Story by Tom Loeffler | Oct 30, 2015

A step off the radar, three area men share their highly competitive drive for horseshoes, board games and pinball.

Steven JohnsonThe Man Page usually sticks to sports, such as football, basketball and baseball, and outdoor activities, such as hunting and fishing. But all of these endeavors are in the mainstream. In this issue, however, we take a step off the beaten path — maybe two or three steps — as we look at the ventures of three area men in horseshoes, board games and pinball machines. Their commitment to the game, their game, is no less intense.

The next time you’re going to a family gathering, backyard barbecue or company picnic and you know there will be horseshoes, bring a friend. Not just any friend, not your best friend, not your neighbor, not even your spouse. Take a new friend, Steven Johnson, and make sure he’s your teammate in horseshoes.

The team of Johnson and you will win. Guaranteed. Then you can laugh at your vanquished opponents like the horseshoe pitching wannabes they are. Of course, this will have nothing to do with you but everything to do with your teammate and new BFF, Steven Johnson.

This guy is good…really good. These days, those invitations are few and far between. “I don’t get too many of those like I used to,” Johnson says. “When I was younger, guys would come up and say, ‘I bet you can’t throw one ringer out of three.’ I won a little bit of money that way.”

He’s only gotten better. Johnson, 62, has enjoyed an amazing year. You could call 2015 his Year of the Horseshoe. He won the state tournament in Lebanon in September, which was the first state title of his career and the second straight for a Jefferson City pitcher (James Driver, 2014). Those wins were also the first state titles for Jefferson City pitchers in the event’s 94-year history.

“I made a joke that they made me go all the way to Lebanon to get [the trophy] when I could have crossed the street,” Johnson says with a smile. “But it was a big thrill. I’d been close many years, and I finally got over the hump and won it.”

Johnson was also part of the four-man Missouri team that won the Team World Tournament in Wisconsin this past May, and he finished twelfth in the Individual World Tournament in Kansas in June. In other words, what a year!

He averages right at 70 percent ringers, which is amazing. His personal record is 22 straight ringers, and he’s made 19 out of 20 during games. This is from 40 feet. Folks, most of us couldn’t do that from four feet. “I change things and work on things,” Johnson says. “It’s an unending battle. When you get to where I’m at, you’re still not satisfied.”

Johnson grew up in California, Missouri, and was the high school’s Athlete of the Year as a senior in 1971 when he excelled in football, basketball and track and field. But it was horseshoes that sustained and maintained his interest and passion. “As soon as I picked them up, I knew I’d like the game,” he says. “It was love at first sight and still is.”

Johnson cut his teeth at county fairs but he won so often (including 10 straight titles at the Cole County Fair) that they either disbanded the competition or banned him from entering. “Between plaques and trophies, I bet I’ve got 300 or 400 or those things.”

A lot of plaques and trophies but not much money, although he has taken home as much as $500 for his efforts. “You don’t play horseshoes for the money because if you do, you’re going to go hungry,” says Johnson, who recently retired after working in heat and air for Harold G. Butzer for 40 years.

So is horseshoes a sport or activity? Most of us would say the latter, but not Johnson. “It’s a sport,” he says without hesitation. “You have to have great timing and that takes a lot of practice. You really have to concentrate and keep your focus so you can repeat it over
and over again. That’s tough to do because of all the movement involved.”

Brandon KempfEither way, pitching a horseshoe is something we’ve all tried much like we have all played board games. Don’t you have Monopoly and Scrabble tucked away in some closet? Brandon Kempf has taken it to another level. He estimates that he owns 300 board  games…300! According to the website Board Game Geek, however, there are no less than 80,000 of these things.

“It started four or five years ago,” Kempf says. “My sister was searching for a present for my daughter, and she brought home a German board game that was a lot of fun. Everything kind of spiraled out of control from there.”

Kempf, 42, is a lifelong-resident of Central Missouri and a 1991 graduate of Jefferson City High School. He’s worked 15 years at Wolfner Library, which services those who are unable to use standard print materials due to a visual or physical disability. He plays games with his family, of course, but he also meets with a group once a month to have board game showdowns.

“We play more strategy-type games,” Kempf says. “Some of the heavier stuff. They might have a little bit of abstractness in them, and they’re not quite straight forward. You have to think a little differently.”

Kempf also plays online board games with friends and families around the country, and he usually plays two or three games at a time. But these games can take weeks. You take your turn then wait for your opponent to play and that wait can be lengthy. You think he’s not serious about this? Kempf has his own blog and podcast, both dedicated to board games. His weekly podcast normally runs about 30 minutes with his wife and children sometimes chiming in.

In addition to online and family games, Kempf has organized a quarterly Saturday group that meets up at the Missouri River Regional Library where games are played from 9 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon. He also attends a convention in St. Louis called Geekway to the West where four days are spent board gaming with about 1500 other like-minded gamers.

Adam McKinnieAnd somewhere between horseshoes and board games, you can find pinball, which Adam McKinnie calls a “skilled activity.” McKinnie started at the young age of two. “There are pictures of me in footy pajamas playing a machine that didn’t have any flippers,” he says.

When he was about 10, he started going to a 7-Eleven where the options were a pinball machine or video game. “When you play pinball and do well, you get to play again. When you played a video game, it didn’t matter how well you played, you didn’t get to play again.” And if you only had two quarters, the choice was easy. “It was basically me being an economist for the first time.”

He kept playing pinball machines through college and now, he’s a member of the International Flipper Pinball Association. Heard of it? Me either. McKinnie plays around the state, but he’s also been to places such as Atlanta and Seattle, not to mention Sweden. He plays in roughly 10 events a year.

McKinnie, 40, lives in Columbia and is an economist for the state but always makes time for his hobby. And he’s very, very good at it. “If I play a ball for 10 minutes [in competition], I’m very happy,” he says. “They make the machines as hard as possible or the very talented people would play forever.” McKinnie has been ranked as high as No. 22 in the nation, and he’s currently in the Top 40 and No. 3 in Missouri. He says pinball is about 75 percent skill at the highest level, and he says his accuracy rate for hitting targets is about 85 to 90 percent. “It’s a little bit like golf,” he says. “I can play my best game possible, but you can’t defend somebody else’s game.”

Horseshoes, board games, pinball … they certainly have their place and their avid gamers and with all three, you can do them and do them well for life.