Meet Robert Gagno, The Rain Man of Pinball

A 22-year-old autistic prodigy has become one of the top-ranked players in the world—and left competitors wondering about his luck.

If you didn't know why they were here, it might be hard to find the thread that links the three dozen people standing in the sun-dappled backyard of this Ballard bungalow. From their complexions you might guess it's not beach volleyball. But after that you'd be stumped. Jury duty, maybe? These are the members of the Seattle Pinball League. Today is their first-anniversary tournament. And right now they're waiting to find out who made the cut. Check out this slideshow of the pinball league players.There's Todd MacCulloch, the seven-foot-tall former center for the University of Washington Huskies and, later, the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Nets. He has a tactical advantage—his extreme height allows him to see a pinball no matter where it is in a machine—and a practical one too. MacCulloch retired a millionaire, and can at any time play one of the 30 machines in his garage on Bainbridge Island, a site spoken of by his fellow pinballers in the excited whisper of a fourth-grader describing Disneyland. Next to MacCulloch is Julie Gray, one of the league's few female members. Her surname describes the color of her hair, sweatpants, and temperament. It doesn't, however, explain why she always wears matching wrist guards and a pair of headphones, which at this moment are blasting the Bee Gees. And next to both of them is Jeff Gagnon, the league's only gang member—though the gang he belongs to, the Crazy Flipper Fingers out of Portland, is interested less in drive-bys than in making sure its members always mark their high scores with the initials C-F-F. In the center of a ragged half-circle is the bungalow's owner, Andrew Nunes, a dead ringer for the Home Alone burglar not named Joe Pesci, who wears a SpongeBob SquarePants ski mask while he plays. Reading from a clipboard—at pinball tournaments there's always a clipboard or 12—Nunes announces that MacCulloch, Gray, Gagnon, and a half-dozen others are moving on to the semifinals. But it's the name that doesn't get called that draws the most attention. "Whoa," says one of the assembled. "What happened to Robert?" "Robert" is Robert Gagno (pronounced "gahn-yo"), and what happened to him is what happens to even the best pinball players: He got cold while another player—in this case, MacCulloch—got hot. Robert is tall and rail-thin, with tousled brown curls, oval-framed glasses, and great big sapphires for eyes. When he's playing pinball, which is most of the time, those eyes bug out in a state of twitchy hyper-alertness. At other moments, like when he has to meet a stranger, they quickly make for the ground. Robert is also autistic, which helps explain the lack of eye contact and why he wouldn't have offered his hand for a shake had he not been reminded to do so by his mother and father, Kathy and Maurizio, who, as both parents and pinball competitors, are usually right by his side. Moreover, Robert is a savant, which helps to explain why at 22 he's the top-ranked player in the league. He's also tops in a league in his hometown of Vancouver, B.C. In a sport where the elite have been playing for decades, Robert is something of a prodigy. Just two years ago, on a whim, Maurizio signed up Robert for the Canadian World Championships, his son's first competitive tournament. "I had to go to Toronto for business anyway," Maurizio says. "So I figured 'What the heck?'" "What the heck" turned into a 12th-place finish. Shortly thereafter, the people responsible for ranking pinballers decreed that this impressive debut meant that there were only 3,722 players in the whole world better at pinball than Robert. Today there are 22. So is the secret to Robert's meteoric rise just practice? Talent? Or, as some have suggested, something beyond his control? Whatever it is, it'll have to wait, because shortly after the handshake, Robert spins on his heels and marches back into the house with a slightly herky-jerky gait that will soon become familiar. Inside, he hunches over at the hip like a speed skier, pitter-pattering the buttons on "Dirty Harry" while Clint Eastwood and his .44 Magnum look on from the backsplash. "This is an incredible ball," he says to his mom standing behind him. One ball turns into two, which then turns into three, which in pinball is three times better than one. Robert delicately nudges a button so that a ball jumps from one flipper to the other, an advanced technique known as an alley pass. Now he's not just playing pinball, he's juggling too. The look on Robert's face is something between a smile and "Oh my God, they're removing my fingernail without anesthetic!" As he plays, three guys stride up. One of them