Cranes, Claws, Controversy

Posted by Brandon |

If you've been following me on Twitter the last few days, you know that I got my first freelance writing gig. On very short notice, my friend, who happens to be the editor of the startup weekly Emerald City Sports, asked me to cover a semi-secret sporting event happening right in my backyard, so I jumped at the opportunity. Little did I know that it would be such a fascinating ride. What follows is the front page article that will hit newstands today throughout the Seattle area. Pick me up a copy, if you happen to see one. And thanks for all of your support!

“I am the greatest arcade claw player in the world!” An exhausted yet triumphant Joe Nguyen yelled after capturing the World Arcade Claw Organization’s championship on Wednesday night in downtown Olympia, Washington.

The nearly 24-hour long competition held at the Loft on Cherry Street capped off a year of scandal and change in the competitive arcade claw circuit. A year that started with the revelation of years of fraud, led to the dissolution of the world organizing body, the disappearance of its leader and finally ended with the first clean crane machine world championship in nearly ten years.

Endurance: “I Didn’t Think I Was THAT Good”

The WACO Championships kicked off on Tuesday night with the endurance test, 12 solid hours of arcade claw play, six hours longer than any other previous championship endurance test. Other than the 10 minute breaks that are given every three hours, the 65 competitors from around the world stand in one spot, hunched over, picking candy and stuffed animals out of a machine.

“This is the most demanding competition in the history of our sport,” said Commissioner Gregory Kporku, the underground arcade claw legend that founded WACO after the International Crane Machine Association was taken over and dissolved in April of 2009. “This will really separate the real champion competitors from the pretenders. It has already scared away most of them.”

The son of the Ghanan ambassador to China, Kporku is highly regarded in the arcade claw world. The markets of Beijing, where he spent his teenage years, are filled with claw machines. You can insert a coin and fish out anything from iPods to stuffed Hello Kitties to live animals. Though most claw machines are programmed to payout in advantage to the owners of the machine, Kporku would routinely pull winners nine times out of ten.

“I’d go in, spend a few dollars, pull out a couple high ticket electronics, sell them and make 200% profit. Then I’d use a few more dollars, pull out a few live lobsters or crabs and give them to a couple of the poorer vendors at the market. I did it quietly and secretly and only a couple people knew.”

But after about a year of losing more than they ever did before, the owners of the cranes discovered the source of their losses and put the clamp down.

“I couldn’t even enter the markets anymore; the security guards harassed me anytime I came near.”

As word of his prowess leaked out, Kporku was approached by a couple businessmen about entering the 2002 International Crane Machine Association’s Championship, coincidentally being held in Beijing. He easily won the championship dominating the three disciplines – endurance, speed and skill – but never felt right about the win.

“It was too easy, I knew I was good, but I didn’t think I was THAT good.”

Disillusioned, Kporku never returned to international competition, but his legend in the competitive arcade crane universe grew as YouTube videos would pop up of him emptying machines all around the world.

“Anywhere I went, I’d find a machine, we’d tape me cleaning it out and usually donating the prizes to the kids that inevitably would surround me while I was doing it. But I never knew that my star was rising because of the videos.”

When the endurance test ends at 8:00 AM, Wednesday morning, 42 of the 65 competitors remain standing. With one third of the players already knocked out, most with sore backs - crane machines are notoriously short – a three hour break is called to give the competitors a rest and to prepare the Loft at Cherry Street for the skills competition.

“It was a successful night,” boasts the Commissioner. “Now the fun begins. Now we’ll find out who is really skilled.”

Skills: “Young Kids, Beautiful Women and Underdogs from Impoverished Lives”

The skills competition begins at 11:00 AM. Two competitors don’t show back up to the Loft, their weary backs getting the best of them in their hotel rooms. The remaining 40 players will go, one-by-one in front of a panel of three judges.

Ten machines are setup with various sized and shaped prizes, randomly programmed with different claw grip strengths, all with different rules of play. Each competitor must pass each test to continue on in the competition. The pressure is enormous. One mistake and your championship run immediately comes to an end.

