Pinball EDU Charity, 501(c)3

November Raffle Winner

Congratulations to Troy Swope of North Canton, Ohio for winning this month’s pinball raffle! You have a New In Box Stern Pinball Machine coming to your door!

Also, congrats to:

Mitchell Hohler for winning the Simpsons Pinball Party Translight
Brian Webber you won a translight for being this months biggest buyer!

Thank you to Stern Pinball for donating the additional prizes!

A big thank you to everyone that participated in our November raffle.  Your support is helping to open the first Pinball Education Center helping kids with autism.


Bringing Back Pinball: Sharpe’s Story

ss-hammerPinball had been officially banned by New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia as a form of gambling since January of 1942. Claiming pinball robbed the “pockets of schoolchildren in the form of nickels and dimes given them as lunch money”, he ordered them seized and destroyed. Other cities, including pinball’s home city of Chicago, followed suit but pinball did not disappear. Rather, it was kept alive over the next thirty years in primarily underground, seedy locations that were often subject to police raids.

ss-pinballDuring this time the machines changed significantly. The introduction of the flipper in 1947 dramatically altered the way the game was played, adding a new and distinct skill component. By 1976 the Music and Amusement Association (MAA) successfully lobbied the New York City Council and was granted a hearing to re-examine the legitimacy of the ban. Their goal was simple — to prove to the Council that pinball was a game of skill, not chance.

Roger Sharpe, a 26 year-old magazine editor and renowned pinball player, was chosen by the MAA to demonstrate this skill. Sharpe gave a compelling speech arguing that pinball did not rely on arbitrariness or luck, but instead was a predominantly player-controlled game. Surrounded by journalists, photographers, and City Council members, Sharpe began to play. Despite an impressive game, the anti-pinball contingent was not swayed.

Then, in what he has compared to Babe Ruth’s called shot to center field, Roger Sharpe pulled back the plunger and, pointing to the top of the playing field, declared that he would shoot the ball through the top middle lane. He released the plunger and the ball followed his prescribed course. The Council immediately overturned the ban in a unanimous 6-0 vote.

On August 1, 1976, Sharpe’s birthday, Mayor Abraham Beame signed the new law making pinball legal once again.


Original Photograph, New York City, April 1976 Roger Sharpe playing ‘Bank Shot’ by Gottlieb®

October Raffle Winner

Congratulations to Michael King of Euless, Texas for winning this month’s pinball raffle! You have a New In Box Stern Pinball Machine coming to your door!

Also, congrats to Øyvind Lindahl for winning the Lord of the Rings Translight and Brian Webber for winning the ColorDMD!  Brian you also won a translight for being this months biggest buyer!

Thank you to Stern Pinball and ColorDMD for donating the additional prizes!

lord-of-the-rings-lotr-pinball-machine colordmd---afm

A big thank you to everyone that participated in our October raffle.  Your support is helping to open the first Pinball Education Center helping kids with autism.

Get a ticket for the current drawing at:

The Pinball Wizard with Autism Tells His Story

robert-gagno-04What is it like to have autism? I guess it depends on the day you ask me. Sometimes it sucks, sometimes it is cool, and most of the time I don’t think about it. I have always had it so I can only compare myself to people who don’t have it, and sometimes I don’t always pick the best role models to compare myself to. I know that sometimes I have difficulty communicating my thoughts and ideas clearly. That makes me say “random things” sometimes, as my sister says, like I say whatever springs into my head. It makes conversations confusing at times because someone will say I have been on the topic for too long and then a minute later say that I switch the topic too often. Some days everything is too loud, too smelly, and I feel jumpy. Now that I am an adult, I have learned that I can avoid information overload by listening to music through earphones or headphones.

I have had always had strong interests in certain things. I used to love exit signs, rotating fans and fire alarms when I was little. My mom said she would let me turn switches on and off to keep me in one place but would have to watch me around fire alarms. I remember following the “Pull Alarm” directions at least three times and all the excitement it caused. Other interests included numbers, like telephone codes, bus schedules, and serial numbers on buses, then hockey and hockey statistics, The Simpsons and SpongeBob cartoons, and Nintendo games. It wasn’t until I was a young adult that I understood that most people don’t have the same level of interest in the same things I do. I still get surprised when people say that they don’t want to talk about something anymore. I often don’t realize I can be repetitive talking about something I enjoy.