has a clipboard. "Aw, man, he's still going," he says. A few minutes later the last ball goes down. "Is that a good score?" asks Kathy. "Yes," answers Robert, one arm flung up and behind his head as if he were patting himself on the back. "But you used to hate this game." "Yeah, but now I'm liking it." Robert walks away before the machine tells him how he did relative to everyone else who's ever played it, which leaves Kathy to stare at the Golden Gate Bridge and Eastwood's steely-eyed sneer. The dot-matrix display tells her she's a punk and asks if she's feeling lucky. Then it warns her to stay away from drugs. Finally it shows Robert's score. "One billion, seven hundred seventeen million, seven hundred twenty-eight thousand, eight hundred and ninety," says Kathy, spelling out what is now the game's highest score ever—twice as much as second place. "Well," she adds, head cocked and lips pursed in a look of amused, poorly concealed maternal pride, "I guess that was pretty good!" In all sports, as in life, sometimes things happen for which there is no easy explanation. Pinball is no different. With all their flashing lights, dinging sound effects, and near-constant commands to hit this or go there, today's machines look like chaos in a cabinet. That's ironic, because the whole point of the sport's centuries-long evolution has been to give the player more control over what happens, not less. Pinball was birthed by a 19th-century French parlor game called bagatelle, a modified form of billiards in which players used sticks to push balls into numbered holes. In 1871 a Cincinnatian-by-way-of Britain named Montague Redgrave filed a patent for a spring-loaded cue, or what we now know as a plunger. That plunger shot the ball into a playfield of pins, hence the name. But after that the player didn't have any control over where the ball went or how long it stayed in play. Pinball didn't really look anything like pinball; it looked like "Plinko" from The Price Is Right, only horizontal. That changed in 1947, when the makers of "Humpty Dumpty" ran two sets of three flippers down the middle of the playfield. Eventually the flippers moved to the base of the machine, allowing players to better dictate where they wanted the ball to go. But it wasn't until Roger Sharpe called his shot that pinball stopped being thought of as a game of chance. If there's anything like a royal family in pinball, Sharpe is its patriarch. The mustachioed ambassador's two sons are both ranked among the world's top 10 players, which they insist has nothing to do with the fact that they also head the organization that does the ranking. And in 1976, in front of a group of skeptical New York City councilmembers, the father Sharpe did his monarchy proud. During World War II, prominent Big Apple politicians had complained that gamblers were betting on pinball. The game encouraged vice, they said. In 1942, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia had himself photographed lobbing a sledgehammer into a few unlucky units and declared the game illegal, a citywide ban that lasted more than 30 years and spread to other big municipalities like Chicago and Los Angeles. More than three decades after La Guardia's edict, Sharpe arrived at a Manhattan courthouse in a suit and tie at the request of the state's coin-op lobby. Thanks to the recent release of the film version of The Who's rock opera Tommy, the sport was gaining in popularity. The lobby assumed that if New York dropped its pinball ban, the cities that had followed it into prohibition would soon follow it out. Now it just needed Sharpe to make his shot. Sharpe pointed to a lane at the top of the machine. "I felt like Babe Ruth pointing his bat at the stands," he says. "But I bet I was a lot more nervous." He told the assembled councilmembers and cameramen that he was going to pull back the plunger just enough so that when the ball reached its apex it would fall down that lane. Then he did it. As a result of Sharpe's shot, an impressed council voted unanimously to lift the ban. By the declaration of six politicians who had never played it and knew next to nothing about it, pinball was now officially a game of skill. From then on, it kept tilting further in that direction. To compete with video games, pinball got more predictable. Drain lanes narrowed. Flippers got longer. Ramps returned balls to the same place at the same speed in the same way. There had always been a talent gap between the pinball obsessive and the casual player. Now it was getting wider. "Pinball had to build in some of that cushion, because the guys who played video games didn't want to feel totally embarrassed if they put in a bunch of quarters and only got to play for five minutes," says Sharpe from Chicago, where he works as the head of licensing for Williams, a