In the previous 10 years, the skills competition has closed out the championship and was rather subjective while the speed round usually came second, after the endurance test. Now, the competition is more like a tournament. Survivors of the endurance test move onto the skills test and survivors of the skills test move onto the speed round and the winner of the speed round is the champion.

In the 2009 ICMA Championships held in Puerto Vallarta, Melissa Kenworthy, a comely 20 year-old from Richmond, Indiana, who has since filmed two VH1 reality shows, was the only competitor left standing after the skills competition despite barely escaping the endurance test and coming in second to last in the speed round.

Kenworthy’s resounding victory was the boldest and most transparent fraud carried out in the history of the ICMA championships. Suspicions of foul play were already high after the 2008 competition in Bucharest when offshore gambling parlors reported a record amount of bets were placed on the eventual champion, Scott Hufnagel, a 12 year-old boy from Adelaide, Australia.

“Every champion this sport has had since 2001 have been completely unknown prior to winning,” said WACO commissioner Kporku. “And after the first few years, looking back at it, they all fit a marketable mold: young kids, beautiful women, underdogs from impoverished lives. With each year, it became obvious to the serious players that somebody, maybe even ICMA, was choosing the most marketable competitors and rigging the machines to give them the win.”

Most of the champions never knew they were chosen to be victors and walked away from the championship with only a small cash reward, a trophy and the requirement to represent ICMA on goodwill and marketing appearances.

However, starting with Hufnagel in 2008 and perhaps even the 2007 winner, Bobby Sanchez of Reynosa, Mexico, it appears that champions started to profit greatly from their wins. Shortly after his win, Hufnagel’s family moved from their 700 square foot, two bedroom apartment in a lower-middle class Adelaide neighborhood to a six bedroom, 4,500 square foot McMansion in a tony suburb while Sanchez is an international playboy, a far cry from his previous life working in a tortilleria.

Kenworthy confirmed suspicions when in June of 2009 she sued ICMA president John Koflanovich to retrieve what she claimed was promised to her: 25% of his offshore gambling wins on the competition, a modeling contract with the Ford Modeling Agency and a starring role in a Pussycat Dolls knockoff that he claimed he was producing for a Las Vegas casino. But Kenworthy claims that when Koflanovich’s romantic advances were rebuked, he became withdrawn, started sending her to humiliating marketing appearances and never paid her a cent.

Koflanovich hasn’t been seen since two days after Kenworthy filed her lawsuit. And though a few clues have emerged that he is still alive, his family fears the worst.

Back in Olympia, it is 4:30 PM and the skills competition has finally wrapped up. There were a few bumps along the way including some technical difficulties with the random grip strength machine that threaten to mar the results of the championship, but most of the competitors agree that this was a very fair test of their skills.

25 competitors remain. Knocked out in this round: 14 year-old Scott Hufnagel, a surprise last minute entry to the competition. He was unable to finish even the most basic of skills and left the Loft without comment.

Speed: “We Didn’t Care, It Was Exhilarating”

25 arcade claw machines line the room, all set with the exact same grip strength settings, all filled with identical stuffed animals, all set to allow two moves before dropping the claw. When the bell rings, all 25 competitors run to their machines with one simple goal: pick out the most stuffed animals in 60 minutes.

Amongst the crowd of hopefuls still in the running for the WACO championship are Kevin Mattingly – the first ICMA champion in 1999 and cofounder of the organization in 1997 with Koflanovich – and 2006 champion Joe Nguyen.

Kevin Mattingly met John Koflanovich in 1996 as a freshman at Bowling Green State University.

“We were fraternity brothers and roommates,” recalls Mattingly during a break from the competition. “I don’t know where it came from, but a crane machine turned up, tipped over in the middle of our room. Rather than get mad about this strange hazing, we picked it up, plugged it in and started playing.”

