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Chicago-area pinball wizards to compete in tourney

(Leonor Vivanco/RedEye )
May 30, 2012|By Leonor Vivanco, RedEye

Somebody is about to flip out!

Two brothers from the Chicago area rank among the top 10 world's best pinball players, and they will compete at the International Flipper Pinball Association's World Pinball Championships next month.

Zach Sharpe, 30, (6th place) and his older brother Josh, 32, (10thplace) will shoot the silver ball among a field of 64 players from all over the world June 8-10 at former NBA pro Todd MacCulloch's home in Washington state.

They'll battle for bragging rights when they play pinball machines of all eras from the '70s to now. First place pays out $1,000 and a new pinball machine valued at $5,000. The top 16 players will win cash prizes.

It's a game that runs in the family. Their dad, Roger Sharpe, designed games, and the brothers, who run the association, grew up around pinball machines.

"Instead of turning on a vacuum to quiet crying babies, he would turn on the lights. The light shows, bells and whistles would keep us captivated," said Zach, an ad company account manager who lives in Albany Park.

Josh, father of a newborn baby, adds, "It still works by the way."

In the basement of Josh's home in Palatine, there are 18 pinball machines lining the walls. Three of those – Sharpshooter made in 1978, Barracora made in 1981 and Cyclopes made in 1984 – are his dad's work. Two of the machines even feature the likeness of his mom and dad in the games' characters. Zach has five pinball machines in his condo, but that doesn't rival his father's collection of 30.

"It was always something we would do together. Our dad is sort of like a big kid in a way and we'd play a lot of video games with him when we were kids and a lot of pinball and it was always just fun," said Josh, a controller at Raw Thrills, an arcade game company.

"There was no pressure to perform, no 'Toddlers & Tiaras' type of action going on that we do see from younger competitors these days where it's more about the parents than the kids," he said.

In fact, they say their father didn't let them compete in tournaments when they were younger because he was worried they'd take it too seriously. They begged to compete and finally did and have a friendly sibling rivalry going only when they play each other. Otherwise, they say, they root for one another.

The game of pinball requires a combination of skill and luck. "It's really hard and chaotic and things are going everywhere but the moments where you're fully in control of what's going on, it's awesome," Josh said.

For Zach, "It's that constant pressure in trying to execute which makes it fun."

Video or computer games can't replicate the experience of playing pinball, they said.

"It's never the same game twice because the ball can go anywhere and do anything," Josh said. "With pinball, it's sort of its own universe under glass with its own rules."

lvivanco@tribune.com | @lvivanco

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