Jeff Pearlman

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Bowen Kerins

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It's not every day you interview one of the world's top pinball players. It's not every day you interview one of the world's top pinball players, who also writes math books. POSTED January 15, 2014

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It’s not every day you interview one of the world’s top pinball players.

It’s not every day you interview one of the world’s top pinball players, who also writes math books.

It’s not every day you interview the world’s top pinball player, who also writes math books and—oh, by the way—once won won $32,000 on ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

It’s not every day.

I love the Quaz. Not because I get paid for it (I don’t) and not because it generates millions of hits (it doesn’t). Nope. I love the Quaz because it brings me into the minds of men like Bowen Kerins, a truly fascinating dude who combines intelligence and creativity into one wacky package of funkadelic cool. Here, Bowen tells you how to kick ass at pinball and why not to believe the hype about the Good Will Hunting equation. He knows a (disconcerting) lot about Disney Channel actors, and believes Peter Criss to be directly related to Jesus.

One can follow Bowen on Twitter here.

Bowen Kerins, pinball wizard, welcome the Quazfest ’14 …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Bowen, I’m gonna start with a quirky one. You attended Stanford. You write math textbooks for a living. You’ve been a consultant to game shows, who use you to figure out the odds of victory. Oh, you’re the reigning world champion of pinball. Put differently, you’re a genius. A genuine, real, legitimate genius. But do geniuses know they’re geniuses. Like, do you think to yourself, “Fuckin’ A, I’m REALLY smart”? Or, are you burdened by what you don’t know; by a longing for more information?

BOWEN KERINS: My wife will be the first to say I am book smart but not street smart. I locked myself out of my house today. Hopefully I’m more “Real Genius” and less “Revenge of the Nerds.” My knowledge has become a lot more specialized about pinball and school mathematics, but these are the things I love. I hope I don’t go around thinking how freaking smart I am, because that’s when you realize just how dumb you really are.

J.P.: You’re the three-time World Champion of Pinball. About 1 ½ years ago I Quazed Nelson Dellis, the world memory champion, and I loved how his motivation was, well love. A pure love of memory; of using the brain in a very precise and specific way. Bowen, what’s your love of pinball?

B.K.: It’s pretty similar. I was drawn to pinball’s physical nature: the fact that you are driving a real steel ball around, banging into things, creating the sounds and displays and scoring that occurs. You’re in charge, except that you’re not: anything can happen, like the ball hopping over your flipper or screaming down the middle. Some of what keeps me playing over 20 years of competition are these rare events, lucky and unlucky, that could never be duplicated by a computer simulation.

I also loved that you could win free games at pinball if you played well enough. Pinball is cheap entertainment, and it gets cheaper as you get better.

Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 11.53.32 PMJ.P.: Millions of Americans (like, eh, me) suck at pinball. We’ve got 50 cents dangling in our jeans pocket, we’re in an arcade, 10 minutes to kill, so we walk over to the glowing KISS machine and play … and watch helplessly as the balls rolls away. Bowen, what are the simple bits of advice you could offer a scrub like myself on how to at least be passable? And, along those lines, what does it take to be great?

B.K.: PLAY BETTER!

Seriously, the first two pieces of advice are to only flip when the ball comes, and only flip one flipper at a time. Pinball skills can be put into three categories: shotmaking, catching, and nudging. Shotmaking is mostly timing; you don’t have to flip as soon as the ball reaches the flipper. Timing determines aim. Catching involves using the flipper to stop the ball instead of pushing it away, then you can make a more accurate shot from a trap. And nudging is the only way to keep the ball out of the side lanes or avoid a dead center. If you don’t like where the ball is going, you move the entire machine to change its location.

The folks at the Pro-Am Pinball Association have published a series of short videos on gameplay techniques. They’re solid.

