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Fargo pinballer competes nationally

Dan Stephney poses after a practice session at Fargo Pinball. As the North Dakota pinball champion, he competes today in the U.S. National Pinball Championship in Texas. April Knutson / Forum News Service

FARGO — Dan Stephney began playing pinball when he was little, but his skill usually didn't outlast his quarter pile. Today he competes in the U.S. National Pinball Championship hosted by International Flipper Pinball Association in Mesquite, Texas.

"I don't play video games very often; I just go for high scores. The competition — that's really what I'm after," Stephney says. "I'm really competitive. I play bowling. I play golf. I play drums. And I play pinball, I guess."

Stephney began playing pinball competitively after joining Fargo Pinball, located at 1133 Harwood Dr. S. The "secret" pinball club has more than 300 members currently. The club moved from its original downtown location when ownership transferred from Scott Nelson to Bill and Jim Brooks in December 2015.

"Right when I heard the word pinball and that it was moving, I signed up," Stephney says. "It is just so close to where I live, and I wanted to play more pinball."

Fargo Pinball requires its members to pay a small fee.

"It's $45 per year which breaks down to less than a cup of coffee per day," Bill Brooks, Fargo Pinball co-owner says. "After the first year then the membership drops down $25 annually."

Members have a key-card so they can enter the building and play any of its 30 pinball machines. The club is continuously on the lookout for new games and includes machines from all over country, including Indiana Jones from New York City and World Cup from Boston.

This attractive, entertainment oasis brought in people like Stephney during Fargo's long winters. Stephney honed his craft by playing often and on each pinball machine.

At the International Flipper Pinball Association (IFPA) state tournament on Feb. 11, Stephney beat 16 other players. To qualify for statewide competition, participants recorded high scores during league tournaments throughout the year.

Each player had to play seven matches on seven different pinball machines; a match consists seven individual pinball games. In his final match, Stephney won four out of the seven games against Tim Fiechtner to claim the IFPA North Dakota champion title.

This year is the first time in history that North Dakota is sending a competitor to the national IFPA tournament.

Similar to the North Dakota tournament, IFPA's national competition only includes play on specific pinball machines. To prepare, Stephney read as much as he could about the 12 machines.

"I've played one of the pinball games before and, luckily, the game — Whirlwind — might be my best game; but that's only one of the 12 games that I've ever played more than once," Stephney says. "Some of the pinball games are from the '70s and '80s — you can't just find them."

Only state IFPA champions can compete at nationals. Before any game play, participants will have 30 seconds to practice. Starting at 11 a.m. matches are being played continuously until the tournament is finished.

"I'm going in with the highest of high and the lowest of low expectations. I'm ready for both outcomes," Stephney says. "Theoretically, I could play an hour to a half hour of pinball and be done."

Each pinball match will be best-of-seven games, so if Stephney loses his first four games on a particular machine, he will be out of the tournament.

"It will be interesting to see how I do," Stephney says.

The IFPA and Fargo Pinball, like other nostalgia-fueled hobbies, have increased in size in recent years. The IFPA started in the early '90s to promote tournament play. In 2008, state IFPA tournaments began.

"We are seeing a resurgence of people really wanting to get out there and play," Brooks says. "I hear people say, 'Oh my gosh I remember this game, I played it at the Memorial Union.'"

Like others, Stephney vividly remembers playing pinball in his youth at Pirate's Den, an arcade once located in the West Acres Mall.

"The crazy thing is that pinball was everywhere. It was in our uncle's basement or at the bowling alley," Brooks says.

For more information, visit fargopinball.com.

April Knutson

April Knutson is lifestyle-focused journalist producing stories for the Forum News Service about people, health, community issues and services. She earned her degree in both English Literature and Mass Communications. After working as digital marketing specialist and web design consultant for a few years, she joined Forum Communications in 2015. She grew on farm near Volga, S.D. Follow her on Twitter @april_knutson.

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