Sometimes even the best pinball wizards can’t summon their old tricks.
“Well, that sucked,” Roger Sharpe mutters loudly in disgust after striking a ball that immediately caroms off a bumper and zips down the drain of the Old West-themed game Sharpshooter. Sharpe may end up relegated to
Tonight, as always, Josh and Zach Sharpe are competing with—and against—their father. The Sharpe trio
To be fair, it’s more like a secret arcade museum. Turn left as you reach the bottom of the stairs and you come face-to-face with a display of more than a hundred of Josh’s pinball tournament trophies, stacked neatly on metal shelves. From the trophy corridor, you can hear the cacophonous chorus of flippers flipping, bumpers bumping, balls clacking, and endless blips and beeps. Walk several more feet north and you reach a long dark hall lit up by the glow of bright florescent lights from the two-dozen machines that line both walls. Josh’s collection is arranged chronologically, from the 1965 Gottlieb game Cow Poke (the first pinball game his dad ever played) to the Guardians of the Galaxy game Chicago-based manufacturer Stern Pinball released just a few months ago. And then there’s Sharpshooter—which really should be called
“I can’t believe I’m losing at my own game,” Roger says.
Look close enough and you can also spot Roger on the adjacent Cyclopes pinball machine he also designed. It’s a ridiculous rendition: he’s wearing sunglasses and a Viking helmet while riding a horse shirtless, fiercely brandishing a sword at a cyclops.
Forty years later, at age 69, Roger still somewhat resembles his pinball avatar, even if that distinctively bushy mustache is silvery gray now instead of dark brown. Aging has been unkind to him in other ways—the slipping hand-eye coordination, the ruptured discs in his back, the torn ligaments in his wrists. It’s hard not to notice that his wrists are splinted tonight. Yet his eyes still have a youthful way of lighting up when he plays, and he kicks his legs up with surprising agility during particularly thrilling stretches of a game.
“Sure, my skills have diminished. I’m acutely aware of that. But, you know—I’m old, I’m older than dirt,” he says. “But there are times when I pull something out of my butt and people are like, ‘Wow.’ And I’m like, ‘Did you catch that? Because it just might not happen again for another lifetime.’ ”
More broadly, if anyone can lay claim to an entire game or hobby, it’s Roger. A generation ago he was among the greatest players in the world and one of the architects of competitive pinball. He also wrote the first serious book on the subject and worked in the industry in some shape or form for more than a
That’s why Roger is often asked to play a ceremonial first ball at tournaments—pinball’s equivalent to Arnold Palmer kicking off the Masters or Ernie Banks tossing out the first pitch at a Cubs game. His name is invoked with reverence in pinball-themed magazines and on message boards, podcasts, and other forums. “All of this electronic furniture we love so much wouldn’t be here if not for [Roger],” says Jack Danger, host of the Chicago-based online pinball show Dead Flip, which streams on Twitch.
“Roger Sharpe” can’t be said to be a household name, and if you google it the only Wikipedia page you’ll find is dedicated to the former North Carolina state senator who shares it. But in the insular world of hard-core pinball enthusiasts, Roger Sharpe is Mr. Pinball—though maybe not for much longer.
America is tilting once again.
The old pastime of saving an 80-gram steel sphere from its downhill trajectory using a pair of flippers is on
Increased sales prompted Stern Pinball to move from a 40,000-square-foot factory in Melrose Park to a 110,000-square-foot building in Elk Grove in 2015. In the two years since then, the company has increased the number of units it builds by 80 percent. And now it’s got more competition. A decade ago, Stern was the last pinball manufacturer in the United States, but new companies keep popping up.
There’s been a corresponding rise in interest in the competitive pinball scene. Pinball leagues continue to sprout all over the world, and the number of tournaments and players that the International Flipper Pinball Association (IFPA) tracks have both increased a hundredfold—from approximately 50 tournaments and 500 players ranked worldwide in 2007 to 5,000 tournaments a year in 23 countries and nearly 60,000 players in 2018.
And yes, even pinball’s demographics are changing. It’s still heavily populated by middle-aged men, but more than 12 percent of ranked players are now women. Belles and Chimes—a network of women’s leagues—has spread to 21 international chapters, including one that meets regularly at Logan Arcade in Logan Square.