Pinball is something I really enjoy. I have liked it for as long as I can remember but the intensity of my interest changed often. It was high from the ages of ten to 12, then low-to-medium until about the age of 19, when it became high again. My parents even bought me a pinball machine when I was ten, during a high-interest time, but after about a year I got into video games so they covered it up for about eight years.

I knew I was good. I remember people watching me play and commenting on how good I was but I didn’t realize how good until I started playing in tournaments. I am lucky because my parents like pinball a lot too, and so instead of normal “vacations,” most of our holidays are now “pincations” to pinball tournaments and shows. For some we’ll drive to Washington, Oregon or Northern California tournaments and others we’ll fly to, usually me and my dad. I don’t mind flying but I get very stressed anytime I have to go somewhere by plane because I hate all the waiting around and the lines and I get very anxious about all the security checks partly because I can’t wear my headphones. The anxiety makes things even louder than they probably are.

kathyI love being good at pinball. It makes me feel good inside to know that I am one of the best players in the world. I worked hard to get into the top ten of the International Flipper Pinball Association’s world player rankings, and it is just as hard to stay in the top ten. I don’t think my memory for language is great, but it is very good for visual information. This is very useful in pinball because the newer games require following certain rules and sequences to get to the highest level. Supposedly, I process visual information differently. Some people claim I have magic powers with pinball but they might be joking. I can concentrate very hard on good days, but on the bad days I have a terrible time focusing. In big tournaments the final rounds are often very early in the morning, kind of like punishment for being a night person. I hope to be number one in the world one day but I am happy with where I am now. It is nerve-wracking in some ways though because now I not only have to go to the bigger tournaments, which means air travel, but I also have to do well to stay at a high position in the rankings.

I hear and have read that pinball is helping me overcome the stigma of autism. I am not too sure what that means. I tend to see the same people over and over at tournaments and most of them seem to be friendly. Some of them ask about autism or mention it but a lot of the time it doesn’t seem to be too big of a deal. One news story said something about my autism disappearing when I play pinball.  I don’t know about it actually disappearing like “poof! It is gone,” but maybe it just blends in. Other pinball players, especially in tournaments, do things that might seem odd if they did it in a public place like a mall or grocery store. Some players talk to themselves or to the pinball machine and say random things, they jump up and down or pace, some wear headphones, and they are just as obsessed with pinball as I am.  Outside of the pinball tournament that would look autistic! It is okay if I don’t feel like talking or if I just want to play on my own. Pinball might be one of the only sports where it is okay to turn your back on people and it is even expected. Sometimes it is still confusing figuring out people’s behaviours but less confusing than, say, at a birthday party.

I like to be alone sometimes but I also enjoy being around people I like and meeting new people, just like everyone else. I have goals and dreams and want to be independent one day. This is where autism can be very frustrating and a pain in the butt. Everything new has to be learned in pieces and sometimes that takes a long time. Every time I learn something new it’s like someone throwing a bunch of jigsaw pieces down and putting them together to figure out the picture. Sometimes the pieces fit together strangely, so mistakes happen. At those times I feel like the stigma is still there.

Wizard Mode – A Documentary

wizardmodeEvery time I learn something new it’s like someone throwing down a bunch of jigsaw pieces down and putting them together to figure out the picture. The first time I met the directors of Wizard Mode I was confused about who they are. They came to my house and interviewed my family and me and I learned they wanted to make a feature length documentary. This was exciting because I wanted to show people how good I am at pinball and also what it’s like living on the autism spectrum.

I’m excited about Wizard Mode because it’s going to be inspiring to see a person on the spectrum achieving their dreams. Working with the directors, Jeff Petry and Nathan Drillot, has been overall a good experience.  One thing I really like about doing the film is that I got interviewed by an Italian newspaper. Because my Dad is from Italy, it means a lot to us. The only negative is that sometimes when you make a movie you have to do the same thing over and over again. I find it can really test my patience a lot. But it’s good sometimes to test your patience because it teaches you to be able to do things that are important but not always fun.

