Tips for Competitive Success at Pinburgh

There are so many great resources available for game rules, but I rarely come across much talk about the intangibles that I consider to be just as important. I started writing this just to help a few friends making their maiden voyage, but as I was wrapping it up I thought it might be useful to some others in the community. If you’re a seasoned vet, you probably know all this stuff. If you have less experience, I hope something in here helps you out. Obviously this isn’t an exhaustive list but it was fun to lay it out and get some thoughts out of my head. I stuck to the competitive side of things and didn’t touch on personal etiquette, respecting people’s space, good sportsmanship, etc., but all that stuff is essential as well.

Worth noting, I’ve never had any huge personal success at Pinburgh, but I’ve played in six of them so far and have made plenty of mistakes and learned a lot along the way. I’m sure I’m missing some key ingredients here so please open up some discussion and add some of your own that didn’t make my top 10!

  1. Give yourself physical and mental breaks! Qualifying days are long. Concrete floors are hard. Keeping a competitive mindset for entire days is exhausting. Find places to sit down between rounds to get off your feet. Are you social and want to have some conversations to pass the downtime? Do that. Are you someone who prefers quiet time to wind down? Do that. Whatever it takes to keep your personal battery charged throughout the day, do that. Stay hydrated, have some snacks, do whatever you need to make yourself comfortable. Going into the next round feeling refreshed will make you play much better than just trying to grind through and will help to keep you from running out of gas later in the day.

  2. Prioritize game knowledge but don’t obsess over it! You don’t need to go deep on most games to get wins. Learning an entire rule set and how to reach wizard modes is pointless 99% of the time. Find the low hanging fruit and grab it! This could just be starting a good first mode, finding important skill shots, getting double bonus on an EM or how to start/stack multiballs on a modern game. With hundreds of games in the tournament, it’s clearly impossible to study them all, and if you try you’re probably just wasting a bunch of time and brain space. You’re going to step up to games you’ve never played, games you’ve never heard of and maybe a few games that shouldn’t even exist. You get ONE attempt to make your best possible effort. HAVE A PLAN before you plunge! I can’t stress this enough. Don’t just figure it out as you play! Read the rule card and look around the playfield when you arrive to the bank before the round starts. Pull up your game bank on Pinball Spinner (link below) and keep that handy on your phone throughout the round, but don’t focus on it too much. It’s always more important to see others play the game to keep an eye on key feeds, tilt settings, alternate strats, etc. Refer to your rules resources, but don’t keep your face buried in your phone the whole time. It’s more important to watch the game being played in front of you! (thanks to @coreyhulse for this very convenient page and all those who’ve contributed to the resources it links to)

  3. Watch your opponents play as much as possible! Some people like to socialize during the round, others prefer distractions outside of the game to keep their mind clear. Whatever works best for you is fine, but there is a wealth of information happening right in front of you that can help you to succeed, so take advantage of it! The tournament area is crowded, you might not always have a great viewing angle, but you should be able to see enough of the game to gather some useful info from watching others play. They don’t have to be people in your group either! At any given time there will be two or three groups on the same bank of games, so you can keep an eye on other games in the bank and those players may even be more willing to share info in the moment if you have questions. Make mental notes when you see things like a flipper struggling to make a ramp shot, a player surprised by a tight tilt or a saucer that’s rejecting. Learn from other players experiences to save yourself some grief. And by all means, learn from their rules knowledge! If something seems to be working for them don’t be afraid to copy it!

  4. Don’t view your opponents based on their ranking! It truly doesn’t matter who you’re playing against at any given time. Their reputation, or lack thereof, should have zero impact on how you approach a game. Pinburgh is packed full of solid players with above average skills, so just assume everyone is good, don’t underestimate anyone and do your part by putting up a competitive score on every game you play. This goes the other way too! Did you find yourself in a group with some elite players whose names you see on the banners on the wall or on the IFPA front page? Guess what, they have bad games all the time, especially in situations like this! Don’t give them extra confidence by stroking their ego. Don’t let them know that you expect to lose and make it easy on them. Make them remember you as someone who stole some wins or made them work extra hard for a win. Nobody gets any points for free because of their name or their reputation, so go into every match with the mindset that you’re all starting the same machine with 0 points and the game in front of you is going to decide who played it better in that moment.