There are also
Pinball’s youthful resurgence coincides with the baby-boomer generation’s fade into old age and retirement. It’s possible that soon the game may finally be ready to escape the long shadow cast by its storied past.
If it does, you’ll be able to thank the duo working hardest to move pinball beyond the legacy of Roger Sharpe—his children.
It’s not easy to follow in your father’s footsteps when your dad is Roger Sharpe, but Josh and Zach Sharpe are doing their damnedest. That’s reinforced by the number of hats they wore at the first-ever Stern Pinball Pro Circuit Championship at Bottom Lounge in the West Loop on March 24.
For Zach, 36, one of those hats was quite literal: he wore a red-billed Stern Pinball baseball cap to go along with his signature red T-shirt with the letter “Z” emblazoned on the front. That’s no coincidence. In August, Stern Pinball hired Zach as its director of marketing, a position similar to the one Roger held for years at the Chicago arcade-game conglomerate Williams/Bally/Midway (which later became WMS Industries). Last year Josh became
The idea behind the championship event, says Zach, was to build a bridge between the nation’s biggest pinball manufacturer and two of the sport’s organizing bodies—the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association and the International Flipper Pinball Association—and create a tournament similar to the PGA’s annual Players Championship. “It’s a separate circuit than pinball’s majors, but it is the true premier circuit event,” says Zach.
It was a relatively easy partnership to solidify because of the family’s network of ties. Zach works for Stern and serves as the vice president of the IFPA. Josh is the IFPA’s president, and Roger sits on its board as chairman. The eldest Sharpe also cofounded PAPA in the mid-80s.
Both brothers worked overtime in producing the championship. They set up interviews with the media, hired C-list celebrities to help attract a crowd, and when I tracked them down on the morning of the tournament, they were doing grunt work, sitting at a table with clipboards checking in the 38 other competitors here from around the country.
And Zach had a number one world ranking to defend. He finished 2017 as the top player among 58,000 active players, according to the IFPA’s World Pinball Player
The top floor of the Bottom Lounge was packed with equipment: two-dozen pinball machines, camcorders recording the action, and a broadcasting booth, but it felt oddly intimate, like a family reunion. And not just because of the presence of the Sharpe brothers and young pinball prodigy Escher Lefkoff and his father, Adam, also a nationally ranked player. The faces of the pinball elite—or “pinheads,” as they sometimes call themselves—are changing (four of the event’s players were under the age of 18), but it’s still a relatively tiny, insular world. The core group has traveled to the same handful of major tournaments together for so long, some for decades, that they’ve formed deep bonds over their shared love of the silver ball. When I asked Sunshine Bon, an Atlanta woman—the only female player of the 40 qualifiers—what her friends thought of her favorite pastime, she replied: “You can ask them. A lot of my best friends are here—they’re other pinball players.”
To the outsider, their conversations rife with lingo about “drop targets” and “kick-out holes” aren’t always easy to decipher. “God, there’s nothing like relying on
Sea Witch was one of ten different machines from three eras that contenders had to master at the eight-hour-long competition, ranging from the vintage (60s-70s) to the “golden era” (80s-90s) to modern games. On the surface, pinball seems relatively unchanged since flippers were invented in 1947; today’s machines mostly differ in having more video displays and digital sound effects, and more games themed around rock bands, blockbuster movie franchises, and comic books, among other pop-culture ephemera. They’re still essentially boxes stuffed with a mess of wires (almost a half mile’s worth) and a plunger used to hit a ball into a playfield filled with hundreds of tiny components—flashing lights, bumpers, ramps. The player’s job is the same: to keep the ball in play by jamming buttons that control two or more flippers. Since contemporary video games are a completely different beast from the days of Atari, to some it seems like pinball has stubbornly refused to evolve.
The Sharpes disagree. Listening to them describe the subtle changes in pinball over the last four decades, I feel like a wine novice who thinks all reds taste alike talking to master sommeliers. The newer games are more complex, they say, some—like Stern’s Star Wars pinball game released last year—featuring rudimentary
“Pinball actually can be like chess because your strategy is constantly evolving,” says Zach. “If you’re, say, the second player or fourth player, your strategy changes based on what your opponent is trying to do.” The vast majority of people play pinball in a state of mild panic—just trying desperately to slap the ball to keep it in play. For experts, there’s an intentionality to nearly everything they do with their flippers.