J.P.: As I write this, my daughter is sitting in a fifth grade classroom in a suburban New York elementary school, going through a lot of dizziness. Where we live (like much of America), there’s a tug o’ war between veteran teachers who have been doing this for decades, and state standards that demand students know Z, Y and Z by year’s end. Truthfully, Bowen, it strikes me as a huge clusterfuck that helps no one. Am I off on this problem? And what—if anything—is the solution?

B.K.: Why should they have to learn about Z twice? There’s the first problem solved. I’m pretty happy with the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which is acting to simplify things. Fewer topics should be taught each year, and more deeply so that knowledge can actually be retained year to year. More important than anything is attention to habits of mind, the ways that adults think about solving problems—Common Core addresses this head-on with eight standards of what it means to think mathematically, such as perseverant problem-solving and building reasonable arguments.

J.P.: So my daughter’s math homework assignments always include the sentence, “Do the work two different ways.” Could be addition, subtraction, multiplication, division. Has to be shown two different ways. This make zero sense to me. Am I just dumb? 

B.K.: I don’t like this. What should happen is that in class, get the students to tease out multiple ways of thinking about a good problem, then let students decide which way they favor. Or for these situations, show in the book someone using an alternate algorithm and ask the students to figure out what that fake kid tried. Forcing someone to do something a way they don’t want to do it just makes them angry. It’s busywork.

On the flip side I don’t want students to learn things in a “procedural” way—many adults took an entire course in algebra or geometry without learning anything of long-term value, because the course focused so specifically on a set of answer-getting skills. If we are preparing students for a changing job market with fewer procedural jobs, they need to learn how to solve problems without spoonfed answers and procedures.

J.P.: Greatest moment of your pinball career? Lowest?

B.K.: The greatest moment is always difficult, because you remember your most recent championship the best, but the best moment is probably my first championship in 1994 at age 18. I made the round of 16 and didn’t play well, thinking I was eliminated. I left the tournament area and got changed, returned to watch the finals—then found out I had advanced. After that the pressure was off and I played lights-out in front of a large crowd in New York. A few hours later I had won a new machine, a big-ass trophy, and $4,000 … a fortune for a college student.

The lowest moments aren’t really low, they’re near misses. In 2008 I made the final round at PAPA, and was in the lead going into the final game—all I had to do was not finish last in a four-player game of Addams Family, and I would be the champion. I played like crap and ended up with less than 1/10 the points of the other players. I still had a chance to win, with the last player needing to win big to catch up, and I got to watch him take the title with great pressure-packed play. Finishing second in a big event can be a real gut punch, I’d almost rather not get anywhere near the finals. It’s funny how I hear that from real athletes talking about losing the Super Bowl or World Series, and it really does feel that way in pinball at the highest levels. We’re playing in front of crowds for up to $10,000 cash, it’s serious … by our standards, anyway. I’m lucky that I get the chance to be an athlete a few times a year, and the group of players is very friendly to one another.

Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 11.53.12 PMJ.P.: I’ve heard 1,001 times by now that America has fallen behind myriad countries when it comes to science and math. Two questions: A. What are we doing wrong? B. Does it matter?

B.K.: I don’t agree. If Massachusetts were a country it would be sixth in the world in these math and science studies. Nationally we perform on par with these top countries, when accounting for poverty, which has a huge impact. There’s a great talk by Uri Triesman about this, and he says it a lot better than I can.

We are not doing a good job at all in this country of providing an equitable opportunity for all students. The quality of schools throughout each state and throughout the country should be the same, but it’s not even close. I don’t know how we fix it, but I know that our group concentrates its efforts primarily on urban and underperforming districts. I’ve also seen teachers working their tails off in all sorts of districts. I really feel that to fix this problem we need to fix the huge underlying inequities in family income and opportunity, and who knows if such a thing could ever happen.

J.P.: You have started doing commentary for pinball webcasts. Uh … this seems … eh … like … mmm … it … wouldn’t be all that fun to watch. Tell me why I’m wrong.

