Getting Better at Pinball: Learned vs Innate Skill

I’m kinda new to pinball, only a year competitively. I’ve been wondering as I experience ups and downs: how much does innate ability contribute to someone’s success? Have some of the best players always had unreal reaction time that they can use to great effect in pinball? Is accuracy a skill that can be learned? I recall @bkerins once said he has always had great accuracy.

Whatchyall think?


I think there are innate skills that can help with pinball, focus and concentration being two of the most important. However, I don’t think either is a replacement for raw practice, and I think that people without those skills can learn. I’ve been playing more in the last two years than I ever did before, and its not coincidence that I am better than I ever have been too.

Personally, I think accuracy has more to do with concentration than anything. The ability to pay attention to where the ball is on the flipper, and flip at just the right time, every time without fail. I don’t know how people do that, it is crazy to me because my brain is always all over the place. However I’m also really good at saving, which is kind of what you have to do when your accuracy is for shit.

Ill also say that one of the greatest pinball skills, hell life skills, is confidence and kind of removing yourself from the match you’re playing. I read a thing once about people who were excellent in their chosen competitive field, and one of the key points they found was that people who are excellent don’t really care if they win or lose. If there are no stakes, then there are no nerves, and you play loose and focused. If you are confident you will win, then you play a solid aggressive game. I tend to play scared a lot, go for easy points rather than big scores, and I think it hurts me. It’s hard, I put a lot of pressure on myself in every match, and I’ve never found a 100% way to get out of my head in that way.

Love to hear the thoughts of others.


Yea I would agree that the mental game is the hardest part of it all I know it’s my worst failing.

I still put a ton of pressure on myself to do well and when I don’t feel like I’ve played up to my potential I get frustrated. Then once I get frustrated, I play worse, which frustrates me further, and then down the spiral I go!

I also think rules knowledge plays a big part as well,know what to shoot and when is important. I like knowing that on almost every game, at any point, I know exactly what I should be shooting for next, I need feel like I’m just batting the ball around. At no point should you be at a cradle and not no what you should do next.

As for inherit skill I’m sure it helps allot! I know a couple of local guys who are good players but they never play outside of the few times a year I see them at an event.


I’m 100% with Adam especially the mental aspect.

Accuracy can be learned. Nudging can be learned (though this is obviously also a physical issue). Quick reflexes? Not too sure about that one. Maybe there are training exercises or something, dunno.

There’s also something to be said for an interest in or aptitude for strategy and rules. This sets the stage for future rules knowledge (as mentioned by @PressStart), the ability to exploit points, stack modes, etc. I’ve found it’s hard to teach anyone to play pinball if they can’t grasp how the rules progress and that pinball is more than just being able to make a shot, any shot. Maybe some people have innate reflexes, but I’d say others have an innate understanding of the most lucrative interpretation of a ruleset.


Definitely this. The mindset of “this rule is like this other rule on this other game but also…” can get you pretty far on games you’re not familiar with.

I definitely didn’t care that much about strategy when I was first playing, I was more interested in shotmaking, especially safe shotmaking where a ramp could re-feed a flipper. I did not learn to nudge at all, for 5+ years of playing a lot, until meeting the Bay Area crew of Shatz and Stetta and Conant. So that put me way ahead on shotmaking: it was the only sure way to survive.

I know my reaction time is worse now than it was: I used to be able to live catch out of the Twilight Zone slot machine from a speeding ball, and now I don’t trust that I can time that accurately enough to be viable. Shotmaking accuracy is similarly down. But, nudging skills get better over time it seems, as you learn more of the angles and the behavior of different manufacturers’ games.

I’ve also found playing the older games (60s and 70s) dramatically improves nudging skill, because without it you are toast. Then, bring those skills to the newer games, and they feel instantly easier.


Some great comments in this thread… and the variety of answers tells you a lot about the many facets of competitive pinball. Like with most sports, just being fast, or just being accurate, or just being strategic, isn’t enough, especially at higher levels of competition. You have to blend all those attributes and exercise the right skills at the right time. To some extent, you can compensate for deficiencies in some skills by being better at others: e.g. do you have poor shot accuracy? Certainly that’s a problem, but if you’re very good at saves (nudging, slap saves, etc), at least you’ll buy yourself more second chances. And if you have a nuanced understanding of a game’s rules and scoring opportunities, you can develop more efficient scoring strategies… more points per shot is a Good Thing when you can’t make as many shots as your opponent.

I help run pinball leagues for the Free State Pinball Association… I’ve seen hundreds of players come through our leagues, some so inexperienced they still double-flip. I can’t think of a single person who’s played in league for at least a full season who hasn’t improved their game. (And we have all sorts of fun statistics to objectively support this!) League play is awesome for improving pinball skill, because it forces players to play repeatedly (usually every week), and you get an opportunity to observe others who may be better than you. If you practice something repeatedly, if you pay attention to better players and learn from them, if you make the effort to improve, you WILL get better.