former pinball manufacturer that now focuses exclusively on slot machines. "So we changed the games. We said, 'Here's the ramp. Hit it here and the ball is going to come right back down to the flipper. Now isn't that satisfying?'" Today's pinball games look as different from their modest ancestors as the NFL does from its days of leather helmets and the illegal forward pass. Whereas on an older machine a good player might make a dollar last five minutes, on a new machine those four quarters might buy her an hour. "If I had to guess, I'd say that it's gone from 50 percent skill and 50 percent luck in my day to 80/20 by the time Robert got started," says Sharpe, who first met Robert at last year's Canadian championships. The transformation was helped along by Sharpe's shot—a shot that, all these years later, he can finally admit had little to do with skill. "It was divine intervention," he says, laughing. "Really, I just got lucky." Today's machines reward players who can keep their focus for long stretches of intense play, have impeccable hand/eye coordination, and can memorize complicated how-to manuals. These manuals, called rule sets, can be up to 30 pages long, and tell players how to get the most points possible on every shot. In this way, the new machines are perfect for Robert. Although he didn't start speaking until he was 6, it wasn't long after Robert said his first words that he could multiply faster than a calculator. A few years later he'd memorized every number in the Vancouver phone book. And despite being afraid of loud noises and having what seemed to his mom to be a meandering attention span—Kathy says she used to have to watch him closely for fear he'd go chasing after fire trucks—Robert took to pinball immediately. Kathy is a school psychologist who caught the pinball bug as a kid when her itinerant father briefly lived next to the Santa Monica Pier. She passed it to her son after the family bought its first machine when Robert was 10. But an older brother sensitive to loud noises relegated the game to the family basement for a decade. It wasn't until a few years ago, when the brother moved out, that Robert rediscovered pinball—and discovered it anew as a competitive sport, one which had become better suited to his skills in the interim. The goal is to watch Robert play pinball somewhere other than at a tournament. So naturally we're in downtown Vancouver, headed for a gay sports bar called The Junction. Robert didn't choose The Junction because it's a gay bar, but because it happens to have one of his favorite games. During the car ride from his family's split-level in the suburb of Burnaby (where Maurizio built a garage that holds six pinball machines) to the light-rail station at Canada's second-largest mall, and throughout the walk from the station to the bar, I learn that Robert is not as shy as he first seemed. In fact, Kathy and Maurizio insist that of their three kids, Robert, the middle child and the only one with autism, is the most outgoing. Our travel introduces me to his preferred method of discourse: He'll open with a question, all the while nodding his head in a pre-emptive search for reassurance, then offer his take on the subject. When we reach the mall, Robert asks if I like shopping. I don't, I tell him, but my girlfriend does. "I think if I had a wife and she wanted to go to the mall with her friends, I'd let her," he says. "I'd be a pretty crappy husband if I took away her privileges." Then, in a whisper: "Yeah, I'd be a pretty crappy husband." There are more questions and answers. In this fashion, I learn that Robert thinks getting stuck on an airplane with wailing toddlers is the worst thing that can happen to a person. That Buffalo is bad because it has too many tough guys, while St. Louis is good because it has the Bowling Hall of Fame. And that a double backflip while wearing a harness is the most amazing thing he's ever done. Then, some interesting facts about poker—a lot of interesting facts about poker. It's Robert's new obsession, and when Robert gets obsessed, he learns everything he can on the subject. Say you get dealt a straight flush—what are the odds? Robert knows: about one in 500,000. We enter the bar during a dead zone: 2 p.m. on a Friday. Dance music is thumping, but the only people in the place are a blown-out blond wearing a nametag that says "English" and three Santa Claus lookalikes watching rugby. English shows us to a table and asks what we want to drink. Robert orders a Shirley Temple, which seems to tickle our waiter, who keeps eyeing us like we're on the wrong end of a bet. He casts a line in hopes of a nibble. "So are you guys here with the Average Joes?" he asks. Robert answers the question with a question: "What's an Average Joe?" "It's an HIV support group that meets here