arcade and the place where, tomorrow night, he will be among the first class inducted into the International Video Game Hall of Fame. In today's installment, Ben writes about catching up with old friends, some of whom, unlike Ben, are still chasing after The High Score. He also spends the wee small hours of this morning with a former U.S. National Video Game Team-mate who became -- unfairly, Ben says -- one of the most vilified figures in modern cinema history.

So, then, load up on extra quarters and jump for Day Two of pure Gold.

Back to Ottumwa, the King of Kong Edition
By Ben Gold

It has been 27 years since I was in Ottumwa, Iowa -- the last time was August 1983, when we hopped on bus to tour the country as the first U.S. National Video Game Team. I don't remember the town, though, since much as most of my time was spent inside the Twin Galaxies arcade.

I was picked up by Mark Eckman from the Ottumwa Convention and Visitors Bureau, which is trying to rebrand the town as The Video Game Capital of the World. That's no easy task, attracting both the younger generation of console gamers as well as people who grew up on Pong and Pac-Man. Many have argued such an appellation should be bestowed upon a bigger city -- you know, a destination rather than a detour. But as I told him: Ottumwa's the birthplace of professional gaming -- it is to the video game what Cooperstown is to baseball and Canton is to football.

When I got to Twin Galaxies yesterday, I saw a few familiar faces, some standing at their familiar places. Joel West, among those featured in the Sundance doc Chasing Ghosts, was trying to break a world record on Frenzy -- but the machine broke down twice. Later I went to dinner with a group of gamers that included Todd Rodgers, the one-time Gorf champ best known as having been one of the first gamers to get paid to play.

There are, as I'd been warned, reporters and camera crews buzzing about -- The Wall Street Journal's got a guy writing a piece for the Weekend Edition. I bumped into Pete Bouvier, the CEO of Twin Galaxies. Walter Day, the founder of Twin Galaxies, actually stepped down in 2008. Walter had the vision to referee professional gaming and serve as Official Score-Keeper, but he didn't know how to implement his vision. Pete's picked up the joystick and done a fantastic job in turning Twin Galaxies into a real business, a major force in promoting professional gaming. That's why we're here this weekend, after all -- to remind people that, sure, anyone can play a video game, but try staying alive for 36 hours on a single quarter.

But for me, the trip really began last night, around 9:30. That's when I met up with Billy Mitchell and one-time Joust king Steve Sanders, about whom the Observer's sister paper in Kansas City wrote this profile last year. We visited till 1 this morning -- usually just the three of us, retracing faded footsteps. We had a lot of ground to cover.

Seeing Billy relaxed, listening to him make a lot of really funny jokes, reminded me of the guy I used to run with in the early '80s. We rehashed our travels and the competitions we attended. Billy has an amazing memory. But, I know -- you want to hear about King of Kong.

I asked Billy how he handled the intense scrutiny, being portrayed as "thoroughly unlikable," as Robert wrote in his review. (Others said worse.)

"Don't believe everything you hear, Ben," he said. "I am not as nice as they portray me!"

What surprised me the most is that if someone comes to his restaurant -- he owns the Rickey's World Famous Restaurant chain in Hollywood, Florida -- while he's there, he will stop everything to say hello. Sometimes kids will challenge him to a game.

"I just tell them, 'I will play you, but I go first,'" he told me. He spoke a lot about how his wife's studying for a doctorate and how he spends more time with his kids.

Billy said responds to every single e-mail and phone call he gets, regardless of how vulgar they might get (and I can only imagine). He said he apologizes if his portrayal in the movie has offended them in any way. Since I was already on my second beer, I am in no way able to quote him exactly, but he spoke without a trace of bitterness. He said the only thing that has really bothered him is that he can't always protect his kids from some of the nastier messages and threats he has received. Once, his 11-year-old daughter picked up his phone by accident, thinking it was hers, and listened to a crude voice-mail message. Now his phone's password-protected.

But, you see: The makers of King of Kong didn't just shoot their doc, pitting Billy against middle-school science teacher Steve Wiebe for the title of Best Donkey Kong Player in the History of Ever. They also purchased footage from other film crews, they wound up with something like 280 hours of raw footage. If you hand me 280 hours of footage, I can make someone look like Mother Teresa or Darth Vader. The filmmakers opted for the latter with Billy. And that's not the Billy with whom I spent the early 1980s. Or last night. But that's what good documentaries are, right -- manipulated art, someone else telling your story.

I was in a doc too -- Chasing Ghosts. Not that you've ever seen it -- except, maybe, the one time it aired on Showtime following its '07 Park City, Utah, premiere. I told Steve and Billy about my experience in that movie.

The filmmakers came to Dallas and shot 10 hours of footage. I appeared in, oh, about 10 minutes of the movie -- half of that being vintage video dating back to my playing days. In one scene, I was speaking pretty generally about how I was upset that some gamers had lied about their scores. But when the scene appeared in the movie, there was my friend Steve Sanders apologizing for the fact he lied about his Donkey Kong score -- followed by my quote. I wasn't talking about Steve. Not at all. But you'd never know it from the movie.

Take that, multiply it by 100, and you have King of Kong.

(Speaking of, Steve Wiebe should be arriving today. I'm looking forward to finally meeting him. I understand he's a great guy.)

Billy did show us the posters he made using the movie poster for King of Kong. He also created color postcards of himself in Japan, when he was honored for his Pac-Man achievements. All these will be autographed and given out to fans Friday and Saturday. He also brought 20 cases of his famous hot sauce for all to have. He has a special Habanero Blend he wanted to bring to me -- "Ben is from Texas, they like everything hot there!" -- but it was sold out. My wife is anxious for me to bring back as many bottles as I can carry.

This is the Billy I know - he's flashy and digs, maybe a little too much, his status as Player of the Century. But who wouldn't? Who doesn't like being the best at something -- especially something everybody with a quarter in their pocket through they were good at? So, yeah. Billy's not perfect. But he's my old friend. And, once again, he's my good friend.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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