Even so, it’s one thing to know the right way to play and another to execute perfectly. Pinball is a beguiling game that requires skill and an occasional assist from Lady Luck. Every playfield is fraught with danger. There are three places where your ball can drain on its own—the small gap between your two flippers, and the
It’s impossible to say whether the Sharpes’ success can be attributed to nature or nurture. Roger says he may have passed down some kind of pinball gene, but
“Imagine having seven pinball games in a studio apartment,” Josh says. “From an outsider’s perspective, it’s kind of fucking weird. But for me, it was normal.”
Playing in tournaments together is also completely normal for the brothers. They’re millennials, but the Sharpe brothers are already 25-year veterans of competitive pinball. They were ages 14 and 12, respectively, when they first participated in the children’s division at the Chicago Pinball Expo. “We begged our dad to let us, and he eventually caved,” says Zach. “And we ended up dominating and loved it, and we’ve basically done it ever since.” Since 2000, they’ve competed in the same pinball tournament 244 times.
Regardless of rank, sometimes the pinball refuses to bounce your way. Zach—the top seed—missed the second-round cut of the Stern Tournament. This time it was Josh who took the spotlight by edging out 46-year-old Keith Elwin of Carlsbad, California, in the semifinals—the same man who’s won 77 tournaments and nine major championships over his long pinball career (“He’s kind of the Michael Jordan of pinball,” Zach tells me). Next Josh outscored 15-year-old Colin Urban in an intense game of RoboCop to take home a trophy, styled like a wrestling championship belt, and the first-place prize of $2,500. Ironically, because of a shipping snafu, the belt Josh raises in victory is Zach’s from a tournament he won last year. It’s symbolic
“We call it the Split,” says Zach. “It’s another reason why we’re each other’s biggest cheerleader.”
Iron Maiden Pinball Launch Party
Friday 5/4, 7 PM, Logan Arcade, 2410 W Fullerton Ave., free, 21+
Roger Sharpe’s aspirations as a kid growing up in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood in the 60s were more conventional than pinball champion—though no less ambitious. His success on the track team at Hyde Park High School convinced him he’d eventually land on a Wheaties box as an Olympic runner. “I was only four foot nine and weighed about 95 pounds, but I was fearless and fast,” Roger says.
He didn’t play pinball until he went to college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was never an option because, well, there was nowhere to play in the city. The game was banned for decades starting in the 1940s in many major cities—including Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles—after it was depicted as sinful.
Pinball began as a coin-operated version of bagatelle—a 18th-century French table game derived from billiards that later spread across the Atlantic. These “marble games” or “pin games” exploded in popularity in the early 1930s due to the sweeping success of Baffle Ball, a baseball-themed machine made by Gottlieb, a pinball and game company located in West Humboldt Park.
New companies devoted to pinball and coin-operated amusements sprang up over the next few decades, nearly all of them founded in Chicago. A.B.T. Manufacturing emerged in 1925, Bally in 1932, Williams in 1943, and Midway in 1958. Some of these companies also produced slot machines, and pinball machines blurred the line between gaming and gambling devices in those early years. Before Gottlieb revolutionized the game by introducing player-controlled two-inch bats called flippers (which first appeared on a game called Humpty Dumpty in 1947), pinball relied much more on chance. Once players fired off a ball with a plunger, the only way to get a ball into a given hole was by nudging the device. Some early machines gave out cash payments.
That association with the coin-op gambling industry made pinball a target by crusaders who believed gambling itself went hand in hand with crime, drinking, smoking, and, as one critic put it, “gathering places for undesirables.” In a time of moral panic, some saw pinball as a gateway drug that would inevitably lure kids into a seedy criminal underworld.
New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia pioneered the citywide ban, ordering pinball machines prohibited in 1941 as part of a crime crackdown on the grounds that they were games of chance, not skill, and therefore no better than slot machines. He associated the game with Italian mob activity, and called pinball operators “slimy crews of tinhorns, well dressed and living in luxury on penny thievery.” He saw the game as part of a broader “craze” for gambling. (LaGuardia wasn’t totally off. In 1980, Chicago-based Bally Manufacturing nearly lost its casino license in Atlantic City because it was learned that Gerardo “Jerry” Catena, a reputed leader in the Vito Genovese crime family, had been one of the original investors in Bally’s forerunner company.)
