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Full Tilt

A pinball legend’s son gets his own high score

Author Brittany Shoot Illustration Marc Rosenthal


PITTSBURGH – It’s approaching midnight in downtown Pittsburgh, and the city’s convention center is a riot of clanging bells and clunking bumpers—the racket you get when you let hundreds of pinball enthusiasts loose among hundreds of machines.

In the midst of the clamor stands Roger Sharpe, a graying man with wire-rimmed glasses and a paintbrush mustache. Sharpe is by far the most important person in the room, the guy who, in the mid-1970s, helped legalize pinball by demonstrating that it is a game of skill rather than chance. He is also the father of Zach Sharpe, who is here to make a mark of his own. 

As Pinburgh 2015 nears its close, a crowd converges to see if 33-year-old Zach, one of the highest-ranked players on the competitive circuit without a major tournament win, can finally make good. The problem is, even with a live video feed above the bank of machines, the crush makes it hard to see what’s going on. “People streaming this at home are getting the best view,” grumbles one onlooker.

Suddenly, a cry goes up. Zach’s opponent in the final, 22-year-old Raymond Davidson, has pushed his machine too hard, tilting it and ending the game. Zach springs out of his seat. People crowd around the new champion, clapping and patting him on the back. Roger, however, hangs back. 

“Nobody wants to hear from me.” he says, “I’m a historical footnote.” Smiling as his son brandishes a silver trophy, he adds, “I know the player I used to be.” 

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