B.K.: Did you watch any? Compelling sports is about watching the best in the world do something no one else can, ideally for high stakes. That’s what we’ve got! Commentary makes it work, because people who know pinball will want to know why things are happening, and people who don’t know pinball will want to know what the hell is happening. We tell stories about the players and detail the play as it unfolds. The same can be said about poker … about bowling … about golf … about football.

To be honest, when we first starting doing this I didn’t think it would be interesting either, but the series of videos now has almost 2 million views. The live broadcast of the two largest tournaments, Pinburgh and PAPA, drew people to watch for many hours, especially some that had never watched any pinball before. We hear people are having viewing parties around the country. We ran a Kickstarter to raise money to livestream events all over the country, and raised $58,000—the initial goal was $20,000. Players are getting sponsorships. It’s really happening, we may even end up on The Ocho someday.

As a start I recommend the Pinburgh 2012 finals, with commentary by me and former NBA center Todd MacCulloch, who then went on to be a radio color man for the 76ers.  He’s hilarious and the pinball play is pretty great. It’s online.

J.P.: I’ve asked many people why they don’t fear death, and they cite eternal life and Jesus loves them and blah, blah. You’re wicked smart. Do you fear death? Why or why not?

B.K.: Death is a wicked pissah, I’ll tell you that. I like to think that those around me who have died still live on in me and the others whose lives they have changed for the better. I don’t much believe in eternal life, except as the name of the ball saver on the Indiana Jones pinball machine, and I hope that when I die I will have helped others live a better life. Thinking about the inevitability of death can sure be depressing, so thanks a lot for asking this question! Dammit.

Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 11.52.45 PMJ.P.: Bowen, in 2000 you won $32,000 on ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” Uh, what the heck? How did that happen?

B.K.: I was on Millionaire in its first six months. Back then, anyone could call an 800 number and answer questions over the phone. Some friends and I would get on IRC and call the number, then shout at Regis when we got one wrong. One day I got them all right, and got the lucky callback to be in a second round, with 200 people fighting for 10 spots on the show. The second round was questions like “Put these states in geographic order by their nickname” and “Put these chemical elements in order by how they appear in the periodic table”. One question asked to put four rock albums in order, and I heard one as “Aw buh bah”. Not good.  (It was Beck’s “Odelay.”)  Somehow I lucked into getting it right, which was a fun conversation among the 10 people selected for the show … “What album was that?” “How are you here if you didn’t know?”

The show was amazing. They really do play that music live, and Regis was a great guy both on and off camera. To get on stage you had to win the “fastest finger” contest, and with other players thinking about the money or the live audience or the fact that 30 million people would see what they were doing, I tried to forget it all and focus on answering questions. It worked, and I think that’s the same reason you see coaches say “Do your job”—anything else is a loss of focus that can only make you perform poorly. I did as well as I would have at home, which is all I can ask for. One of the most surprising things about the process was its speed: qualified on Monday, taped on Thursday, aired on Sunday.

We used some of the money to go to Disney World, and while there we walked by the fake Millionaire set built at the park. Looking toward the waiting room I find a life-size picture of Regis with me. So now I have a photo of me standing next to a photo of me, and a blue check that I wish could be cashed a second time.

J.P.: Mathematically, and logically, how do you explain the existence and success of Selena Gomez? I’m baffled.

B.K.: Selena Gomez is just one in a long series of celebrities spit out by the Disney Machine. How did we end up with Britney Spears? Miley Cyrus? Demi Lovato? Zac Efron? Hilary Duff? Vanessa Hudgins? All those freaking Jonaseses? That guy from Transformers whose name sounds like a French person saying “Where’s The Beef”? Lindsay Lohan?! Basically all a kid has to do is get on one of these Disney shows and ride it into adulthood. And this isn’t a new concept: Kurt Russell was a Disney kid. Except that “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” is a great movie. If you want to see who will annoy you in four years, turn on Disney Channel and see who’s on. I vote for Zendaya.

