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Pinballer Robert Gagno rides the skytrain to practice at a pub in downtown Vancouver.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

Pinball is more like a way of life than a game for 24-year-old Robert Gagno of Burnaby.

"It puts me in the place I like to be," Mr. Gagno said.

He ranks 12th in the world and is Canadian champion.

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Robert's father, Maurizio Gagno, recalls taking his five-year-old son to a burger restaurant where he was instantly attracted to a pinball game called Twilight Zone.

"He stood up on this soapbox to play it. And from that point on, that's all he would do is play pinball if he got a chance," Maurizio said.

When Robert was two or three, his parents noticed he was

different from other children. Maurizio remembers watching his son listen to music and spin in circles.

He showed aptitude for memorization and math even in kindergarten. But for the first seven years of his life, Robert didn't speak.

"He could multiply large numbers in his head right away. He could memorize a lot of numerical stuff," said Maurizio, remembering his son absorbing hundreds of codes in the Yellow Pages.

Robert underwent tests and was diagnosed with autism.

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"Apparently, he can process things visually without moving his head around a lot," Maurizio said.

"He can see the whole playing field and process things at once, which is really rare to do."

Doctors said autism might

play a role in Robert's pinball skills.

Robert competed in his first tournament at 19. Maurizio had planned on selling his son's pinball machine, but reconsidered after his success in the competition. Eleven machines now sit in the family garage.

"I just could not believe he was beating pro after pro," Maurizio said.

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Robert competes with the Vancouver Regional Pinball Association and the Seattle Pinball League.

He finished ninth overall in last weekend's Rose City Showdown in Portland, Ore.

Robert's current ranking makes him a shoo-in for the biggest competition of the year regardless of how he does at other tournaments.

In April, he will compete with 400 other players in the Pinburgh Match-Play Championship in Pittsburgh for a prize of $60,000 (U.S.).

"I see it as a sport," said Mr. Gagno, who practises two to three hours per day and studies rule books.

"When he latches onto something, he'll keep on doing it until he's perfected it," Maurizio said.

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