Player interview by Jon Olkowski (Jonny O)
Date: August 2010

Neil Shatz is a player who can’t be missed in any arcade.  His commanding physical presence, Clark Kent looks, aggressive stance and absolute focus stand out like a dominant thumb whenever he steps up to the Silverball.  His motive: utter dominance of the machine, no matter what.  The Grand Champion score is his goal and he is absolutely relentless in this pursuit.  Neil will methodically analyze any loose tilt, any rule, and any opportunity to control the ball, then put it all together into a strategy for complete dominance.

And he will win, you can bank on it.  His initials as Grand Champion: NES are on so many California Bay Area tables you would almost think it’s some sort of factory default.  He mastered the use of the alley pass – a dangerous move where you hit the ball at the absolute last second to send it up the opposite in-lane.  It soon became known (and feared) in tournament circles as “Shatz’ing the inlane”. 

Funhouse Grand Champion

When you ask the top pro players what made them better, you’ll hear this guy’s name.  He’s a consummate defensive and control player who pioneered and perfected all the top moves.  He looks to gain control of the ball and manipulate it to his ends at every turn.  And if the game gives up an inch, well, you better start worrying, because he's taking your high score spot.  No one does it better.  In short, he’s a legend behind the flippers.  One of the best in the game with a long pedigree of tournament victories and accomplishments.   

After his recent win in the Classics Division at California Extreme, I asked Neil if he would let me probe his pinball mind for an interview and he graciously agreed.

PBN: Neil, when did you first start playing pinball?
Neil: I believe I started around 1975 give or take.

PBN: What got you hooked on pinball?
Neil: A trip to Sunnyvale Golfland with my brother, where they had a small arcade (at the time) with about 4 machines. 

PBN: Who was the first good player you ever saw that made you want to get better?
Neil: Rick Stetta.

Neil playing Funhouse

PBN: When did you decide to compete in tournaments?
Neil: My friend TJ Beyer told me about the Pinathon. I attended Pinathon '93 and was hooked since I had a lot of fun, and won Roger Sharpe's Pinball! as a prize. 

PBN: What was that first competitive experience like?
Neil: It was very addictive. The excitement and adrenaline rush were tremendous. 

Scared Stiff Grand Champion

PBN: What was the process of getting better, for you, as player?
Neil: Learning the strategies of machines I had never played before and trying to master nudging, dead passes (aka bounce passes), tap passes, alley passes and drop catches. Later, trying to master the live catch.

PBN: Many have said you ‘pioneered’ several control strategies and play, which are basically staples of competitive play today.  How did you learn or adopt these strategies?
Neil: Hal Erickson (HAL), Rick Stetta (RJS), and Marc Conant (MCC) were instrumental in my attempts to learn the skills I mentioned above. Rick Stetta was the first person I saw perform alley passes.  Hal Erickson was the first person I saw do drop catches in a frequent and consistent fashion. Marc Connant was the first person I saw do resurrections (death saves is what others call them) consistently, and taught me the lesson of repeating safe shots that are easily repeatable, but not necessarily the most lucrative.  Later, Bowen Kerin's live catch execution and Keith Elwin's situational strategy adaptations were something I've tried to adopt. 

Neil "Shatz'ing" the inlane

PBN: How do you analyze a new game you’ve never played before?
Neil: I look for the multi-ball opportunities on the game first, and then which modes or features I can stack the multi-ball(s) with.

PBN: Neil, you’re known for being a “control player”.  When the ball goes into slings, what’s your strategy?
Neil: If the game has a loose tilt, I try to move the sling away from the ball. So, for example when the ball approaches the right sling, I will slide the game to the right. For stricter tilts, I try to nudge the game forward (away from the player toward the wall) slightly, just after the ball makes contact with the sling. 

PBN: How do you prepare for a tournament?
Neil: I love to play pinball, so I just do what I always do: hit locations around the Bay Area and play. I might go to one of our local museums (Lucky Juju or Playland-Not-at-the-Beach) more often to play EMs, but really, I just play a lot because I enjoy it so much.

PBN: How do you deal with tournament nerves?
Neil: I don't, Jonny.  Unfortunately, I've never been able to deal with it very well, and my tournament success has suffered greatly for it.

A sample of this wizard’s trophy collection; Neil has so many he put some in storage
A sample of this wizard’s trophy collection; Neil has so many he put some in storage

PBN: Do guys like Keith Elwin or the Sharpe brothers intimidate you?
Neil: I would say I'm more intimidated by the stakes than the players. For example, I might be more relaxed playing Keith in the 1st round than in a semi-final or final of a high stakes tournament. And I might be non-intimidated during any round of a low-stakes tournament.

PBN: At PAPA 8 in the A Division Finals, you were third on game 1 (The Shadow) and then only 1 million and change short of beating Bowen Kerins on High Speed 2: The Getaway in game 2 which might have changed the outcome of the tournament.  You then went on to dominate game 3 on Creature from the Black Lagoon.  Any thoughts?
Neil: I made the mistake of not observing HSII closely while others were playing it before me (if I know the rules or strategy on a game I tend to tune out until it’s my turn). It had a pretty loose tilt which I didn't exploit. Bowen made an excellent two-warning slide-save as he had realized the game had a pretty loose tilt, and this was likely the difference between 1st and 2nd. 

PBN: What was your greatest pinball moment - tournament or otherwise?
Neil: Probably winning doubles at PAPA in '98 with Keith Elwin. My right hip was burning and aching badly.  I was about to pull out of both Doubles and Singles. Then, I decided that I didn't care what sort of pain I experienced or what would happen to me. We ended up winning the Doubles and I think that taught me a lesson about mental toughness, which I sometimes forget. 

Another Grand Champion

PBN: Who are the players that have inspired you?
Neil: There are many. Here are a few: Hal Erickson, Marc Conant, Rick Stetta, Bowen Kerins, Keith Elwin, Lyman Sheats Junior, Paul Madison, Christain Salazi, Paul Jongma, John Miller, Andrei Massenkoff, Jorian Engelbtreksten and the other people that should be mentioned that I forgot to put on this list.

PBN: What do you think about tournament pinball going forward, or just the industry in general?
Neil: I am very optimistic about tournament pinball. It continues to grow at a rapid pace. I am not optimistic about the industry - there does not seem to be much of a market for location pinball as noted by the disappearance of locations with machines, and I don’t think the home market is big enough to support it.

PBN: You were featured in the Special When Lit documentary that has been making the rounds of the independent film circuit.  Any comments on how you were portrayed? 
Neil: I did not have my glasses on at the start of the interview. The interview staff told me that they would prefer I go get my glasses from my hotel room before they start the interview . . .

PBN: Last question: what does pinball mean to you?
Neil: It is a huge part of my life and it will always be. I have met many wonderful people because of it, and traveled to places I never would have visited otherwise because of it. When other parts of my life have been stressful, pinball has been an essential outlet.

PBN: Neil, you are always a gentlemen.  Thanks for the interview and best of luck on your pinball pursuits. 

Note: Neil recently made it to the semi-finals to finish in 6th place at the PAPA13 World Pinball Championships.

The author would like to thank Playland-not-at-the-Beach for assistance with this interview.


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