Pinball Wizards: Trent Augenstein

Jim Fischer
Columbus Alive

Trent Augenstein's dad was a salesman for Pioneer, an agriculture seed company. Oftentimes, he'd bring young Trent along with him to conventions and trade shows, and in their downtime, they'd find an arcade and play pinball.

From Van Wert down to Portsmouth, he must've played them all.

“I was just kind of naturally good at it,” Augenstein said in an interview inside the Delaware County pole barn/warehouse that is home to both his personal collection of pinball machines and the shop where he repairs machines he owns and leases to businesses.

“I played video games, too,” Augenstein said, which makes sense, given Augenstein grew up in the late '70s and '80s, a golden age for arcades. “I have always been competitive. I played about anything with a ball — soccer, racquetball, tennis, softball. I ran track, too.”

What captured and held his fascination was the silver ball.

“I went to Ohio State. [There were] three arcades down there, plus the Ohio Union,” Augenstein said. “After I graduated, we went to auctions, and you could plug in anything and play while they were doing the auction, so we'd just go to play. Eventually, I decided I wanted to buy a pinball machine. There was a comic book shop across from where I was living, so I stuck it in there, figuring I could play and [also] make some money. So I became an operator and an owner all at once.”

And soon, a tournament player. But the pinball life isn't that simple. The path is bumpy. Or, maybe, bumper-y.

“It's fun when you're playing and you start getting good and you're putting your initials up. But then you start going to tournaments and you get your butt kicked,” Augenstein said. His first tournaments were the 1994 and 1995 Ohio State Championships, at which he finished sixth and second, respectively. He took those results to a larger tournament in Chicago. “There were only about four tournaments at that time,” he said, “and that was when I learned I really needed to get better.”

In between playing in tournaments and finding every new pinball game to play, Augenstein worked for a land developer and helped out on the side with his family's farming business. At the same time, he was building his pinball collection.

“I started getting containers of pinball [machines] from overseas. I'd pull out four or five games that I wanted and I'd sell the rest to pay for the games I kept,” Augenstein said.

With the formation of the International Flipper Pinball Association in 2006, tournaments became more formalized and a standard system of awarding points for results was put in place. Augenstein has been ranked among the best players in the world pretty much since the beginning. His current IFPA world ranking is seven, which Augenstein said is merely a byproduct of his passion to play.

“There's an obvious rush, for me anyway, and anyone who likes competition. But I don't really play to get the points. I just play because I like playing and I've done well enough that I've stayed up there” in the rankings, he said. “[Earning points is] not a goal for me, really.”

His goals these days are more along the lines of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, which he accomplished earlier this month. Asked if it's the same competitive nature he's applied to his pinball pursuits, Augenstein is matter-of-fact.

“Probably. It was just another thing to try and do,” he said. “About 20 years ago, I read Michael Crichton's ‘Travels,' and I've wanted to [climb Mt. Kilimanjaro] ever since. This year, everything worked out. The trip was a blast. You should do it.”

Pinball has experienced tremendous growth in the last 10 years or so, spurred by the growth in the craft beer scene and interest among younger players. Augenstein said the current pinball scene is as vibrant as he has seen it in his years associated with the game. That popularity, accompanied by work as official distributor for Stern Pinball (one of a handful of new game manufacturers worldwide), his owner/operator work in Ohio and his prize money from tournaments, has allowed Augenstein to make pinball his living.

“I just kind of evolved into it,” he said. “This building was supposed to be half for pinball, half for farming, but pinball just kind of took over.”