every Friday afternoon." Robert's jaw goes slack. His eyes fix somewhere around the fourth button on English's black work shirt. Out of his mouth comes a noise like an engine stuck in second gear: "Uhhhhhhhhhh . . . " Were he a cartoon, the text bubble above his head would read DOES NOT COMPUTE. Satisfied that we're just a pair of strays, English walks away with our order, leaving Robert and me to talk about the disease. It's not that he doesn't know what it is; he was just at a loss for words. Then comes one more question: "You can't get HIV from playing pinball, can you?" Six hours later we're still at The Junction. Only it's no longer a bar, but a nightclub. English has gone home, as has the St. Nick trio. The lights have dimmed, the music has gotten louder, and the happy-hour crowd has been replaced by the vertically blessed members of Vancouver's gay volleyball league, hip- twisting their way to the dance floor. In all that time, Robert hasn't moved—not to eat, to get a drink of water, to go to the bathroom, to do anything. He thought the game he'd come to play—"Monster Bash," in which the goal is to get five instrument-wielding ghouls, like Frankenstein and Wolfman, to play in harmony—seemed angry. It wanted him to fail, he said. But at some point Robert figured it out: The machine was tilting ever so slightly to the left, making any shot in that direction more treacherous and likely to produce a drain ball. Since then he's been on a roll, punctuating his best shots with a Mick Jagger preen wherein he bolts upright and flips his hands out behind his butt, as if waiting for someone behind him to slap him 10. "These are some pretty elite scores I'm putting up, aren't they?" he asks. The people who know Robert know not to be offended when he says things like this. Being autistic, he often blurts out the first thing that pops into his head, a bluntness that can equally charm and frustrate his fellow competitors—especially when he utters things like what he says next: "You'd be pretty embarrassed if you were playing against me, wouldn't you?" Besides practice, Robert can't really say what made him the pinball player he is today. So the question of how he got so good is left to his father. An engineer of average height and stocky build, Maurizio is as rooted to the ground as his son is constantly pivoting up and off it. According to Maurizio, the Robert Gagno Pinball Origin Story begins at birth, when Robert came out with his umbilical cord tied in a knot. In the first of what would be many signs that the odds simply don't apply to his son, Maurizio watched as a doctor snipped the cord and the machine recording Robert's heartbeat beep-beep-beeped its way back into normal registers. Crisis averted. Everything went smoothly from there. But over time, as Robert-the-newborn turned into Robert-the-kid-who-wasn't-like-all-the-others turned into Robert the Pinball Wizard, the Origin Story started gaining its own kind of power. Maurizio knew a laced umbilical cord couldn't cause autism. But a lack of oxygen so soon after birth? Maybe that could explain Robert's gift. Because if not that, then what? We're standing in the Gagnos' kitchen, where last month a Science Channel camera crew filmed the family eating dinner. "It was so awkward because that's not how we do it, ya know?" Kathy says. "Around the table like that? Usually we just spread out on the couches and each one of us has our laptops open. We're kinda nerds." Part of an eight-part series on savants, Robert's episode, to air in January, will run for 30 minutes—the same time devoted to Jon Sarkin, a former chiropractor who discovered a gift for art after a life-threatening stroke, and Rex Lewis-Clack, a blind, brain-damaged piano prodigy who was playing Beethoven by age 3. During the taping, Maurizio and Robert were flown to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., so he could have his brain scanned by the world's most sophisticated equipment. The producers won't tell the Gagnos everything about the test results. That revelation will have to wait for when the episode airs. But they did say that Robert's brain is not functionally or structurally impaired in any way, thus officially banishing Maurizio's Origin Story into the realm of myth. Robert comes into the kitchen to tell us about his latest accomplishment: Just last night he placed 21st of 5,000 competitors in an online poker tournament. At first he'd just watched hands on YouTube. Now he's starting to play, albeit with funny money. The new obsession hasn't overwhelmed the original. Yet. How do you think he does it? (I don't know) What makes him so good? —The Who, "Pinball Wizard" "This isn't something you should print. Because if people read this they'll think I'm making fun of him or not being fair to his skills. But Robert is