  5. Have confidence in your skills when it matters! Don’t be afraid to use good technique. You’ve played a million casual games. You’ve played a bunch of league and tournament games. You have an arsenal of flipper and nudging skills to use when you need them, and that time is now. Whatever those techniques are, have confidence in them! There’s no sense in knowing how to do certain types of catches or passes if you’re afraid to use them in a big match. Surprise yourself by pulling off those clean tap passes on Paragon or a critical shatz on Alien Star to set up a winning shot. Use a strong nudge when you need to make a save on a modern game with a long debounce. Regardless of the outcome, you’ll feel good about the fact that you were trying to do the right thing and playing at the edge of your ability. It’s not always going to go your way, but the failures will tell you what you need to work on in the future to build your skills long-term much more than some lucky wild flailing that happened to earn you an extra point.

  6. Avoid taking last place on every game! Yeah, I know the last one scoffed at flailing for an extra point, so this might sound contradictory, but that point is incredibly important. We’re all competitive, we all want to win every game, but it’s not going to happen here. It doesn’t matter who you are, nobody sweeps two days of qualifying. So what do you do if someone is crushing a game and first place is out of reach? Don’t focus on that score anymore. Just focus on beating the other 2 people and pull out as many points as you can. If you get past the others, then you can start looking ahead to the long haul to take first place, but until then just keep it out of mind. So what do you do if two people are crushing the game, their scores are out of reach and you’re looking at 3rd or 4th? Do whatever it takes to finish 3rd!! Fight for it like you’re trying to win the whole tournament. Treat that point like it’s the last one you can win. Avoiding the 0 on the game is huge in this format where the final standings are all bunched together! I guarantee at the end of the night on Friday you’ll be looking back at some games where you took last place and thinking “If I only took 3rd instead of last on those…” Do whatever you can at the time to prevent that kind of hindsight.

  7. No last ball depression! Points on your last ball of a game count just as much as any other, so even if you had a couple houseballs, don’t go into the last ball counting yourself out just because you’re facing a big comeback. The only time you can’t come back to win is when the game is over, so do something about it while you still can. Maybe you didn’t get to flip on the first two balls, but that doesn’t have ANY bearing on how your next ball will go. Make the massive comeback that your opponents won’t forget and will have them telling the story of their bad beat for the rest of the weekend!

  8. No whining about how you got ripped off! Guess what, everyone else did too! Something didn’t go your way, you lost by a small margin, a game didn’t play the way you’re used to? That’s literally every player’s experience throughout the entire tournament. Do NOT dwell on bad breaks or bad beats or this tournament will eat you alive and you’ll have a bad time. Nobody wants to hear your pity stories and it’s certainly not going to earn you back the point you lost when someone flailed their way to victory and beat your carefully planned strategy that didn’t hold up. Take responsibility for your drains and your losses rather than blaming the game or an opponent’s luck. The points on the score sheet are going to decide who plays on Saturday, so focus on getting your head right for the next round and leave the baggage behind you. Instead of griping about the bad stuff, this time can be much better spent talking to others about how certain machines are playing and sharing info to gain some insight on games you might play later.

  9. Don’t hesitate to request a ruling! There are many techs and assistant tournament directors staffed and ready to be of service at all times. There is a great system where you push a button at the end of the aisle to turn on a light, notifying them that you need help. They will arrive promptly and will solve any crazy situation that happens to come up. They’ve either seen it all or heard about it all. They’re well prepared. If you notice something isn’t functioning properly on a game, call them. If you have a stuck ball, call them. If someone played out of turn, call them. If you think something might be wrong, but your group is pressuring you into just rolling with it, call them. Don’t worry what anyone else thinks about you calling for a ruling! Don’t let your group pressure you into accepting the ruling they think the TD will make and you should just skip the call. If you have any inkling that something is amiss, request a ruling immediately. TDs can only help you in the moment, not after the game is over! Remember, once a ruling is made it’s final, whether you agree with it or not. Outside of rulings, non-urgent tech notes can always be communicated between rounds. If you notice there is something on a game that needs attention, but it didn’t feel major enough to stop game play, let someone know. The staff will be glad you told them instead of just complaining about it to your friends!