Screen Shot 2014-01-15 at 3.11.17 PMQUAZ EXPRESS WITH BOWEN KERINS:

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Gottfried W. Leibniz, The Jonas Brothers, Karim Garcia, Peter Gabriel, T’Pau, Cookie Monster, Peyton Hillis, Christmas lights in late January, David Sabino, Sylvester Stallone, The Goonies, the number 22, NWA, wrist warts: Cookie Monster’s an easy No. 1. Liebniz, then Sabino, then Stallone, each of whom should be getting more respect. NWA, then Peter Gabriel, then “The Goonies” and T’Pau, all on the plus side. My son likes Christmas lights all year round, but take ’em down already, people. Then the lesser of two Peytons, and 22 is one less than my favorite number so it sucks. Ugh, Jonas Brothers next, above Karim Garcia—who is that guy? Wrist warts way last, because any hand injury makes pinball a real pain in the ass.

• In 20 words or less, make an argument against M&Ms: Why all these colors? They all taste the same. At least Skittles taste different. They should be named M&Ws.

• Is the mathematical premise of “Good Will Hunting” legitimate?: NO! The problem that Good Will solves at the beginning is a crappy entry-level problem in matrix theory that no MIT student would be amazed by. It’s not even a “theorem” like they said. I have taught many students and teachers to solve that problem, then I show them the movie clip.

• Celine Dion calls—she offers you $4 million to play Naked Pinball Guy in her new 350-day Las Vegas Musical—“Celine Dion Physically Mocks A Naked Pinball Player While Making Him Eat Scallions.” You in?: Ugh, does it have to be scallions?  I’m in, but only if I get earplugs. Her audience retention rate is going to be terrible.

• Is time travel even remotely possible?: It is: you can travel forward in time. Everyone can. Going back in time is hard.

We don’t all travel forward in time at the same speed.  Objects moving faster go forward in time faster. An astronaut returning from nine months at the International Space Station is younger by 1/100 of a second compared to someone who stays on Earth.

• Is there any link between raw athleticism and pinball? Put differently—if, say, RGIII and I have the same pinball experience, can we expect he’d be naturally better?: There’s reaction time, but competitive pinball can be a game of managing pressure, and RGIII is probably going to handle that better. I remember my hands shaking at one of my first tournaments.  I got over it pretty fast. I credit playing pinball for helping me win on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, by knowing how to deal with pressure situations comfortably.

• Pinball scouting report on Todd MacCulloch, former NBA center/current pinball star (and your pal)?: Todd and I just took second in a 48-team tournament in Chicago this weekend. His shooting accuracy is excellent. His catching skills are very good, but he can forget to use them. His nudging skills are poor, which is kind of incredible given his size and potential. The place to beat him is in game strategy, but he is also very coachable and follows a solid game plan when he knows what to do—last weekend he got several personal best scores during the team competition when I could give him advice on shots and goals.  He’s risen quickly: when he won the A Division singles title in Chicago in 2011, his wife assumed he must have won the B Division instead. I heartily enjoyed booing Todd during the Celtics/Nets conference final in 2002, but he miraculously made every free throw he attempted!

• What are the mathematical odds that former KISS drummer Peter Criss is actually Jesus Christ, brought back to earth as a faded musician?: There’s almost a 100 percent chance that some part of Christ’s body is now part of Peter Criss. Seriously.

• Three memories from your first date?: My first date was an eight-hour bus ride from Penn State University to Rhode Island at the end of a weekend math competition, started when exactly the person I hoped decided to sit next to me. We talked about our favorite equations and integrals all night. Okay, maybe it was mostly card games, conversation, and snuggling. But the second date was at her high school … not her high school prom, just visiting her high school during a school day. I did not have “game” or even a driver’s license.

 • Five chain restaurants/stores you’d be happy to never, ever, ever see exist again: 1. Applebee’s, easily; 2. Hooters… but they have good wings!; 3. Little Caesars Drive Thru Pizza. Is that really necessary?; 4. Wetzel’s Pretzels. Just makes me wish it were Auntie Anne’s; 5. Abercrombie. Because that Abercrombie owner guy’s an asshole.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life