lucky." This is Eden Stamm talking. And he should know. Stamm isn't just a pinball player, and he's not just a friend of Robert's. He's the top-ranked player in Canada—and considered, by those who know both players, to be Robert's pinball big brother. Which is why he's reluctant—but not too reluctant—to reveal Robert's mysterious power over the machines. "You just have to laugh, because it's crazy," Stamm says. "The ball will drain for everybody else, but for him it'll stay up. He just gets the luckiest bounces you've ever seen." If you're thinking Stamm might be projecting his own insecurity, you'd have a case. He's 39 and delivers pizza. He's the best player in Canada, but Robert is right on his heels. And during a brief phone conversation, he keeps returning to his pinball brother's head start in the sport—beginning to play at such an early age—in a way that makes it sound as if he's (understandably) jealous for not having had the same opportunity. But when Stamm says "No one else will tell you this, I'm just an honest person," it turns out he's wrong. Jeff Gagnon, the pinball gangbanger, says the same thing in almost the same way: "I don't want to take anything away from him but . . . he's lucky. Weird shit happens when Robert gets on a machine." What kind of weird shit? Gagnon says that in all the times he's watched Robert play, he's only seen him get two house balls—those which go straight from the plunger down the playfield and right between the flippers without touching anything else, as if drawn by a magnet. "Nothing against Robert," says Cayle George, the eighth-ranked player in the world, "but it feels like he has the golden touch. Everything just seems to go his way." George's example is from a tournament last year. He says Robert actually got a house ball three times in the same game, but that each time the ball bounced back on his flipper like a gutter ball kicking back into the lane and knocking down all the pins. "Once is rare," he says. "Two times in one game I'd never seen before. Three times was just spooky." Stamm, George, and Gagnon know that Robert is considered a savant, so could that explain what they say are the unexplainable things they've seen Robert do on a pinball machine? "I don't know," says Gagnon. "Maybe. I mean, how could I know?" One guy thinks he does. Dr. Darold Treffert is the world's foremost authority on autistic savants. When the producers of Rain Man needed an on-set consultant, they called him. Half a century ago, Treffert had just graduated from medical school when he met his first savants, those with a disorder that he describes, with an alliterative flourish, as "the jarring juxtaposition of ability and disability within the same person." Treffert was working at a mental hospital in Wisconsin, tasked with creating a children's wing for the few adolescents there, when he noticed that four of his kids weren't like the others. "The first one was a lad who had memorized the entire bus system of the city of Milwaukee," he says. "If you gave him a number, he would recite that route. The second guy you could put a 250-piece jigsaw puzzle upside down [in front of] and he would put it together just from the geometric shapes. The third guy was an expert on this day in history. Every day he'd ask me, 'Do you know what happened on this day?' I used to study up the night before, but I could never beat him. Then we had a fourth who made free throws. He would stand at the free-throw line with his feet in the same place and holding the ball in the same way. It was a fixed trajectory. He was just like a pitching machine." Treffert was hooked. He was also surprised more people didn't share his fascination. "I would present at these conferences, and my colleagues would say 'Oh, that's very interesting.' Then we'd go back to talking about bipolar schizophrenia." Undaunted, Treffert made autistic savants his specialty. He collected newspaper clips from all over the world. He organized savants into five groups—artists, musicians, calendar calculators (like the day-in-history kid), lightning calculators, and ones with extraordinary visual spatial skills (like the free-throw shooter). He even found the gift that linked them: Each savant had a massive memory. Treffert's clip file eventually became a spreadsheet. Today it contains 320 names, each listed with the savant's home country (he's been seeing a lot more kids from China lately) and his or her specific skill. Robert is in there now too, although his entry doesn't say "pinball," it says "visual spatial/mechanical." "I think that his skill is really quite unique," says Treffert. "I know of only one other person like Robert in the whole world. There was a case reported years ago in England of a lad who had Asperger's as well as Tourette's. He was also a pinball wizard, but he wasn't