For disgraced former Joust king Steve Sanders, there’s life after the arcade 

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When the two squared off in Donkey Kong, Sanders couldn't break 200,000 points a game. It was a suspiciously bad day for someone who had claimed to have broken two or three times that amount.

"After that, I knew they looked at me with some skepticism," he says. Sanders returned to Kansas City thinking about what he had done. He wrote a letter.

Dear friends,

To some of you this letter will be rather shocking news....

He sent it to all the players he knew and to Walter Day.

"I think a lot of players were genuinely impressed that Steve had the sand to fess up to it and to apologize and to go on with his life," Day says. "I think if they weren't impressed, they had their own egos in the way, or they weren't mature enough to realize what an amazing thing he'd done, to own up to it. I've always admired Steve for what he did in the face of scorn. And no matter what he'd done, the truth is, he could still play better than just about anyone else."

Sanders could still make high scores. Six months later, he would get another shot at the big time.


The venue was the Bayside Expo Center in Boston.

A company called Electronic Circus had assembled a professional troupe of video-game stars as a traveling attraction. Day would be the ringmaster. He and 15 of Twin Galaxies' high scorers would visit 40 cities across North America. The public could attend and play the games, watch the champions and, if they felt bold enough, challenge them to competition. If the challenger won, he could replace the Twin Galaxies player on the tour.

The first show took place in Boston on July 15, 1983.

Billy Mitchell was 17. Electronic Circus expected him and the other kids to preserve their innocence. Their contract demanded a midnight curfew, forbade drugs and alcohol, and drew rigid guidelines on their conduct around the inevitable groupies.

"There was this guy, Jim Riley, who was running things. He said to us, 'I want you to be like the Brady Bunch,'" Mitchell remembers. Because Sanders was the oldest and billed as the team captain, he had the most interaction with Riley.

"Truth be known, we were wholesome guys," Mitchell says. "I don't remember a single one who smoked or drank."

It was the first time gamers had professional contracts. It was a disaster from the start.

The team was told that they would be booked into a five-star hotel. That lasted a few days, until the bill wasn't paid and they were locked out of their rooms, luggage still inside. They moved twice before settling on a low-rent inn.

Riley wanted them to look richer than they were. At dinners, he ordered steak and lobster for everyone. He rented a skybox for a Red Sox game.

"We were at this Red Sox game, and flying overhead was a plane flying a banner for the Circus," Mitchell remembers. "It wasn't necessary — he just liked presenting circumstances as he did."

More planes with banners might have helped. There was no TV advertising, and the players were tasked with promoting themselves. Some of it was easy, like going on a local radio station. Other times, Riley gave them megaphones and told them to walk along the beach barking about the show and handing out fliers.

Electronic Circus had reportedly budgeted $5 million to buy 500 machines representing 42 of the most popular arcade games. Air Supply was booked to perform. A man was hired to wear a gorilla suit.

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