The mayor told the police to make Prohibition-style pinball raids and seizures their “top priority,” and on the first day of the ban, New York City officers confiscated more than 2,000 pinball machines and issued nearly 1,500 summons. There’s a famous black-and-white photograph of LaGuardia holding a sledgehammer, proudly smashing the seized machines. A New York Times article published in 1942 claimed that the “shiny trimmings of 2,000 machines” had been stripped and sent off to the country’s munitions factories to contribute to the World War II effort—the rest were dumped into the East River. Other major cities followed suit.
It was still banned by the time pinball-obsessed Roger moved to New York City after college. The first story the budding journalist ever wrote about pinball was a result of research he did on how to buy his favorite machine for his own apartment. “My motivation to write about pinball was simple,” he says. “I wanted to find out how I could buy a Buckaroo Cow Poke.” He wrote a pinball feature that appeared in the winter 1975 issue of GQ and followed that with a feature in the New York Times‘s Arts and Leisure section. Those pieces became the impetus for his 1977 book, Pinball!.
The GQ and New York Times pieces served another purpose—this one entirely unexpected. They drew the attention of the Amusement & Music Operators Association, a trade organization that wanted to take on the then-35-year-old ban on pinball in New York. “It was those pieces and the fact that, well, I guess I became somewhat of an accomplished player, I’ll say modestly,” says Roger, with a proud smile. “Probably better than anybody else in the world at that point in time.
“So they reached out to me and said, ‘Hi, we’re looking at trying to overturn the ban, would you be willing to go and testify to demonstrate that pinball is a game of skill and has nothing to do with gambling?’
“And I was like, ‘Yes, where do I sign up?'”
The most iconic plays in sports history have evocative nicknames. The Immaculate Reception. The Shot Heard ‘Round the World. The Goal of the Century. Pinball has its own version: the Called Shot That Saved Pinball.
It refers to a particular moment in 1976 when Sharpe, then 28, testified in the New York City Council chambers, where two machines had been set up during a hearing.
Roger began talking through his specific shots but soon realized calling his flipper shots didn’t seem to be impressing them as expected. So he tried to dazzle the councilmen with a single skillful shot of the plunger—the springy tool used to launch a ball into the playfield. The idea was to “call” which of the five narrow lanes he’d shoot the ball through.
“I told them, if I do this shot just right, it’s going to go right down the center,” says Roger. “And so I pull back the plunger, let it go, and the ball went up, hit the rubber, made a beautiful arc back, and came right back down the center. Boom. Done. And I guess it changed the course of pinball.”
Soon afterward, the New York City Council voted overwhelmingly to overturn the ban. Chicago followed its lead a few months later.
It’s fitting that Roger’s plunger shot routinely gets compared to Babe Ruth’s iconic “called shot” against the Cubs in the 1932 World Series. Both events were spread through word of mouth and oral history, and their mystique has only grown over time.
“The story of Roger has been told, like, in the lobby over and over and over again,” says Danger, the Dead Flip host. “And I think it keeps getting slightly exaggerated more and more.”
Regardless, the shot is so enshrined in Roger Sharpe’s lore that one of his nicknames is “The Man Who Saved Pinball.” As a teen Josh had a custom T-shirt that read: “My Dad Saved Pinball.” The story is even told (with slurred speech) in a 2015 episode of the Comedy Central show Drunk History.
Chicago has long reigned as the historic capital of the pinball manufacturing business, but in the mid-70s through the 80s, a time when pinball enjoyed some countercultural cachet, New York held bragging rights as the essential local scene.
Just like the prohibition of alcohol, the pinball ban there didn’t stop the game—it drove it underground into sex shops and dive bars. There were about 4,000 machines operating illegally in various establishments throughout the city in 1976—many in the Greenwich Village neighborhood, then the center of bohemian culture. Pinball became lazy shorthand for “rebel” in pop culture, as reinforced by that leather-jacket-clad pinball wizard the Fonz from Happy Days (who of course got his own pinball machine).