nearly as good as Robert." Yet isn't it possible that Robert is also just really lucky? "I don't think so," replies Treffert. "I think, based on all the reports, that he is exceptional. If you ask a calendar savant what day the Fourth of July will land on in 2092, or 22407, or any other year, they will tell you with 100 percent accuracy. Just luck? I don't think so. How do they do it? I don't know, and they don't know either. But they do it without fail. And we are trying to better understand how they do it." You hear Larry Reid before you see him. "This is not a democracy," he says, his disembodied voice booming from the speaker overhead. "This is a tyranny, and I'm the tyrant." Today is the start of the annual two-day tournament at Shorty's, a clown-and-carnival-themed bar in Belltown. The competition is run by Reid, who when he's not being a tyrant is the curator of the art gallery at Fantagraphics in Georgetown and the godfather of Seattle pinball. Shorty's was the main hangout for Seattle Pinball League members before they all played under the same flag, and Reid is the man who made it a destination. The tournament started in 1988 as a fund-raiser for the Center on Contemporary Art, and has only grown in stature since. Of today's 96 paid participants, some have flown from as far as Ohio. The winner gets a pinball machine, in part thanks to tournament sponsor Pabst Blue Ribbon. There are no clipboards, only Reid's hand-drawn brackets, which he's now shuffling through. Wearing a Canadian tuxedo (denim on denim), with stringy hair spilling out from under a ballcap and over the frames of his glasses, Reid looks like the poet laureate of a longshoreman's union. He whips out a mini-flashlight to pierce the gloom at the back of the bar. "First up," he says into the microphone, "Julie Gray versus Cayle George." The crowd groans. It can recognize a bad beat when it sees one, and drawing George in the first round is equivalent to being singled out for destruction by the pinball gods. Robert, meanwhile, spends the next day and a half looking like their favorite. For the first six rounds Robert cruises, the only hiccup coming late in the first day when a recently vanquished foe yells "I can't believe I lost to a fucking retard!"—a slight Robert either doesn't hear or quickly forgets. Well after sunset on Sunday, Robert is only one step away from the finals, where George awaits. Before her son's penultimate match, I find Kathy at the bar. I mention that some people think Robert is luckier than most, then tell her I think he can just do things we don't yet have a name for. "OK, this is going to sound hocus-pocusy," she says, explaining that she's never been able to wear watches because the batteries always mysteriously give out. And once she was reaching for a book of matches when they suddenly burst into flame. She's always wondered if there's something strangely charged about her—though what exactly, she can't say—and if whatever it is got passed to Robert. "This all sounds so silly, I know," she says, almost embarrassed. "And I have to be careful what I say, because my job is rooted in science and logic. But just watch: Funny things happen when Robert plays." And then, funny things start to happen. Robert and his opponent start on "Revenge From Mars," a game similar in spirit to the Tim Burton movie Mars Attacks, complete with 3-D graphics. He's up big when the machine gives out. Nothing too unusual about that—many a machine has gone down midgame. But the replacement machine does the same thing, again while Robert holds a commanding lead. "What are the odds?" asks a disbelieving crowd member. For his third attempt, Reid sends Robert to the one machine in the room that doesn't favor him. Built the year Roger Sharpe called his shot, "Surf Champ" is a relic from the days when games were as much about chance as skill. Maurizio will later say that had he been thinking straight, he would have asked Reid to pick another machine. But he didn't. And Robert's luck, or whatever it is, runs out. "I think the pinball gods hate me," says Robert at the bar a few minutes later, after ordering a dinner of Coke and nachos. "They must because I say bad things to the machine." The closest thing to a bad word he's said all weekend is "darnit." And I tell him that if cursing actually made the gods angry, then every other player in the tournament would have been stricken dead by now. Robert thinks on this for a second, his eyes cast down. Then he collects his drink and chips and heads over to watch the final match, seemingly unaware that the pinball gods, no matter what they might think of him at the moment, are probably as clueless to describe what he does or how he does it as the rest of us. channan@seattleweekly.com

 
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