We’ve traveled a lot together and had the chance to eat a lot of interesting food.  Once, we were in Pittsburgh and we had the best burger of my life at Butterjoint. It was perfectly round and cooked medium rare. The biggest adventure we had on the film was taking the train from Seattle to Chicago. It took 72 hours and at the end we went to the Stern Factory to see how they make pinball machines.

I hope people like the movie because it’s been a long time making it and I hope they’ll become more fascinated by the world of autism and do their own research. Hopefully people will buy more books about autism and talk about it more. Because then it will help people understand the people around them better and not just see them as a label.

Robert Gagno


Robert is one of inspirations for the Pinball EDU Foundation, a 501(c)3 charity with the mission to utilize the wonderful and unique game of Pinball for the social enrichment, skill development and education of kids and young adults.

For more information about Pinball EDU, please visit, email to join their mailing list or find them on facebook at

Building on Strengths – from a Mother of a child with Autism

kathyI am the parent of a 27 year old young man with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. When he was diagnosed at about the age of 3, it seemed that very few people knew what it was and the information that was available, mostly through books I found in the library, painted a very dire prognosis. It seemed that if we were lucky, Robert might be able to speak a bit one day, but it would be unlikely if he could learn to read or write beyond maybe writing his name. Back then, there weren’t a lot of therapies available specifically for autism, at least not at a huge expense to the family. We did get support, such as a child care worker a couple of hours a week, but it wasn’t coordinated or therapy-based like many services are now. In hindsight, I guess our “therapies”, without realizing that is what they could be called, were things like watching the neighbourhood kids encourage him to play with them, including informally organizing among themselves who would hold his hand and lead him along in Tag, Hide-and-Seek and other games, and encouraging and scolding him along the way (social skills group!), and asking the child care worker to take him to noisy, crowded places to “make him get used to it” (sensory integration!). He had private and school-based speech therapy, but being forced into these natural environments played a role in his progress too.

This leads me to the main point of indulging in passions. Robert’s passions have changed over the years and have included Exit signs, fire alarms (I am glad he grew out of that stage where he followed the “Pull Alarm” directions!), traffic lights, an interest in numbers such as telephone codes, to themes popular with more people such as hockey and sports statistics, Nintendo characters and video games, and then pinball. He continues to be interested in a lot of cartoons and things from his childhood, so maintains a kind of childlike wonder and curiosity about him which I hope he doesn’t lose completely. Through various ways, these passions and interests have further allowed him to connect with people and we and his teachers used them to help develop reading skills. From his intensity of the interests, we learned just how incredible his memory is. For example, he memorized hundreds of four-digit codes for businesses and services and often could recite their messages even though his spontaneous language was still pretty sparse. His passions were often things he was obviously talented at, such as being the first kid on the block to reach the end of a Nintendo game, and no one could figure out why he was able to rapidly multiply numbers in his head without any formal teaching or practice.

Pinball has been the biggest and longest-lasting passion and has led to many great things in Robert’s life. We noticed he liked it when he was around 5, but the level of interest didn’t seem extreme, or at the most was something that seemed to wax and wan like other interests, but we did realize that he was good at it but honestly figured it wasn’t anything more than “probably above average”. At one point, when he was 10, we actually bought an older pinball machine and he played it a lot for a few months but lost interest in favour of a Nintendo version of pinball, for which he set a world-record, and so we covered the machine with a blanket, the cats slept on it, and we uncovered it again when he was about 19, so we could sell it. He started to play it again, and it coincided with the time that a pinball company, Stern, was starting to make more pinball machines and trying to revive interest in it. This lead to him entering his first tournament, The Canadian Pinball Championships, about 7 years ago, in Toronto where his dad just happened to be travelling to on business. He didn’t win, but did well enough and had fun enough to get bitten by the tournament bug. Since then, he has entered over 100 tournaments, including travelling to Pennsylvania, Minnesota, California, Oregon, and even Italy. We joke that the 3 hour drive to Seattle every month doesn’t count since it is “local”.