The year after the ban was lifted, the game’s epicenter became Broadway Arcade, the Times Square joint where arcade rats like Sharpe mingled with celebrities and Broadway stars. It became the CBGB of pinball.
“It was a melting pot where the celebrities would come in after their gigs or whatever show was playing. Paul Simon would come in here. Muhammad Ali. Sarah Jessica Parker when she was the star of Annie,” says Roger.
Lou Reed, the rock pioneer, attended Roger’s wedding reception held at Broadway Arcade (which closed in 1997), and Reed later held his own wedding reception—with 50 guests, cake, and gifts—at the arcade. “You just kind of took it for granted that suddenly you’re friends with Lou Reed and Roberta Flack and whoever else,” says Roger. “It was like you were just one of a gang who was like, let’s just play pinball and have some fun.”
It was while flipping the days away at Broadway Arcade that Roger and Broadway Arcade owner Steve Epstein started the pet project that would eventually lead to pinball’s first organizing body.
Roger has a photographic memory, so he can tell you the exact day the idea came to him: Saturday, February 11, 1978—the same day he beat Walter Payton in pinball. The occasion was the first (and last) “Super Shooter” National Pinball Tournament in Chicago, where 20 finalists out of 60,000 total entrants converged on the glitzy dance floors of the old Playboy Club on the Magnificent Mile to compete for the grand prize—a new car (“a Datsun 280Z,” Roger recalls).
The Bears’ star running back beat out Bobby Orr, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, and other actors and athletes in a celebrity tournament during a halftime intermission at Super Shooter. Next up: a match against Roger, “the pro.” As Sharpe recalls, he was on pace to outscore Payton’s entire game during his first ball when Murray jokingly grabbed him by the lapel and yanked him downward. “I still beat Walter while playing from my knees,” Sharpe remembers with a broad smile. “Somewhere in my closet, I still have that sweater that Bill Murray ripped.”
Later that day, Roger watched as 19-year-old Kenneth Lunsford hit a five-times multiplier in his last ball on the game Eight Ball to win the Super Shooter title. He was struck by the arbitrariness of the shot. “It all came down to one shot, and that didn’t quite seem fair,” says Sharpe. “The net result from my obsession-compulsion was to try and come up with a better scoring system.”
Steve and Roger launched PAPA and league play in the mid-80s and helmed multiple world championship tournaments starting in 1991, most of them held in New York City. It was a time when pinball enjoyed another massive jolt of popularity—a period also known as a golden age for the machines themselves. Sales peaked around 1992, with more than 100,000 machines manufactured, including The Addams Family game, the best-selling machine ever.
“There were so many interesting things happening with this emerging marketplace, but then it was like, ‘Boom!'” says Roger. “Very quickly the air just got let out of the balloon.”
When Zach and Josh took over IFPA in 2006 and launched the first World Pinball Player Rankings, the competitive pinball organization had been dormant since 1995. The path to revive the sport—and pinball as a whole—has been littered with obstacles and detours.
The entire industry was in a state of near extinction throughout the 2000s. The problem? There was nowhere to play pinball anymore. During their peak, the brightly hued machines were ubiquitous in Chicago and elsewhere. “There wasn’t a bar or a tavern in Chicago that you would walk into and not find a pinball next to a jukebox or next to a pool table or whatever else,” recalls Roger. That began to change as video games began to displace them in the arcade world.
“Video games were making more money, and they didn’t break,” says Jarvis. “Think about it: you’ve got this solid-steel ball you’re smacking around and you inevitably end up destroying stuff. And they aren’t easy—or cheap—to fix.”
Jarvis followed suit in that same era. He’d worked as a programmer for the Chicago-based pinball manufacturer Williams (his 1980 game Firepower pioneered the multiball feature), but he saw unlimited potential for video games and the writing on the wall for pinball.
“No matter how much you innovated, you still had flippers and balls. Pinball was always going to be pinball. It was cool, but the sky was the limit for video games,” said Jarvis, who went on to create Defender, Robotron: 2084, and some of the biggest video-game hits of the 80s. “I look at it as a cool part of my career—I have a soft spot for it, but creatively I moved on.”
