Looking to get better- what might I be missing?

I’ve been playing pinball regularly about two years. I’m consistently in the D division of my league, consistently scoring 3rd or 4th in my group on league nights, getting knocked out in early rounds of tournaments, etc. Now, none of this is particularly surprising to me- I’ve only been playing competitively for basically a year, after all, and it takes practice. I do worry that I might be working on the wrong things, though. I’ve been watching more videos / looking at rule sheets and trying to think more strategically during games, but I also spend a lot of time flailing and just trying to get the ball under control. Where I play league (Lanes and Games in Cambridge, MA) is entirely modern Sterns, so I’m not really getting a lot of practice on solid state, EMs, or even earlier DMD games.

So my question is, I guess, what should I be working on? What will have the most bang for the buck? I could just focus on flipper skills (although I do practice a fair bit so I’m not sure what I could do, really, other than just “keep doing that”), but I was also thinking if I change what night I play league I could go to a place that has a much wider selection of games with a mix of EM / solid-state /etc. Curious what folks think. Also curious if in pinball, like many other games of skill, it’s normal to have long periods where it seems like you are stuck on a plateau before you jump to the next level. Mostly I’m just playing to have fun, and I am, so everything is perfect, but there is part of me that definitely wants to get better and more competitive.


Hello fellow NEPL member!

Watching videos and reading rule sheets is a really good idea.

If you feel like you’re flailing around in situations where better flipper skills would allow you more control (based on watching high-level players in the videos), then I definitely recommend working on your individual flipper skills. Do you dead pass? Do you drop catch? Do you live catch? If you’re paying to play per game, it can be hard to work on these things.

Do you have a free play machine you can practice on? This will probably be your best bet. If you want to accelerate the learning process, recording your play and watching it with a critical eye (and maybe with a more experienced player) can be very helpful. With private access to a machine, it’s much easier to, say, work on nothing but drop catches for an entire weekend. Or play one handed to develop dead bouncing and sharpen your anticipation skills (and even your aim because missing is so deadly).

It’s not exactly free play, but maybe go to the Sanctum or Southern NH Pinball Club on their fun nights when you pay a set amount for unlimited play. Or come on up to the Pinball Co-op in Vermont. :slightly_smiling:

As far as specifically improving at NEPL, if you always play at L&G you should probably be practicing on these machines. Playing at PinWiz will help you in the finals, but only marginally before then.

If you switch to playing at PinWiz, that should definitely give you a small edge at finals and a bigger edge in your overall development.

I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface, so please add more questions and/or observations as they come up. Wanting to get better is definitely a great first step.

A question for now: Re: rule sheets. How do you feel about your game knowledge? Do you have a medium and longer-term strategy for the machines you play on each week? Is it roughly similar to what you see being executed by your (sucessful) competitors?


1 Like

I think also – ask yourself if you’re playing as well in league as you do when you’re not in league. If the answer is yes, great! If not, you’ll also need to think about what sorts of things you can do to change your mindset in competitive play.

I would also recommend finding and learning a simple strategy to execute on games; then, when you’re playing in league, you know what you’re heading toward at all times.

Good luck!


Take my advice with a grain of salt, as I am not nearly as good as others offering advice already, but I can tell you the things that have helped me. Also I realise some of this is hard without access to freeplay machines.

  1. Inner game of tennis. As Bowen mentioned, if you don’t play as well when in competition as when playing casually, there are things you can work on.

  2. Consistency of stance. This may sound stupid, but for me it was a real game changer. I remember talking to someone at Allentown and he was pointed out how his friend played a game and could tell he only tried on ball 3. The first 2 balls he stood there cross legged. On ball 3 he got into his usual playing stance. I noticed later I was doing this as well, one day playing SM I was missing every venom shot. I swaps my stance to put the other foot forward and all of a sudden I couldn’t miss.

  3. On practice. I like to play games where I really restrict what I allow myself to do. The big one is one dead bounce. No flipping on first contact (unless from an inlane). I also try live catch only, drop catch only, craddle as much as possible, combo only, etc.

  4. Loonie throw downs. (I don’t know the American equivalent). Playing other people helps with situation play. The dollar helps make you care (at least more than nothing). It really helps to play others that are better than you.


Watch the better players in your leagues and tournaments. Focus 100% on the flippers…you don’t need to watch where they’re shooting (yet). What are they doing that you aren’t? Sure, they are getting the ball under control more quickly and easily - but how exactly?

A lot of people will write it off as “they know the games better than I do”. While that may be true, you need to be able to get the ball under control first. And once you do, it helps to be fairly accurate.

If you don’t own any games, can you buy one? You should be able to get a late 80s game for $1000ish. Those flipper skills will translate just fine to modern Sterns (as opposed to early 80s or 70s games, which aren’t as close).