Wizard Mode Documentary

I credit pinball with a huge leap in Robert’s development over the past five years. For him, he has to deal with his noise sensitivity, since the sound of many pinball machines (sometimes literally hundreds of them) being played at once is almost deafening, specific fears and unpleasant situations such as waiting in lineups and going through airport security, social skills including sportsmanship, emotions such as disappointment and sadness such as when he doesn’t play as well as he would like, so basically all the “natural therapies” I talked about in the first paragraph. Most importantly it has brought great joy to him, he has made many new acquaintances and friends, challenged himself with communicating with other players who speak different languages, improved his focus and concentration, and has had opportunities to appear on television, in newspaper articles and radio interviews, public speaking and now a feature-length film documentary. He has found a group of people who are sometimes competitive with each other in the tournaments but also supportive and accepting of each other, and share his passion for pinball so there are always things to talk about. He is now among the top ten players in the world out of over 30,000 competitive players, including being the current US National Champion. It hasn’t been easy for him, or us, but through the film we are hoping people will realize there are more similarities to the “non-ASD” population than differences, and although Robert finds ASD to be a pain-in-the-butt at times, he has learned to make use of his strengths, and hopes you will find his story inspirational.

The take home points are: Don’t give up, because early testing isn’t always predictive of the future years, Encourage and Indulge in the passions and interests, and Enjoy all the little and big successes along the way. Your child’s passion is probably not pinball, nor am I saying it is a new therapy, but almost any passion can turn into something that could potentially be therapeutic and lead to friendships based on the mutual interest other people have in it.

Kathy Gagno is one of the advisors for Pinball EDU, a non-for-profit connecting kids with disabilities and pinball.  Her professional background includes special education, and she currently practices as a certified school psychologist.

Find her online at:

September Raffle Winner

Congratulations to Bryan Emmett of Fort Collins, Colorado for winning this month’s pinball raffle!

A big thank you to everyone that participated in our first monthly raffle.  Your support is helping to open the first Pinball Education Center helping kids with autism.

Stern has contributed a LOTR translight as another prize to be drawn immediately following the pinball machine. Your contribution to the main drawing qualifies you automatically for this prize, worth about $250 USD.

Get a ticket at:

A film about a Pinball player with Autism.

In June 2015, we talked in detail about Robert Gagno one of Pinball EDU’s big inspirations and the benefits Robert received from having pinball in his life.  Now there’s a film coming out about Robert’s life!

Please watch the trailer below, and don’t forget to share it with your family and friends. Thanks!

WIZARD MODE from Salazar on Vimeo.


The Pinball EDU Foundation, a 501(c)3 charity with the mission to utilize the wonderful and unique game of Pinball for the social enrichment, skill development and education of kids and young adults.

For more information about Pinball EDU, please visit, email to join their mailing list or find them on facebook at

Robert Gagno, a pinball player with autism.

Robert’s Pinball Story

written by Cristin Gasson & Joe Said

robert-gagno-04Robert Gagno began playing pinball when he was 3 or 4 years old. He would frequently accompany his father, Maurizio on errands or be taken out for short periods by a child care worker. Whenever possible Robert would steer his adult companions to the pinball machines at places like the bowling alley and Chuck E. Cheese. Kathy his mom clearly remembers her husband and Robert’s other caregiver commenting on how Robert would choose to spend all his time playing pinball or Wack-A-Mole at these locations. Between the ages of 5-8 years, Robert not only loved pinball, but he began consistently achieving the coveted “replay” due to his growing level of skill on the machines.  Kathy loved pinball herself and was happy to see Robert enjoy playing but remembers a ferry ride as the first time she began to understand just how good Robert really was.

“When he was around nine years old,  I remember the ferries used to have little arcades on them, including pinball. Robert spent a whole trip across to Vancouver Island, about an hour and half trip, playing pinball on one quarter.  I was sitting on a bench just outside of the arcade and could hear people talking about “that kid and pinball”. He had drawn quite a big crowd.”