After a huge success with a 1997 Greek system tournament, Mattingly and Koflanovich jokingly founded the ICMA, produced a website in a computer science class and organized their first international tournament. Expecting a handful of friends from Ohio to come, it came as a huge surprise when 50 people from as far away as Norway came to play in the first ICMA championship held at the BGSU Student Union.

“We had no idea it would be a hit,” says Mattingly. “Our website ended up in an arcade claw message board that we didn’t even know existed and people got really excited. It was the first tournament of its kind. We had to totally rewrite the rules and get more machines. But we didn’t care, it was exhilarating.”

But the unexpected success put a strain on their relationship. After winning the first championship, Mattingly settled back into college life while Koflanovich left school to promote the ICMA internationally, convinced that he had hit upon an idea that would make him rich.

“He got rich alright, and I made a fair share of money,” said Mattingly. “But with each passing year, the people that he brought in got shadier and shadier until I had enough and became the most silent of silent partners. I kept my ownership share, but didn’t collect any money or have anything to do with the ICMA until after the 2009 tournament.”

When Koflanovich disappeared following Melissa Kenworthy’s lawsuit, Mattingly went straight to work researching the business and discovered that every championship since 2001 had been tainted, rigged by either international gamblers or by Koflanovich himself.

Immediately he distributed the ICMA’s assets over to the players that he felt had been cheated and then dissolved the organization. A month later he formed the WACO as a member owned co-op and hired Gregory Kporku, the passionate former champion, internet sensation and arcade claw hero who was eager to change the culture of a sport that he helped tarnish.

“I could tell when I met him that he was embarrassed and pretty pissed off that he had been taken advantage of,” said Mattingly, “and he wanted to do something about it. He wanted to have clean, pure competitions. He was a perfect fit for commissioner.”

Joe Nguyen also had an axe to grind with Koflanovich. Nguyen shocked everybody when he won the championship in 2006. Most shocked were the international gamblers that Koflanovich conspired with to rig the games in favor of Adela Diaz, the holy trinity of ICMA champions – 14 years-old, supermodel beauty, from an impossibly impoverished upbringing in Guatemala.

“I was just better than her,” says Oxnard, California native Nguyen. “Even handicapped, even with rigged machines, I beat her.”

But Nguyen paid a price for his victory. Koflanovich spread rumors among ICMA members that Nguyen himself had cheated. He then let loose his co-conspirators and they shook Nguyen down for cash, periodically roughed him up and generally made his life a living nightmare for the next year after winning the championship.

“Winning in 2006 turned out to be the worst thing that could happen.”

Apparently, Nguyen’s victory drove Koflanovich to take total control of who won and how they won. The next three year’s competitions weren’t even close and participation in the event by serious players dwindled. When Kenworthy won in 2009, nobody was surprised.

“As soon as she walked in the room, I said ‘there’s our winner’,” recalls Mike Cannon, a five time ICMA championship participant and WACO championship finalist.

“This year is totally different. Everybody has a chance, anybody could win. It’s exciting to finally feel that way.”

With five minutes remaining in the speed round, the competition is close. Kevin Mattingly – competing in his first competition since 2000 – leads with 95 animals picked. Joe Nguyen is in second with 93 and Marianne Beaman is third with 90. Mattingly glances up at the scoreboard and you can literally see him tense up. He misses his next four attempts while Nguyen gets three out of four.

With a 96-95 lead, Nguyen settles into a rhythm and doesn’t miss another attempt finishing with 104 animals picked in 60 minutes. Mattingly only manages to pick three in the final five minutes and finishes in second with 98.

Minutes later, watching commissioner Kporku on stage, awash with confetti, hand over the WACO championship trophy and an oversized check in the amount of $500 – all the prize money that could be afforded this year - to Nguyen, Mattingly beams with pride.

“Sure I came in second. I kind of choked down the stretch. But it doesn’t matter. We have our rightful champion. We have our clean championships. We have our sport back in order. This is all I could ask for.”


kapgar said...

There's something stinky goin' on here. And not just in the world of Claw games...


Dave2 said...

You've found your calling...