Around the Playfield with Joe Schober

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Joe is a longtime collector and competitive player. He is President of the Free State Pinball Association, running leagues in the Washington DC/Baltimore metro area for 24 years. He created and manages the FSPA League Manager system — any league is invited to sign up for free scorekeeping for their league, or just ask for help setting up a league. Joe has been responsible for rules design and code for Alien (Heighway Pinball) and Oktoberfest (American Pinball).

The Start Button: How did you first get into pinball?

When I was a kid, my mom would take me shopping with her, often to stores like K-mart. If I behaved well, I’d get a quarter for one of their coin-op experiences. While a few of those quarters went into the rocking horse ride, most went into pinball machines… yes, this was in the halcyon days of the 70’s when department stores would have a row of pins. Then one year, our family got a pinball machine for Christmas… not a coin-op, but something like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5wED99rJblc. I played that thing ’til it literally fell to pieces. After that I had a bit of a break from pinball until I got to college, found machines (Pinbot, Cyclone, High Speed) in the Student Union, and since then I’ve had very few days without pinball in my life.

The Plunge: What was the first pinball machine you bought?

Whirlwind. Always loved that game. An arcade in the local mall had it on location, and also had a tech who was into pinball and kept the pins in good condition. This arcade had a history of putting their machines up for sale each year as Christmas time approached, so I started going every day until the “For Sale $995” sign popped up. I arranged the purchase with the manager, and with the help of friends picked it up a day or so later.

In a related “coulda woulda shoulda” story: the machine next to Whirlwind was Addams Family, also in good shape, which went on sale at the same time for $1,200. Back then I didn’t have much disposable income, so the $995 for Whirlwind was already pushing it. But the TAF was on my mind all night, so eventually I thought “screw it, I’ll find the money, I’ll buy the TAF too”. The next day when I went in to try to buy TAF, of course it was already sold.

And yes, I certainly still have the Whirlwind.

The Skill Shot: What is your best pinball achievement or favorite pinball moment?

Well, it’s gotta be meeting my (future) wife Julie at pinball league. 🙂

But a close second place would be when a game I helped create was first revealed to the public: Alien. I was a bundle of nerves and anticipation and excitement… would the code crash horribly? (It didn’t.) Would people like it? (I think most people did… shame how the rest of that story turned out.) I had the same thrill again when we debuted Oktoberfest at the Chicago Expo. Hopefully I have plenty more of these great experiences in my future.

Good Shots, Bad Bounces: What is your favorite and least favorite pinball machine?

Favorite: Skipping the obvious answers of Oktoberfest and Alien… I’ll go with Lord of the Rings. Doesn’t hurt that I’ve read LOTR and Hobbit countless times, and seen the LOTR movies several times. But it’s a beautiful game, I like the layout, love the rules and theme integration, great music and callouts and lighting… really a complete package.

Least favorite: I decline. While there are certainly some games that make me groan, especially in competition… if it’s pinball, it deserves to be loved.

The Wizard Mode: What is your dream theme you’d like to see made into a pinball machine?

I’m with you, Jeff… Harry Potter seems like a perfect theme for a pinball machine. Perhaps the biggest problem would be fitting in all the great characters, spells, scenes… maybe it needs to be a series of 7 pinball machines? 😀 

The Tilt: What is the dumbest mistake you’ve made in pinball (mishap moving a machine, messing up trying to fix a machine, etc.)?

I bought my then-girlfriend Julie her favorite game, Whitewater, as a birthday gift one year. Trying to get it down the outside stairs leading to her apartment, we lost control of the dolly, and it went bouncing off the stairs into the adjacent grass hill and crashed to the ground. I was mortified, but other than needing some mud wiped off, no harm done. These things are tough.

The High Score: Describe the pinball hobby in one word.

Addicting.

Match – Next Game: Where do you see the pinball hobby in 5-10 years?

Bigger and better than ever. The momentum is incredible right now. We thought it was crazy last year to sell out 840 Pinburgh tickets in 45 seconds… this year 1,000 tickets sold out in 5 seconds. And a few years ago we thought it was great when a second manufacturer was born to give Stern some competition. Now we’ve got… 18 manufacturers, if I’ve counted TWIP’s list correctly. Surely not all of these will survive, but people aren’t just preaching the strength of pinball, they’re betting their money on it.

I’ve loved watching how many young folks — 20-somethings and even younger — are joining the hobby right now. While I consider myself young and plan to be doing this for decades, it’s terrific that we have literally the next generation so enthusiastic about the game.

It’s also been wonderful to see the great new talent joining the production side at all the companies … with so many passionate people bringing exciting new ideas to pinball, how could our future be anything but awesome?


Disclaimer: Any articles, interviews, or mentions of pinball manufacturers or pinball products is NOT an endorsement.