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updated: 2/8/2014 6:06 PM

Pinball wizards begin quest for championship at Lincolnshire event

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  • Joseph Blasi of Des Plaines puts a little English on his shot Saturday at the International Flipper Pinball Association tournament in Lincolnshire.

       Joseph Blasi of Des Plaines puts a little English on his shot Saturday at the International Flipper Pinball Association tournament in Lincolnshire.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Matthew Hooper, center, watches as the family Sharpe, from left, Zach, Josh and dad Roger work the pinball machines Saturday at the International Flipper Pinball Association tournament in Lincolnshire.

       Matthew Hooper, center, watches as the family Sharpe, from left, Zach, Josh and dad Roger work the pinball machines Saturday at the International Flipper Pinball Association tournament in Lincolnshire.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Josh Sharpe of Palatine, right, and Joseph Blasi of Des Plaines practice Saturday at the International Flipper Pinball Association tournament in Lincolnshire.

       Josh Sharpe of Palatine, right, and Joseph Blasi of Des Plaines practice Saturday at the International Flipper Pinball Association tournament in Lincolnshire.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

 
 

Jeff Hooper's man cave buzzes with a cacophony of twerps, beeps, bells and whistles Saturday afternoon.

His Lincolnshire basement is wall-to-wall pinball machines from the vintage Moulin Rouge model to the state-of-the art AC/DC game.

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Pinball great Zach Sharpe's fingers expertly manipulate the flippers on the lurid Paragon machine, practicing for a tough matchup with 15 other players in an hour. It's one of a series of state championships held this weekend by the International Flipper Pinball Association. The winners move on to a national tournament in Denver this May.

It's all about control and timing, explains Sharpe, 32 of Chicago.

"There's an old saying that the ball is wild and as a player -- you want to try to control that chaos as much as possible," he said. "If you can slow it down ... if you can start thinking about your shots and become more proactive versus reactive -- where it's 'see ball, hit ball' and chaos ensues."

Hooper describes his basement as a "work in progress," and plans to fit at least three more pinball machines downstairs in the future. He was competing with his guests Saturday, who had their pick of a museum of pinball games featuring the patriotic F-14 Tomcat, the playing card-themed Kings of Steel, the 1950s-nostalgic Eight Ball, and the popular Tron.

Pinball is experiencing a "renaissance of sorts," explained Roger Sharpe, Zach's father, who fell in love with it while at university in Wisconsin. He grew up "pinball deprived" in Chicago because the game was banned in major cities for a period from the 1940s to mid-1970s.

A writer who wrote the book "Pinball!," Sharpe defended the game before the New York City Council in 1976, arguing it was a matter of skill, not luck, which helped lead to its legitimization.

Now the game is gaining a retro cache among teens and 20-somethings, while middle-agers are remembering why they liked it in the first place, he said.

"It's like the first kiss. You never forget it. It allows you to lose yourself in a good way and block out everything," Sharpe said.

Steve Johnson was trying to recover from the tragedy of losing his daughter several years ago at a relative's cottage in the Smokey Mountains that happened to have a pinball machine.

"It brought back memories and was the first time I laughed," said Johnson of St. Charles. He started entering tournaments and ended up as an alternate for Saturday's inaugural IFPA State Championship Series. As luck would have it, two competitors couldn't make it, meaning Johnson was up.

However, as most of the players gathered at Cooper's house would explain -- pinball is not about luck.

"Keep it in the air," advised Tim Smith of Palatine, a 31-year-old video game technician.

"Keep the ball still and aim my shot," said 16-year-old Joshua Henderson of Plainfield, known to his colleagues as "The Kid." "I'm going to fight to the end."

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