Ever since he was a young boy, Mike Wolff played the silver ball. From Bellingham down to Seattle, he must’ve played them all.
Similar to the song “Pinball Wizard” from The Who’s 1969 album “Tommy,” Mike Wolff is no stranger to the feeling of becoming a part of the pinball machine. The album even played a role in Wolff’s pinball initiation.
At 15 years old, Wolff’s passion for the game began on The Who’s Tommy machine at Midway Swap and Shop in Wolff’s hometown of Kent, Washington.
“I remember playing and being enamored with it,” Wolff said. “I thought it was a phase I would go through, and I didn’t think I would be this into it.”
Twenty-eight years later, Wolff is playing more pinball than he ever imagined. Wolff now hosts three pinball tournaments each month across Bellingham at the 1Up-Lounge, The Racket and 20th Century Bowl.
Wolff is a registered member of the International Flipper Pinball Association, which sanctions competitive pinball across the globe.
All of the tournaments Wolff hosts earn registered players points. The more players per tournament means the more points for the taking – and the more points to your name, the higher your world rank.
Wolff is ranked 1,803 out of 30,065 players in the world. In Washington state, Wolff is ranked 92.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Wolff participated in pinball tournaments in Bellingham but had not yet hosted. Once businesses started to reopen, pinball did not have the presence in Bellingham it did before. Wolff saw this as an opportunity.
“I wanted tournaments. And I wanted to play with my friends. So, I ended up taking [it] on,” Wolff said.
Wolff’s efforts to bring competitive pinball back to Bellingham have not gone unnoticed. IFPA hosts events, although many of them would not be possible unless event organizers like Wolff decided to host IFPA-sanctioned competitions.
“I’m not doing it from an office chair. It takes people like Mike,” said International Flipper Pinball Association President Josh Sharpe. “It is amazing because that’s where all the [community] growth happens.”
To organize events, Wolff has to coordinate times with local event locations, get IFPA approval and oversee rules. As tournament director, Wolff tracks scores, makes judgment calls on errors like a stuck pinball and oversees awards at the end of tournaments.
“Getting to play with my friends again is totally worth it to put in a little extra work and have fun,” Wolff said.
Andrew Bentley, a fellow pinball player and close friend of Wolff’s, knows that Wolff is responsible for creating a fun environment at tournaments while upholding good sportsmanship.
IFPA tournament directors have a card system similar to soccer that gives warnings to players who are unsportsmanlike.
“All tournament directors have the ability to give someone a yellow card,” Bentley said. “Some tournament directors don’t use that … but it’s well known that if you act a fool, Mike will step in.”
Wolff’s impact goes beyond the card system, as he creates a welcoming atmosphere for all players, according to Bentley.
“There’s definitely sexism in pinball. A lot of places run separate women’s leagues,” Bentley said. “Bellingham doesn’t have one. A big part of that is because Mike would be quick to step in if somebody says something off-color. That makes him an amazing tournament director.”
Outside of pinball, Wolff plays other tournament-based sporting events. Wolff coaches The Round Table, a men's softball team, and plays in a bowling league at 20th Century Bowl.
By day, Wolff works as the manager of Claus Meats, a local restaurant meat supplier. And by night, Wolff can be found playing pinball across town.
Wolff’s scores can be seen in pinball machines throughout Bellingham, saved under a double zero , which was his number playing soccer as a child.
Wolff’s role in the Bellingham pinball community goes hand-in-hand with the development of the sport at a local level, according to Bentley.
“He’s been not only friendly but making sure that other people become friends. And that’s not always easy,” Bentley said. “That’s a good mark of a person.”
Wolff attributes the success of his work to the players who help make the sport grow and the local bars and venues for allowing a space for competitive pinball. Wolff invites anyone, no matter their experience, to come out and try their hand at this arcade classic.
“The community that we have is great,” Wolff said. “And it’s growing,”
Tarn Bregman (he/him) is a fourth-year environmental studies major who has also worked as a reporter and photographer for The Planet magazine. In his free time, Tarn can be found on Galbraith Mountain riding his mountain bike or hanging out at Bellingham skatepark. Tarn hopes to bring The Front’s coverage to niche sports and recreational activities locally and across the county.