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League play is extremely helpful. I’m lucky to be in Chicago with most of the best players, many with 10+ years tourney, some with 20+. Just watching matches helps understand strategy and shot wisdom. Playing against top players also is much better education than watching matches - you learn when to adjust your game. I find many players that always go for the most points on the next shot or series of 5 shots - rather than play it safe for a high chance of keeping the ball but only 1/2 the points - but being able to hit those points 10x more often. I had championship game come down to 10 million points to make up on 24. To qualify the mutliball it would have been 6 shots, then several jackpots. But I was making the center ramp and proceeded to just do that 25 times for the win. The point being that its definitely more mind / patience control than anything. I see knowledgable players, in many different competition settings, get set on a certain goal, despite the game kicking them on that shot over and over - the best fix for that situation, is hit a shot that seems zen for that game at the moment - it restores the confidence, and lets your frustration and thinking reset.

That patience and changing gears is a learned skill.

I also think pinball is a winners game. A losers game is beginner tennis, when the person who just keeps the ball in play will leave the opponent to lose the game on their own. Pro tennis is a winner’s game - where making the winning shot is required. Seems lower ranked players end up playing a losers game. In pro pinball, you not only have to know the game really well and execute, but you also have to know the game a bit better than your competition, or be able to keep a mental focus longer - usually the focus goes before someone actually beats major modes or gets a wizard mode going. Especially 'broken" games with missing or extra parts meant to keep ball times low regardless of the players skill - these are where changing to what the game will give you determines the winners.


“Getting better at pinball” I think is an innate skill. Knowing how to learn efficiently is something that comes very easy for certain people (INT’s for those familiar with MBTI types) and not so much for others. Anyone can play pinball well, I think, but it might take someone 5 months of practice to get as good as someone else who takes 5 years.

I always enjoy threads like these. I like to hear how people approach the game and learn.

I haven’t been playing for very long, almost 3 years now. In that time I’ve learned so much and what intrigues me the most about pinball is there’s still so much to learn. It’s the type of game that seems to have no limit on what can be picked up because there’s just so much happening.

I’ve noticed over the years that when I seem to hit a wall on my skills or feel like I’m going backwards, I review my play with a critical eye and try and pick up on what areas I could focus on next. I generally pick 2 things I need to work on and try to improve in those. I also find when I’m trying to learn something new my game gets worse before it gets better! But sticking to it and eventually it all clicks together and my over all game and skill improves.

Accuracy has always been my failing. It was a good while before I even realised that just flipping the ball in the same spot on the flipper doesn’t mean it will go to the same spot each time. That’s a video gamers mentality that I’ve had to unlearn. There’s just too many other factors to consider in pinball.

Very very true for nudging, it feels so stupid when your nudge causes a drain that would not have happened. But it’s a necessary step for overall improvement.

I have contemplated this quite a bit and I believe what it comes down to is mostly mental. Generally agree with what everyone else has been saying. But also mental fortitude, it will make up for all other deficiencies, I believe. Being patient, making smart choices and trying to capture that “in-the-zone” state or consciousness while playing helps. Also, as previously stated, noticing errors or mistakes one is making while playing or even before. Before I start to flip sometimes I will mentally admonish myself to “not hold the flipper button” when shooting a shot or some similar bad habit and make myself aware when I do. Then I can alter the bad habit and change it to a good one hopefully. Also play a lot with really good players!

My biggest problem has got to be nerves. I crack under pressure every time whether it’s in a tournament or just making that critical shot at home.

For example, I’m working my way through to a ball 1 System Failure on JP and as soon as I get the last mode lit I start freaking out and sweating like I’ve never made the shot before. For reference, I’ve been to System Failure many times previously, so it’s not like I’d never seen it before, but I had been working on it that day. So I actually make the shot and start it on ball 1. Yay. Next step is to start and make it through multiball to complete a darn nice game for me. Nope, it all falls apart and after a ball 1 SF, I don’t even reach the replay score. I cannot count the number of times I’ve made it through CHAOS and simply cannot shoot the TRex that I’ve also hit so many times. The rare time I make it to Supers? The ramp is impossible.

Of course after all that I just want to kick the game and stop playing.

Good topic!

One thing I find interesting is shifting what I’ll call “raw talent” to honed skill. As other have mentioned, you can play a whole lot of pinball and get pretty damn good by yourself. Maybe it’s sessioning the game you had growing up, or living near an arcade and being able to play regularly whenever you wanted. I’ll call this type of learning raw/general talent.

Then you start playing with others in a competitive environment and you realize that while you might have the raw talent to put up an occasional monster score, you don’t have the consistency to make it through a bracket. This is where the ability to take that raw skill you’ve acquired on your own and mold it with techniques/efficiency to take things to the next level.