I’m also new to pinball, been playing for a little less than 2 years. These are things that have helped me improve:

  • Another recommendation to observe more advanced players. Compete as much as possible. Take note of the different strategies they’re making, how they gain ball control, when and how they move the table… Ask lots of questions, preferably when the match is over.
  • Flip less. A whole lot less. You’re probably putting this into practice now but chances are you could be doing this even more (specifically bounce passing.) Every flip is a potential drain and each flip should have a purpose.
  • Learn how to post pass if you haven’t already. Not possible on every machine but it’s an incredibly useful skill to have.
  • Practice on a wide variety of machines. Especially different machines of the same game. Every table is different and part of the challenge of competitive pinball is learning to adapt to the quirks of that particular machine.
  • In addition to learning the rules and what shots you want to make–also learn about the shots NOT to make. Ex: On certain TAF machines, shooting the electric chair from the right flipper is doable but extremely risky whereas shooting it from the left flipper is much safer.

I’ve still got a long way to go but I’m making my way up from being at the bottom of the tournament standings to… slightly higher than the bottom.

1 Like

A lot of great tips here.
My reccomendation may match others.


Whether your playing someone in person or watching it online, pay very close attention to everything that is going on when someone else is playing.


Whether your playing someone in person or watching it online, ask questions. Don’t feel afraid to ask the simplest things, most people are cool enough to explain.


To properly learn your flipper and nudging skills, you HAVE to ignore points. Cover up the DMD. A fun thing we do here at Dead Flip is battle to see who can hit the same shot the most over 3 balls to determine a winner.

Leaning to Dead Flip/Drop Catch/Live Catch/Etc is a lot easier to do when you arent worrying about countdowns and scores.

A great way to practice all these skills is how Zach Sharpe taught me to play. One Handed. It forces you to trust the ball to bounce where you need it to, to drop catch to stop the ball, etc… but please make sure you’re playing on a freeplay machine so you arent throwing money away.


great tips here! I’ve found that nudging skills are really really helpful - practice them and TILT frequently as you learn what the limits are (as you want to be able to push a machine to where it will almost tilt, ideally :slight_smile: vs actually tilting although I don’t feel bad about tilting b/c “if you aren’t tilting you aren’t trying”

Definitely flip less!

One thing I’ve noticed is as I learn flipper skills, you have to force yourself to use them in competition even if the added nerves cause you to mess them up and look stupid. (I do this all the time). If you don’t practice with the pressure then it won’t work when the pressure is there.

And play with someone better than you - this is easy for most of us! I’ve learned a ton from playing with the good players here in our area.

1 Like

Wow, lots of really great suggestions here. Thanks, everyone! Lots of next steps, but a big one will be finding a place I can play on freeplay- when I’m in New York I love practicing at Modern, but that’s only once every couple of months. I’m trying to get a pinball machine for our office, and now I have another reason (granted a selfish one…)

1 Like

Like Steve said paying to play per game is hard to practice certain skills. Come down to the sanctum some Monday (or tonight we are open too). 40 games on freeplay from 60’s to now. Even bringing a nip it tonight :slightly_smiling:

My skills have been dropping due to playing less and maintaining games more. I get about 5-6 games in a week now including the 4 for NEPL. I need to start playing more again myself.


You are always welcome to come to NH to participate on my stream twitch.tv/FlipoutNH. You will be able to go back and watch your gameplay since I archive the video on youtube. I have a dedicated flipper cam as well so you can see your flipper action up close.


Control skills is always a good place to start. To me it’s control > aiming > strategy. Without control the rest falls apart pretty fast.

I agree you should be primarily focused on the flippers when learning shots. Particularly with a tough shot, assume you may miss. Some players “thrust” at a shot and then just stare at it to see the outcome (usually while leaving the flipper up). When you miss, where is the ball likely to go? Be ready for the save.

1 Like

but I also spend a lot of time flailing and just trying to get the ball under control.

That’s probably your biggest problem right there. Work on ball control. That could mean getting better with certain flipper skills (drop catching, live catching, dead flipper bouncing, etc), or getting better when it comes to discipline (i.e., making the choice on the fly to control, not flail).

If you can get into the habit of controlling the ball more often than not, you will find your shots coming easier too. It’s a lot easier to make a shot from a cradle than it is on the fly.

1 Like

Tonight I tried to practice Bowen’s idea of just having a simple strategy in mind when I start a game, and then going after that goal. Sample size of four games so perhaps pure coincidence, but I won three out of four games and had by far my best night at league ever!


In the US we bet goldies. There are a bunch of different ones, so you can pretend that some president’s are rarer.

1 Like


I see people on the internet complain all the time that they “aren’t that good” because of the scores they see being posted by the top players in the world. Doing well in your local tournaments and leagues is not about blowing games up - it’s really just about posting middle of the road scores consistently.


I completely agree. Blowing games up is nice, but playing well consistently is far more important in competitive play (especially something like league).


The problem is that most people (even regular guys) will only post scores when they are post-worthy. I once got like 600M on Metallica but haven’t got close again. So those type scores are scores people should not concern themselves with :slight_smile:


I come from a similar situation when it comes to pinball league performance and general improvement, so I guess I’ll throw my story in the ring. I got back into playing (and started playing serious) pinball in June/July 2015 after playing for a bit as a kid. In my first season of the PPL during the fall I placed 51st and got a bye in C division, and now I’m trying to fight for a bye in A division in my second season. Still haven’t cracked through in any major tournaments around here, but I’m definitely not as good as PAPA Jon and the big talent yet :sweat_smile:.