Robert’s parents purchased his first home use pinball machine, “Whirlwind”, when he was 10 and watched  him spend hours a day playing for several months. That same year Robert loved playing Pokemon Pinball for Nintendo DS and set a high-score record that may still stand today. Robert’s interest in Whirlwind waned although he continued to play casually at locations and the home use machine was eventually covered for storage. The family decided to put it up for sale on craigslist when Robert was 19. To their surprise, once uncovered, Robert immediately began playing Whirlwind with renewed enthusiasm and the Gagno’s decided to keep it.

Kathy says the rest of Robert’s story is probably more well known, “Maurizio took Robert to Toronto with him to play in his first tournament ever (The Canadian Pinball Championships) and it was after that we joined the VRPA and started going to more tournaments.”

“More well known” is most certainly a modest statement.  Robert entered the competitive pinball community finishing 12th out of 99 competitors at this highly competitive tournament in 2008 and has actively competed since. He’s currently ranked as the 6th best pinball player in the world, according to the International Flipper Pinball Association and he’s #1 in Canada. Robert’s story has drawn the attention of many inside the pinball community as well as the world beyond. He has been featured in countless articles and his pinball playing skills were highlighted in an episode of Science Channel’s “Ingenious Minds” series.

Kathy says pinball has helped Robert’s development in many ways.

Social Skills
“He has/has had other areas of intense interest: Hockey stats, game show episodes and stats, transit schedules….pretty well anything with numbers he could easily memorize but not something most people could take an interest in. Suddenly with pinball he has found a group of people who like talking about it as much as he does.  He has evolved since he was about 19 from someone who would talk AT you about pinball, to someone who interacts with the other players. It has improved things like turn taking, sportsmanship, and learning to be more tactful.”

“His attention and perseverance have both improved. He is not into the WPPR points as much as some people think, but really likes to win or do well.  He sets goals for himself, like before going to PAPA this year set the lofty goal of qualifying for all three Classics plus the A-division, and achieved it.”

While visual memory has always been a strength for Robert, Kathy reports it has gotten even better with the challenge of learning new pinball games and rule sets.

“Although it is still hard for him, he is learning to “shift strategies” such as when a pinball doesn’t work quite the way it should, or when he is in situation where he needs to play “safe” and grind it out, vs. risky but higher scoring shots.”

Robert’s sensory sensitivities and the anxiety he experiences when overstimulated have been one of his biggest struggles. Pinball has motivated him to learn coping strategies and helped him develop higher tolerance thresholds.

“The noise in pinball tournaments and arcades has helped him learn to tolerate his over-sensitivities to sounds. He used to avoid any physical contact, but now high-fives, shakes hands and even allows a few players to hug him. He is very nervous of going through security at airports and for that reason doesn’t go to that many out of town tournaments beyond Seattle and Portland.  He did say he will fly to go to Pinburgh again though! So the anxiety piece is still something we are working on, but definitely pinball has helped to give him confidence and make that better too.”

Thanks to Kathy Gagno for helping put this article together.


Robert is one of inspirations for the Pinball EDU Foundation, a 501(c)3 charity with the mission to utilize the wonderful and unique game of Pinball for the social enrichment, skill development and education of kids and young adults.

For more information about Pinball EDU, please visit, email to join their mailing list or find them on facebook at

Educational Pinball on “Seen In NY”

NEW YORK, NY – Columbia University embraced Modern Pinball NYC’s education program and pinball physics class trip with an exclusive video produced by Columbia and disseminated to teachers and professors in their Teachers College. (Link to video below.) stevez1Steven Zahler, who developed the unique education program at Modern Pinball NYC, works with teachers to create a hands-on field trip for students, where they open up real working pinball machines to examine the changing technology, electromagnets, circuits, electricity, and physical properties operating above and below the playfield. It’s a way of hiding science in the game, he explains. And as predicted, once the students understand the properties at work, playing and learning become a lot more focused. . . and a lot more fun. For more information about Modern Pinball and their class trips for New York City Educators see:

Pinball Done Quick!

This January 3rd through 11th 2015 at the Hilton Washington Dulles Airport, a special event is happening in the world of gaming. Games Done Quick is a charity event wherein players attempt to achieve difficult gaming achievements using the shortest amount of time possible.


Tune in starting January 4th at 12pm EST: