News and Video : ESPN the Magazine Electronic Article : The Charmer
Robert Gagno is a pinball savant, but he wants so much more than just to be the world’s best player.
The kid begins each game the same way. Black headphones over his ears, he cocks the plunger and looks to the ceiling. Sometimes he grins. Sometimes he giggles. Sometimes he whispers a line from “King of the Hill” or a funny string of syllables like “Schipperke,” an allusion to the rare Belgian breed of dog that waits for him at home. Sometimes you wonder whether he’ll ever let go. Like he’s awaiting instructions.
Some players on the professional pinball circuit lean into a game as if it’s a tackling sled. Others are lithe as marionettes. Keith Elwin, who is probably the best player of all time, stands effortlessly, like he’s riding a longboard down a gentle incline. But when the kid is on his game, he folds his upper torso over the glass at almost a 90-degree angle, mirroring the machine’s rigid geometry. It’s an unorthodox stance, hips back, knees knocked together like a skier. He’ll catch two balls on one flipper and pass them back and forth, along with a third and fourth, hitting combinations of shots that seem to unlock the secret dreams pent up inside each cabinet.
He was 5 the first time he saw a pinball machine, at Wally’s Burgers in East Vancouver, British Columbia. They had to stand him on a wooden crate just so he could see what was under the glass. The game was called “Twilight Zone.” Something in his brain lit up. Even then, they knew he was different. There were doctors at the time who suggested he might never talk, that reading and writing were out of the question, that foster care was an option. His parents remember days when he was content simply to spin for long periods of time in one place. He was drawn to the electricity in exit signs. If he was left alone for a moment, he would bolt. He connected to the world by solving puzzles. “Twilight Zone,” among the most complex pinball games ever created, made perfect sense to him. In its realms of chaos, he found something that approached control.
By the time he was 9, kids would surround him at the roller-skating rink while he played “Space Jam” all afternoon on a single coin. They said what he did was inhuman. They joked he would get banned from the rink. The kid didn’t always understand jokes, but he came to revel in the attention.
On his 10th birthday, his father, Maurizio, brought home “Whirlwind.” Later, he heard another player on the circuit say, “That first machine is like bringing a roller coaster into your house.” Maurizio and his wife, Kathy, watched their son nudge and coax the game, able to express some inner capacity for guts and guile. In turn, they nudged and coaxed the kid, working on the sounds and words he made. At 13, logging another high score, he learned to write his initials: REG. Over time, the strained words turned into telegraphic speech, and he ventured further into the world. In 2008, Maurizio took him along on a business trip to Toronto. They registered for the Canadian Pinball Championships. The kid finished 12th.
At home, Maurizio scoured Craigslist for games and parts and playing fields — “Dirty Harry,” “Grand Lizard,” “World Cup Soccer” — eventually filling the family’s garage with more than a dozen such cabinets, spanning five decades of provenance. They wandered deeper out on the road, looking for anyone who could give the kid a good game. In the pockets of America where pinball was still played, REG spread like a graffiti tag.
In 2011, Maurizio took his son to Pittsburgh to compete in what is now the biggest tournament in pinball: Pinburgh. Even among the idiosyncratic types who travel across the country for a pinball tournament, the kid stood out. He mumbled questions about infamous hockey agitators. “Is Brad Marchand good at hockey, or is he a pest?” In the middle of a conversation, he would sometimes pull his headphones over his ears and walk away. One minute he appeared to be a novice, slamming both flippers cluelessly at once, the next he looked like he possessed some understanding that predated the addition of flippers to machines.
“The first time I saw him play, I was like, ‘Holy crap,'” professional player Penni Epstein says. “You felt your heart warm when he did something great. You live and die on every ball like nobody else.” That year at Pinburgh, the kid made it to the final group of four alongside Elwin. He was 22.
At the same time, pinball itself was being reborn, luring a new breed of competitor more fluent in (esports than Who nostalgia. The IFPA now ranks nearly 45,000 players around the world. A pinball tournament is played somewhere on earth almost every day of the year. Prizes are growing and machines are becoming more technical. The kid climbed into the top 10. He won the U.S. nationals in 2015 and cracked the top five soon after. He is thought by some to perceive things in a pinball machine that nobody else can, and Maurizio believes that once he has seen and learned enough machines in enough different contexts — if he can somehow control everything else he perceives — the kid, his son, Robert Emilio Gagno, will be the best player in the world. He will win Pinburgh. He will be something no one has ever seen before.
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Thanks to ESPN , Chris Koentges, and Andrew Cutraro for the article and pictures.