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.
PROFESSIONAL PINBALL PLAYERS flying east to Pittsburgh like to route through Minneapolis-St. Paul. Robert, 26, zigzags left and right on the automated walkways that move through Terminal 1 as if his every move is controlled by magnets. "Are you worried there will be a baby seated beside you?" he asks. "Oh! A crying baby?"
He claps his hands in front of his chest, pushes the glasses up his nose. He nods for a step, twists backward, looks to the glassy ceiling and cracks a smile that is almost too big for his jaw. He pulls his headphones down to his shoulders. They rest there for a beat and then go back up again.
Just past the Body Shop, he tilts his head and sticks a finger in the air. "It's kind of like a mall, don't you think?" he says, standing perfectly still, inhaling the rush of synthetic flora through both nostrils. "Don't you think it smells beautiful?" Up ahead, in a nook opposite Gate C1, he sees it. "Mustang!"
There is something about discovering a pinball machine in the wild. A week earlier, Robert put the high score up on "Mustang" at a little arcade in Reno, Nevada. Four months before that, in Vegas, when Robert won the U.S. nationals, Stern Pinball sent him home with a "Mustang" machine from its factory in Chicago. "It's got flow," he likes to say, which means it's played somewhat chaotically throughout, one combination leading naturally into the next, in contrast to the meticulous catch-and-shoot style it takes to grind down great wide-body games of the '90s like "Twilight Zone." A flow player is thought to be a more natural entity, unpredictable and pure. Robert likes to think of himself as a flow player. And sometimes this instinct gets him into trouble.
If he had 20 minutes right now, he would make it so every player coming through Minneapolis would see REG flashing off "Mustang's" back glass. Then when he'd meet them, one by one, in the lobby at the Pittsburgh Westin, he could ask, mischievously, how they got to Pittsburgh and if they happened to notice the little arcade in Terminal 1 that had a new game. It would be the perfect conversation starter.
But what if Delta begins boarding his section just as he's lit multiball on "Mustang?" What if he has to give back to the pinball gods the bonus points he so artfully has accumulated on his third ball?
The third ball. The last time Robert played Pinburgh, he made it back to the final round of four along with this smooth cat out of Riverside County, California, named Jim Belsito. Their match came down to the final ball on a game called "FunHouse." A mechanical ventriloquist's dummy named Rudy sits atop the playfield. He and Belsito each racked up tens of millions of points. Then came Robert's third ball. Almost everything in pinball happens on the third ball, when all the targets and combinations have been hit and the points begin to increase exponentially. "He had everything lined up," Maurizio says. "All he had to do was shoot the ball into Rudy's mouth." Instead, well, if you've spent any time near an arcade, you've heard what Rudy tells everyone in the vicinity when that last ball drains: "The FunHouse is closed."
All of Robert's life, Maurizio has eased his son through these scenarios. Good balls. Bad balls. Life. Airports. They used to practice going to airports together before they actually flew anywhere. They practiced lineups, checkpoints, the sudden beeping of metal detectors, the endless questions -- all the seemingly trivial social exchanges that for Robert might quickly ripple into anxious thoughts. They could anticipate almost every situation. But a couple of days before this trip, Maurizio quietly informed his son that he wasn't coming. It was time. Eventually, you must trust all that you and your son have practiced. You have to trust the strangers rushing through the world around him to have some latent human capacity for empathy. But now Robert is nervous. The biggest pinball tournament in the history of the world and Maurizio isn't with him? "You have to admit, that's a little bit unusual," Robert says.
For a moment, he is caught between these looping thoughts: airports and crying babies and his dad and his dog, Lupo, the schipperke, who hasn't been feeling too well, and Rudy and the failed third ball and the depth of the Allegheny River and, finally, is Brad Marchand any good at hockey or just a pest?
"Do you think Brad Marchand is really that great of a player?" Robert asks.
Why are you so obsessed with Marchand?
"Because when Marchand gets hurt, people get excited."
You spend a lot of time thinking about him.
"He's just a pest! Like -- what about Raffi Torres?"
What about Raffi Torres?