  10. Appreciate the experience in the moment! Maybe things are going badly for you and you’re wondering why you even bothered playing. Stop and look around and remind yourself that you’re part of literally the largest pinball tournament that has ever happened. There are hundreds upon hundreds of people who wanted to be in your spot, but didn’t either register in time or had other reasons preventing them from taking part. Competitive success is only one slice of this huge pie, and while the size of that slice varies for everyone, there is still so much to appreciate outside of your win/loss record. Don’t lose sight of that! Maintaining a wide perspective can also help you to not place too much weight on the high pressure moments, keep your mood lighter and allow you to play more relaxed in general.


This x 100000. Not only for the effect it will have on others, but for the effect it has on you. If all you talk about is what went wrong during a match, you’ll forget the five things that went right before your next match, and you’ll start the next round already half beaten. Even if you only had one OK game and the rest were bad beats, you’ll make yourself and the people around you happier if you talk about the OK game, and focus on that going into the next round. Only positive vibes!


Only thing worse than hearing your pity story about that drain you didn’t deserve is hearing about your bad beat in poker.


I didn’t even get to flip!! (Said after people just watched you brick 5 shots).


This is such a great post!!! Thanks John!

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The effect that it has on others is what I think a lot of people don’t fully appreciate. Probably the thing I hate most about competitive pinball (and I like most of it) are the folks who get far too aggressive when things are going poorly. Yelling, swearing, hitting things, acting like a grouch or straight up disrespectful to other competitors. It can be a legitimately scary experience for some folks and there are much more constructive ways to express disappointment in a competitive outcome.


“Positive energy is as real as gravity.” Something I stand by. If someone is angry, slams a machine or whatever I kill it with positivity just to clear the air. I respond with “NICE!” or “THATS SO COOL”. Not everyone is confrontational like I am so I get it. But l know people don’t want to see others act like that so it’s a small reminder. That’s just my style.


Some places won’t let you bring a chair. Every place will let you bring a walker.

Truth from the World Champion of Pinball Style! (banner coming soon?)

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Definitely. It will be under my name when I win this year.


PS also, most of us can’t help it and still want to talk about the ball that got away. I know I do this more than I’d like! It’s ok. Just don’t make it all you ever talk about.

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Excellent post J Delz.
tl:dr What? It’s not too long and you better go back and read it!:wink:

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Solid difference between talking about it, as you relate your round - and being angry/excusatory about it.

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It’s just human nature, though. Anyone who plays poker knows this to be true.

I’m just sayin’. I get your point and agree with it. Also, fantastic OP.

Totally agree, 100%. We all do it. That said, I do think people can be aware, can try not to be whiny about it (“it was going really well but then I missed a shot and bam! Outlane” vs “whoever set up that machine was an asshole, that right outlane is totally screwing me”), and try not to make it the only thing you talk about.

I remember advice (from I think @ericwag ) where they keep a little tally of bad luck vs good luck to review and remind them later. All those times you inlaned by didn’t deserve it, you lazed, you opponent house balled, or tilted away a bonus that gave you a point. At the end of the weekend, both columns are pretty full.


I think I have made this point previously…

Get to the bank early. There may be as many as 12 players per bank. And sometimes there can be a bit of a conference on game details.

Convenient time before playing starts for loud chatting and close studying of games.

Enjoy the event. Wish I was going.


Watching players is huge and something I’ve picked up only recently. Do it as much as you can without sacrificing too much foot strength.


I will usually stand and watch all players through the first ball, then sit for the rest.


@jdelz mentioned a bunch of good things to watch for. I usually remember to internalize things like how the feed from the scoop is. What I need to constantly remind myself is watch how players miss. If you just saw three different players all miss the ramp late, it might not be a coincidence.