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The world's No. 1 competitive pinball player is a 19-year-old

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Right now the world's No. 1 competitive pinball player is 19-year-old Escher Lefkoff from Longmont, Colo. So how does one become the world's No. 1 competitive pinball player? Lefkoff says by learning lessons that apply beyond the game. Colorado Public Radio's Matt Bloom has this story.

(SOUNDBITE OF PINBALL MACHINE DINGING)

ESCHER LEFKOFF: On this game, every single time you start, you get a ball on the right flipper. You control everything that happens in the game. And if you make a decision that ends with you draining, then that's on you.

MATT BLOOM, BYLINE: Escher Lefkoff is playing a game inside a barn on his family's farm. It's full of rows of dozens of flashing, bright pinball machines from classics like Ready, Aim, Fire to more modern games like Jurassic Park.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Fossil collected.

BLOOM: Escher's journey to the top of the pinball world started here when he was just old enough to walk. His dad, Adam, a collector and competitive player, coached him. He'd bring Escher along with him to a local arcade.

ADAM LEFKOFF: And it became a regular - every weekend, Escher and I would go to Lyons and play pinball. He really enjoyed playing it from the earliest of age.

BLOOM: Escher would stand on a wooden stool between his dad and the machine so he could watch him play. And when he saw a trick he wanted to learn, they would come home to the barn and practice it together.

E LEFKOFF: I remember there was this one skill called drop catching, which is very difficult but very useful. And we went on Indiana Jones when I was, like, 9 years old in our basement. And he took the glass off, and we sat there for about 20 minutes just practicing over and over and over again. And then three weeks later, I was great at it.

BLOOM: After a while, they realized Escher was pretty good.

A LEFKOFF: Imagine if you played baseball and every single ballpark was completely different. And so the kids growing up - they - on these complicated games - I can't keep it all straight.

BLOOM: Escher's sharp memory of different games has helped him crush the competition, like during the recent world championships in California.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

A LEFKOFF: Fifteen seconds again.

BLOOM: Lefkoff beat out a veteran player in a Flash Gordon-themed game.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes. He got it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: By 6,000 points.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: By 6,000 points, he wins it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Oh, my God.

E LEFKOFF: And the moment I saw my score passed 1.5 million, that's when I turned around and gave my dad a hug after I won.

A LEFKOFF: That was more than a hug.

E LEFKOFF: Yeah. I jumped...

A LEFKOFF: Jumped into my arms.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Oh, my goodness.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: He wins it - unbelievable.

BLOOM: The trophies he's won over the years line the walls inside the family's pinball barn. Escher and his dad have played over 200 tournaments together.

A LEFKOFF: I could beat 3-year-old Escher and 5-year-old Escher with one arm tied behind my back. But 16-year-old Escher and 19-year-old Escher has been kicking my butt for the last few years.

E LEFKOFF: Yeah. When I was about 13 is when it swapped to us being about even, and then at 16 was when I started...

A LEFKOFF: Yeah, there's a serious inflection point there.

E LEFKOFF: As you can see. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF PINBALL MACHINE DINGING)

BLOOM: Besides all the competition and rankings, they just love the game and everything it has to offer - the physicality of the buttons and flippers and, of course, the silver ball.

A LEFKOFF: You have this ball in play. No matter what you do, that ball is going to drain. You cannot play forever. We are going to die. That is just a fact of life. So it really depends on what you do with the ball, with your opportunities.

BLOOM: Escher's taken that philosophy from his dad to heart.

E LEFKOFF: That's why having a plan in pinball is so important - because you got to know what you're doing next. Have an end goal.

BLOOM: His latest goal - hold on to the crown as long as he can. For NPR News, I'm Matt Bloom in Longmont.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELTON JOHN SONG, "PINBALL WIZARD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Matt is a passionate journalist who loves nothing more than good reporting, music and comedy. At KUNC, he covers breaking news stories and the economy. He’s also reported for KPCC and KCRW in Los Angeles. As NPR’s National Desk intern in Culver City during the summer of 2015, he produced one of the first episodes of Embedded, the NPR podcast hosted by Kelly McEvers where reporters take a story from the headlines and “go deep.”