While I find my pace to be accelerated by having few things that conflict in life, I recognized that certain things helped me push along my pinball skills:

Practice and Principle.

Before we get to Practice, what is Principle? Other than making this an appealing thing to remember, what good does it do? Principle is the way to make good players great, and great players into Bowens and Keiths. Pinball is not just about knowing how to make every shot, but how to make shots that give you the most benefit or payout since balls won’t go on forever.

Bowen mentioned a great starting point: make a basic strategy for each game. Especially in games that involve multiple strategies, having one go-to mindset that you can use will can keep your mind in the game and the DMD, display, or reels spinning up. Once you have a basic strategy on each game, choose the games you’re comfortable with and play around with them some more. Examples include “What if I chose certain modes to start in Star Trek in a different order and what is that ‘Away Team’ deal?” and “What are some good songs in AC/DC and Kiss other than the main ones that people love to play?” . As you start answering these questions, you’ll tweak your strategy to something that fits you and optimizes for the things you can do!

When you’re not at the arcade, clubhouse, bar, or parlor, you can always read up on rules from rulesheets on Tiltforums, PAPA.org, and other places. pinballvideos.com is a great asset by aggregating video tutorials, curating match play footage, and placing it into an easy-to-use format. The PAPA TV and IE Pinball channels contain most of the competitive footage and tutorials as well incase PV hasn’t curated a recent event (like INDISC 2016 or Bowen’s new tutorials). Watch players and their strategies, flipper skills, and mindsets as they navigate games and try to emulate some of them for your own benefit.

A great way to test Principle skills is to step up to a new machine or a new code update and figure out the changes and rework a strategy to fit the game or new version. Having the ability to learn or relearn quickly is an underwritten skill in pinball!

So now you have the Principle, and its time to Practice. This is the part that I’m working on now, and it comes with more and more pin-mileage. Knowing everything about a game will help, but not being able to keep a ball in play undermines all the strategy work :wink:. Starting with the games you’re comfortable with or want to learn, practice all of the various shots from the forehand and the backhand. Practice traps and catches, and don’t be afraid to let the ball dead bounce to help that out. Learn judicious nudges to pop the ball away from the side lanes and to help with transfers, dead bounces, and flipper tip saves. Get some time working with a variety of games, and when you’re comfortable a variety of eras. Moderns, early DMD games, and the later 80s games fall under one category, followed by the earlier solid-state games and EM games. Each game has their own set of flipper skills which can be useful and general archetypes (such as spinner-all-day games, bonus-building games, or multiball-all-day games) which can translate into other games.

As you get more comfortable with the mechanical skills, start challenging yourself! Playing one-handed, playing speed and accuracy challenges (How quickly can you start Electric Chair Multiball in Metallica? Can you get the Operator Alert on Game of Thrones by preventing all 3 balls from leaving the lock for 30 seconds at the start of Blackwater Multiball?), and having friends join in this fun will help improve mechanical skills and wire your brain towards pinball instincts.

Pinball is a beautiful marriage of mental and mechanical skills, and practicing both will bring the journey along. Don’t be afraid to ask questions here, anywhere online, or to anyone in your travels! We’re always happy to help to the best of our abilities.


I’m reading this topic too, as I feel I’ve plateaued at a pretty low level (though I still seem to impress non-players just watching). Pretty interesting stuff.

[quote=“DEADFLIP, post:7, topic:1260, full:true”]# ASK QUESTIONS!
Whether your playing someone in person or watching it online, ask questions. Don’t feel afraid to ask the simplest things, most people are cool enough to explain.


To properly learn your flipper and nudging skills, you HAVE to ignore points. Cover up the DMD. A fun thing we do here at Dead Flip is battle to see who can hit the same shot the most over 3 balls to determine a winner.

Leaning to Dead Flip/Drop Catch/Live Catch/Etc is a lot easier to do when you arent worrying about countdowns and scores.

I never thought about these countdowns and scores pretty much rushing me. It’s probably inhibiting my attempts to practice those flipper techniques to regain control of the ball.

As for questions, well, not asking them is a habit that I’m attempting to break, but it’s an old habit and thus will die hard. I do really like how pinball players will answer these questions though. I’m accustomed to the “git gud” mentality of other things (or worse, people telling you to stop playing altogether).

How do you tell if your nudging has any difference? Before I started playing pinball, I considered nudging as cheating, so for a long while, I never nudged in any circumstance. I’ve been trying to consciously think about nudging, but each time I attempt to do so, it doesn’t seem like the ball’s trajectory changes in any way, and I drain just as easily as if I wasn’t nudging.

The main thing I’m trying to do presently is nudging to keep the balls from draining into the outlanes, but the odds of them falling in hasn’t changed since I started trying to nudge.

1 Like