North Stonington couple play a role in pinball's comeback
North Stonington — When Mark and Dana Carvey of Wyassup Road started dating five years ago, they found themselves driving every weekend from Niantic to Willimantic Brewing Co. It wasn't necessarily for the beer, though.
The brewpub happened to have a couple of pinball machines, including one with a "Family Guy" game, which Dana Carvey said they played "over and over and over again" to try to get better.
Many games later, Dana Carvey is ranked 1,770th in the world, according to the International Flipper Pinball Association, and Mark Carvey 1,110th. On Saturday, April 16, the Carveys were competing alongside some of the best players in the Northeast in the annual "Classics" tournament at The Sanctum, a pinball co-op they helped found.
Located in a former warehouse in Meriden, the Sanctum is up a flight of stairs and down a long, nondescript hallway, opening to a large room with 40 machines. The collection is a mix of classics that date to the 1960s, each with its own unique set of whirring and zapping sounds that fill the room.
Participants were frantically trying to qualify that day, with around 60 people fighting for 16 spots in the finals.
Some names were familiar to those on the competitive pinball circuit, like Jerry Bernard (39th in the world) and Joe Lemire (55th).
"Most of the best players in the Northeast are here ... literally everybody (qualifying) in the top 16 are all really good competitive pinball players," Mark Carvey said.
For the Carveys, the tipping point from being casual hobbyists to becoming dedicated competitors came when they realized they could own their own pinball machine.
They bought their first machine, "No Fear," from a friend who refurbishes old ones, and Mark and Dana quickly became hooked trying to beat each other's scores.
"I don't think we slept that night," Mark Carvey said.
In their small home in Niantic, they set a limit of two machines, but soon that grew to three, and then four.
"I was like, 'We gotta reel this in, there's no place to sit,'" Dana Carvey said, shutting down Mark's suggestion that they get rid of the dining room table.
Now living in North Stonington, they have three pinball machines in the basement. In a makeshift pinball workshop, Mark Carvey fixes and restores old pinball machines both for the Sanctum and their home.
He's fully restoring "Whitewater," which will likely be destined for their private collection.
Parts are removed and first go into a case tumbler — normally used to polish ammunition rounds — to clean off decades of bar grime. Then they get a trip through the dishwasher. The entire gameboard will often have to be rewired, which means photographs must be taken at every stage of the process to figure out which part goes where.
Mark Carvey tries to wake up early most days to put an hour or so in on the machine as he takes his morning coffee.
"Unless you dedicate a certain time of the day, it'll get by you," he said.
Pinball makes a comeback
The arduous task of repairing and maintaining the machines was part of their downfall, said North Stonington resident and Waterford native Dave Plaisted, ranked 351st in the world.
Plaisted started coming to the Sanctum weekly about a year ago but has been playing for as long as he can remember and competed for years.
He cut his teeth on machines in the once-numerous arcades in the area. Within 15 miles of his Waterford home, he said he can remember seven arcades.
"In the end of the '70s there was more pinball (but) pinball really quickly got replaced with video games, because video games are cheaper to maintain," Plaisted said. "It's a videoscreen and a joystick and software, whereas pinball has a lot of complex parts.
"It's coming back a little bit ... pinball in general has grown hugely in the past 10 years," he said.
The Pinburgh championship, which takes place every year in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh, is the largest such tournament in the world and introduced Mark and Dana to the world of competitive pinball. Mark had signed up and Dana went along to check it out, finding herself enamored with the game.
"The whole time I was there I was thinking, 'Why didn't I just sign up?' I was so stupid," Dana Carvey said.
"After that, we just kept finding other tournaments to go to. ... Once you get on the circuit and you meet different people, you're just looking for your next fix," she said.
Nudging and cradling
The nudge, where players smack the side of the machine to move the ball off a bad trajectory, is one of the key moves that separates average from great players.
"It's a nuance of trying to coax balls out of danger areas in the machine. ... It's an art form, sort of a dance," Mark Carvey said.
It can mean the difference between saving a ball destined for the drain, and losing your bonus, or the game.
In many pinball machines, the tilt sensor is a metal pendulum suspended in the center of an electrified metal ring. If the smack is too hard, the pendulum will make contact with the ring and activate the tilt. That's why the nudge must be as quick and light as possible.
Cradling is another skill, where the players hold the ball and let it fall down the flipper until sending it in the direction they want.
The dead flipper pass is a slightly counterintuitive move where a player lets the ball bounce off one flipper to the other, allowing it to hit the opposite side of the gameboard.
"That way you get control of the ball ... that's one of the key skills because getting control of the ball is one of the most important things," Plaisted said.
The highlight of Dana's career thus far was her performance in the Pinburgh in 2015, where a winning streak moved her up to Class B competition, the second highest.
The experience was also a reminder for her to enjoy the competition, once her fortunes changed.
"We had two more rounds again and I tanked it and ended up in (Class) D again," she said. "You can get into your own head. ... I was riding high for a little bit."
As they got connected with the other players in the state, the Connecticut chapter of the New England Pinball Association began to look for a permanent home, with Pinburgh setting the standard that Mark and Dana looked to reproduce.
The first season of the Connecticut chapter of the New England Pinball League was small. Mark estimated it was only made up of 12 to 13 people.
It began at an arcade in Sandy Hook, moved to The Pinball Store in Milford before staying a few seasons at Bill's garage in West Hartford.
Bill's was a good location, they said, however each winter the pinball machines had to be moved and vehicles moved back into the space. Mark and Dana, along fellow co-founder James Swain, began looking for a place and settled on the Meriden space.
"It was really like an aspiration to try and mimic what those guys (at Pinburgh) do," Mark Carvey said. "That's sort of what we try to do at the Sanctum is be as professional as these guys are."
The buy-in for each of the six co-founders included donating one personal machine apiece. Two years later, and they have 40 machines, and new people arrive every Monday, said Dana Carvey.
That variety means that Dave Plaisted hardly ever plays at home anymore.
"Once I found this place ... I get my pinball fix for the week, there's 40 games and I play for six hours," Plaisted said.
Players turn serious
As the competition advanced at the Sanctum, the mood turned serious and the conversation died down.
People huddled around a few machines, and the only noises were the machines and the occasional sharp slap of a player trying to execute the nudge.
During the competition, Mark Carvey focuses intently on the machine. After a bad ball, he pushed away from the machine and dropped his hands in defeat. He managed to capture eighth place overall.
Nicolas Queiroz of Middletown, ranked 825th, ended up winning the tournament. Mark Carvey said it was good to see a Sanctum regular bring the trophy home.
"It's good to keep it in Connecticut," Mark Carvey said.
If you go:
Hours: Mondays 6:30 p.m. - 11:30 p.m.
Location: 290 Pratt St East Entrance 2nd Floor, Meriden, CT
Upcoming events: Registration for a 24-hour battle pinball tournament will open on Monday, May 9 at 7 p.m. You can either register online or in person at The Sanctum. To register in person just show up at the The Sanctum and pay the entry fee during our open hours. Cost of entry is $15
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