I also believe that the “raw talent” factor is something that not every has, and not everyone can get. The hand/eye thing is just one of those things that some people are naturally great at, be it pinball, horseshoes, disc golf, darts or whatever.

I’d love to say that with enough work anyone can be as good as the PAPA/IFPA world champs, but I don’t believe that. I do believe that with enough time and dedication to learning all of skills and techniques that anyone can become a really solid player though. There’s like 5-10% extra that i don’t think you can simply learn, and that’s what makes those guys amazing to watch

Another thing I will ponder from time to time, is what ratio makes up a persons current abilities (raw talent/acquired skill).

Personally, I think I’m at about 65/35 raw/acquired skill. I grew up playing pinball whenever I could, played a lot of video games etc. My personal best demo man score to this day happened years before I’d learned any techniques about how to “properly” play pinball. I think all those years of playing solo attribute more to my playing ability than the skills I later learned. That said, I think those skills allow someone to fully take advantage of the raw talent/skill they’ve gotten up to that point.

My arch nemesis/friend Aaron Nelson picked up pinball relatively recently (6 years ago?), and has more natural raw talent than I do. I’d guess he’s probably like 75/25. I bring him up as an example as we’re generally very even competition wise. If I’ve been playing my whole life and he only 6 years, how come I’m not significantly better than him? He just has got more natural reflex/hand eye etc etc than I do. I think I’m a bit more controlled/efficient than he is - tough to say. We are very different players, yet evenly matched. I find it all very interesting.


It’s time to start cheating your brain. Start counting down the number of modes left, then screw up the count repeatedly so you don’t have in your mind the “one shot left” feeling. The other way is to build a routine around making the shot, then execute the routine like someone taking a free throw.

All of these things will make you want to kick the game … but these are the reasons to keep playing for years and years, not the reasons to stop playing :slight_smile:

My stupid brain knows what I’m up to and isn’t having any of that!

Me: Oh X important shot is ready, well it’s just like the X times before, whats one more
Brain: What are you talking about! That shot is super important!
Me: No brain it’s not, it’s just like any other shot.
Brain: No dude seriously, that shot is super important, it’s the difference between winning and losing, don’t fucking miss!
misses shot
Brain: Dude I TOLD you NOT to MISS!
Me: Shut up Brain, you suck!


Thanks, that’s a good tip. I just need the years and years to get it to start working. :slight_smile: A self-imposed time-out to calm down helps. What I need is one of those punching bag games behind my pins so I can quickly vent the frustration and get back to playing.

Has anyone ever thought of learning about sports psychology besides me? lol Learning how to not freak out during bigger tournaments seems like a more innate skill than game skills. I used to be so nervous even during qualifying, when doing well or not didn’t matter at all. Now I’m mostly over my qualifying nerves but, still like to tank even if its B div at PAPA or Pinburgh.


Yes :slight_smile:

I’ve also thought of getting laser corrective vision and get that super tiger woods type correction where your like 30/20 or something so it helps track movement :smiley:

I’ve read a bit about sports psychology, and one of the most important things they find in athletes at a high level is that they don’t really care if they win or not. It sounds wrong, because of course they care about winning, but it is more about being very in the moment. They know their goals both long term and short term, and work them as appropriate, but they are not thinking about “Oh my god if we win this game we are in the world series” or “Holy shit if I blow this pitch we are screwed for the year.”

Personally this is something I am only finally now getting a handle on. This weekend I was player 4 in a finals match where if I won, I would make it to final 8. It was a game I had played badly on all day and was not comfortable on at all, and I was far behind the other three. However I knew exactly what to do, and I stepped up and did it.

In that situation there were a couple things that helped me. One is something Josh just told me recently about how he works in little cycles. Every time he gets the ball to a flipper, he forces himself a break to think. Take a few more shots. Pause. Keep going. That attitude helped me a lot, focus on just what is in front of you, pause, think about what is next. I was player 4 on this game so I had a score goal. How can I get there fastest? Well those drops add bonus x. Shoot at them. OK I got two of them, but I’m on the wrong flipper. Stop. Now what. Breaking it down that way into small chunks helped a ton, it’s about staying in the moment.

The other thing that works for me, but I know it doesn’t help for others, is listening to music. I don’t do it all the time, but in situations where I really need to get outside my own head, it helps a ton. Must be upbeat, cheery, anything I am likely to be bouncing around to when I listen on my own. LCD Soundsystem and Superchunk are staples of my pinball headphone music. I find that it quiets the part of my brain that is worrying and fretting while leaving free the part that needs to act critically. It can help get you out of a funk too. Last year I was super down on myself after day 1 of Pinburgh, and before day 2 spent half an hour just cranking tunes by myself and playing games for fun and it really turned things around mentally. Only works for games I know really well. If I’m still figuring out strategy then it is more problematic.