Then arcades and the coin-op industry as a whole started dying, victims of the rise of home video-game consoles and then the Internet. Advances in technology allowed kids to play arcadelike games in the safe space of
From 1980 to 2007, the number of arcades shrunk from 13,000 to 2,600, according to a U.S. Census business report. Chicago’s last true neighborhood arcade, Dennis’ Place for Games in Lakeview, shut its doors in 2007. Every pinball manufacturer except Stern went dormant by the mid-2000s. Stern, then located in Melrose Park, also struggled, cutting its production down from 27,000 machines a year to 10,000 in 2008. The company released just one new title a year.
“It was weird having no pinball presence in Chicago, the city that made them,” says Zach.
But it wasn’t quite yet game over. After bottoming out a decade ago, pinball has experienced a major revival over the last eight years—a development many didn’t see coming.
“Pinball has been declared dead more often than Jimmy Hoffa, and here it is somehow making a huge comeback,” says Jarvis. “At a time when we’re throwing away all our matter away, this industrial relic is somehow rising again.”
Yet the Sharpe brothers are far from satisfied with the industry’s latest growth spurt.
When I talked to Josh on the phone a week after the Stern tournament, he barely mentioned his big victory. Winning tournaments is the easy part of pinball for the Sharpe brothers. Their real challenge? Achieving something Roger never could pull off—growing pinball’s popularity to the point that the sport can foster its first full-time professional players. Zach and Josh both rank among the top players in the
They look with envy at the boom of pinball’s cousin—competitive video games. What’s now called electronic sports or “eSports” is a $900 million industry in 2018, according to a recent report by the gaming industry monitor Newzoo.
“We’re trying to find—where does competitive pinball fit in with eSports? It’s more physical than video games, but it’s not like bowling,” says Josh. “We haven’t been able to crack it, but we’re working on it.”
To do so, they’ll have to figure out whether pinball can match video gaming’s growing appeal as a spectator sport. Last month, almost 700,000 viewers watched Chicago-area gamer Tyler “Ninja” Blevins play the online shooter Fortnite in Las Vegas. Yet only several hundred people tuned in to Jack Danger’s Dead Flip stream to see Josh earn his biggest tournament win in years at the Stern Championship in March. Likewise, most of the hundreds of attendees at the Bottom Lounge were on the other side of the room mingling with guest host Brian “Q” Quinn of the TruTV hidden-camera show Impractical Jokers.
“Pinball can be a hard sell because nothing’s moving on the screen except for a ball and a few flippers,” said Danger. “We get some curious viewers start watching [my show] who say, ‘What the hell am I looking at?'”
The key, he says, is to increase pinball’s ground game by pulling arcade bargoers aside and preaching pinball’s gospel. “I have to get people’s attention and say, ‘Hey, you’re going to fucking love this game, guys,'” said Danger. “You just gotta get a spark and show them that this is an awesome physical chaotic game that everyone loves to play.”
It’s not certain whether pinball is riding just another peak in its popularity in 2018 or is on the cusp of a new golden age. Even as the digital world continues to grow, there may always remain a market for something tangible and physical, especially when it has nostalgia value. Either way, Roger Sharpe is comfortable with the fact that he may not be alive to see it happen.
“I’m just happy there are enough people that are out there that want to carry the banner,” he says.
Back at Josh’s home, Roger, on his third and final ball of Sharpshooter, pauses, as is his custom. He wipes the buttons and plunger—and his hands—with a white handkerchief before jamming it back into his back pocket. He needs to go on a massive scoring binge if he’s to avoid staying in
That shot blossoms with promise, but
But even a last-place finish does nothing to threaten his lifelong love for his hobby, a love that borders on the romantic.
“I say this again with great humility, but I think my connection to pinball has always been totally and completely different than anybody else out there,” he tells me.
Sharpe pauses briefly to search for the right words. He begins to smile, his eyes twinkling.
“I think that I’ve always had a very sincere sense as to the propriety of pinball, the sanctity of it—of looking at it as something more than it is in some strange way. These are effectively inanimate objects. But this game is talking to me.”
More frequently these days, he can’t speak back in the kinetic language of the machine. Pinball’s physics work against everyone, and—just like in life—the inevitable pull of gravity always wins in the end. v