Mathematician a pinball wizard

Kristin D'Agostino

Colored lights flash, and “The Simpsons” theme repeats as the game kicks into the highest level, spitting out three balls. “This is going pretty well,” Bowen Kerinssays calmly.

Knocking all three balls, one a time, he leans closer and suddenly shakes the machine with both hands.

“This is called a death save,” he says, pointing out how his quick reflexes saved one ball from sinking down the drain.

Kerins, a 32-year-old math textbook writer and the world’s No. 1 pinball champion, is in his home’s arcade/guest bedroom, showing off his moves.

Behind him, towering on the shelf over the twin bed, stand more than dozen trophies he’s won, topped with shiny silver pinballs and perfectly rendered machines. In front of him are three pinball machines he’s won. Another one is on the way, one of the prizes in the International Flipper Pinball Association’s first tournament of the year.

“We’re going to have to move some of the furniture to make room for it,” he says.

With his glasses and round face, Kerins doesn’t have the look of a daredevil punk. But when he walks into the Willows arcade, any pinball player knows to watch out. In the 15 years the Newport, R.I., native has been playing “flipper,” he has earned a reputation for himself, placing in the top five in tournaments all over the country and winning more than $30,000 in prize money.

“I’ve lost to him all over the place,” says Josh Sharpe, the president of IFPA, who’s been playing Kerins for more than 10 years. “He is master of finding the easiest way to get the most points. He’s awesome.”

When Kerins was 12 he started playing pinball, because at 25 cents per game, it was the cheapest way to have fun in the arcade. He was attracted to the fancy colors, lights and music. His favorite game was Whirlwind, a machine with spinning disks that would send the ball flying unexpectedly, and had a fan perched on top that blew in the player’s face at the climax of the game.

Whirlwind now sits in his home arcade, a tribute to his childhood.

As he got older, playing pinball became less about the flash and more about the feeling he got knocking the little silver ball past different obstacles and racking up high scores.

“The competitive aspect is a big draw for me,” he says. “It’s the same kind of thing that makes people root for the Red Sox. I get that competitive vibe from doing pinball.”

The Tao of pinball

For Kerins, playing pinball is a test of mind, soul and body. When he’s competing in a tournament — some of which have prizes of thousands of dollars — he has learned to train his mind on other things, using music as a way to prepare himself for a game.

“I play ‘Welcome to the Jungle,’ AC/DC, Van Halen, any music you’d hear in a sports arena,” he says. “It gets me going and helps me concentrate. If you start thinking about what you’re playing for, [the game] is going to go south pretty quickly.”

Most of the techniques Kerins swears by he learned at Stanford University when he fell in with a bunch of pinball wizards who hung out at the local arcade and competed in national tournaments. Before then, Kerins could aim well but didn’t know about tricks like trapping the ball — holding it in place to help gain control — or shaking the machine to perform a death save.

“Bowen is pretty animated,” Sharpe says of Kerins’ performance. “He does a lot of nudging. I wouldn’t call it dancing, but he tries to immerse himself in the game. Like Nomar Garciaparra goes to bat and he taps his shoes and undoes his gloves. Bowen does lots of dancing around and talks to himself to keep his concentration.”

Playing pinball can be physically exhausting. During the IFPA championship this past month in Las Vegas, Kerins played for three days straight, 10 hours each day with an hour break for lunch.

The tournament was an incredible test of endurance, with 64 of the best players from all over the world taking each other one-on-one. It was also a great test of skill, something he believes people don’t give pinball players enough credit for.

“People have this idea that it’s like gambling, that it doesn’t take real skill to play,” Kerins says. “If that were true there wouldn’t be the same group of core players winning tournaments.”

A pinball wizard’s life

Kerins has always had a gift for solving puzzles of all kinds. For years he taught high school math in Newton, and his work now as a textbook writer has him poring over geometry and calculus problems for hours every day.

For fun each year he participates in MIT’s puzzle weekend — three days worth of word and math puzzles that have players calling friends around the country to help solve scavenger-hunt-like clues. His logical mind and quick decision making abilities have helped Kerins not only in pinball, but also in getting ahead in life.

In 2000, pushed by the same spirit of competition that draws him to the pinball machine, he tried out for the TV game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

“There were some incredibly smart people,” he recalls of the experience. “But they were too wrapped up in nerves, in the camera … You can’t think about any of that stuff. You have to think about [how] eventually they’re going to ask you a question and you’re going to put four things in order… I did the same kind of pinball tactic sitting in that seat … Don’t think about how much money it is till it’s over.”

Kerins’ tactic paid off. He took home $32,000, equivalent to a year of his teacher’s salary, and was able to put money down on his home, buy his wife an engagement ring and take a trip to Disney World.

Now, with a shiny new pinball trophy and $1,000 in his pocket, Kerins is certainly enjoying the latest fruits of his labor. But unlike presidents or kings, wizards only carry their title for a matter of months. Like in NASCAR, points are earned each tournament for placing in the top five spots.

After three years, the player’s best 15 games are selected and the scores are tallied, but as tournaments happen all over the world several times a year, the title is constantly being taken on by a new player. Kerins’ wizardry could be stolen away as soon as this weekend at a Colorado tournament.

Despite this knowledge, Kerins is content. He has other things to look forward to, like the pinball machine that should arrive any day now, and his first child, who is due this summer. One day, he hopes his son or daughter will grow up to compete in tournaments and perhaps inherit a few of the pinball machines — which by that time could be crowding his guests out of their bedrooms.