"Is he a pest or not really?"
Do you think you would be a pest if you played hockey?
"No. Well ... maybe a little bit. You know who some say was a dirty player himself sometimes? Aaron Rome. That was a dirty player! That hit on Horton in the Stanley Cup finals." Robert smashes his fingers together in delight.
How many times have you watched that hit?
"Like a hundred times."
Which hit have you watched more than any other?
How many times have you watched the Hossa hit?
"Like -- hundreds of times." He is now silently clapping his hands.
Why so often?
"Some think the Chicago Blackhawks did not deserve a hit like that! Some say it's probably one of the baddest hits in like -- 10 years! It's probably going to be a top five baddest hits! Do you think it deserves to be in that spot?"
The loop accelerates. From Torres to Marty McSorley to Claude Lemieux. Robert is deep inside this airport now. And Robert is rallying.
PINBURGH IS A match-play tournament. In the early rounds, unranked players can find themselves in a bank of machines against the world's elite. Pinburgh is where a young player will see Elwin up close. "I've never seen anyone play in a way like that," Robert says. "Controlling balls. Having multiball abilities. It's like Keith Elwin can read the ball five seconds ahead of time. He knows exactly how its behavior is." After they played the first time, Elwin told Robert: "You have good aim. The thing you have to understand is that certain combinations open things up."
To properly learn the game, Robert sifted through the jumble of manuals online, watching video tutorials, piecing together strategies off pinball discussion forums. This is how he conquered small talk and ordering food at a restaurant and his 12th-grade departmental exams. He learned about players who take the glass off machines and practice dropping and catching with each flipper. He repeated these acts, dropping and catching, dropping and catching.
Those on the circuit have not always known what to make of Robert's game. In the 2014 final, Twitch.tv commentators puzzled over some of his decisions yet marveled at his feel for the game. "Robert likes control so much, he is willing to give up opportunity in order to maintain control," one said, and then moments later: "The little flicks that he's doing on the flippers ... there's another triple! My god!"
Robert claps behind his back while keeping the ball up on triple jackpot. He bounces on his toes, vibrating. When something is about to blow up, Robert likes to take one hand off the flippers, stand on his toes, raise his eyebrows and point at where you just might want to look. This is what he calls charm. More than his wanting to be the world's best pinball player, Robert wants to be its most charming. Alone in the garage, between the drop catches and target shooting, he diligently practices charm. Unlocking wizard mode on "World Cup Soccer," he lets his jacket fall down his back like Michael Jackson, imagining his fans are watching in chat rooms online. "I like feeling charming with them," he says.
It can be a challenge for Robert to talk to more than one person at once. In January, around 400 people sat in an old movie theater in East Vancouver to watch Robert play pinball. The host of the event asked what Robert listens to when his headphones are up. The audience shouted guesses as Robert did a number on the "Walking Dead" game, shaking his head in delight with each incorrect guess.
Robert liked this last answer but just whispered, "How many walkers you kill today?" then looked back down at the game. The crowd fell silent.
A few nights before Pinburgh in the summer of 2015, I ask whether he has invented any shots, as some of the other greats have. "No," he says. The realization seems to unsettle him. He looks down at Metallica and begins to address the machine -- or more specifically, the ghoulish character in the electric chair between the two ramps. "Hey, Sparky, can you do a backflip?" he asks. He nudges the machine sharply, the way he would to keep the ball from draining. Sparky's head shakes in different directions, then settles into a horizontal movement. Robert asks more questions. And Sparky answers with similar head gestures. Some yes. Some no. "Sparky, do you know what a schipperke is?" "Sparky, am I going to win Pinburgh?" Sparky indicates in the affirmative.
"How do you know Sparky's telling the truth?" ?I ask.
"Hey, Sparky, do you always tell the truth?"
Sparky nods again. Robert looks me dead in the eye. He once told his mom that looking in someone's eyes hurts his head. It's unclear in this moment whether the shot he has invented is to solicit truth from a pinball machine -- to reveal its true soul -- or whether, more than revealing the soul of the machine, he is controlling it with such precision that it will give him the answers he wants.