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‘What Detroit is to cars, Chicago is to pinball’

With his wife Stephanie watching Jeff Hooper practices his Trpinball machine. The Hoopers will host first Illinois state-level championship International

With his wife Stephanie watching, Jeff Hooper practices on his Tron pinball machine. The Hoopers will host the first Illinois state-level championship of the International Flipper Pinball Association next month. | Ronnie Wachter/Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 29, 2014 3:37AM

When the best pinball players come to Lincolnshire to compete, Jeff Hooper will have the home-field advantage — specifically, the home basement.

With 14 pinball machines in his basement, that is where Hooper will host the first-ever Illinois state championship of pinball.

“If you’re a pinball geek, I’m going to have the hall of fame here,” said Hooper, while the lights and sounds of machines dating back to the 1970s whirred with life around him.

On Feb. 8, Hooper and his wife, Stephanie, will host a state championship tournament sanctioned by the International Flipper Pinball Association, one of the organizations that governs professional pinball.

Sixteen of the Prairie State’s finest flippers — Jeff Hooper will compete as well as the host — will face off for the title. The field is expected to include top-ranked player Zach Sharpe and his father, Roger Sharpe, known in the pinball community as “the godfather of pinball.”

“It’s a bit of a privilege to be playing on your home games,” Hooper said.

While he has elevated familiarity with the machines the tournament will use, his goal is to be named the seventh-best player in Illinois at the day’s conclusion.

“The top six guys in Illinois are just unbeatable,” Hooper said. “So there’s really 10 guys playing for seventh place.”

Each round will be a best of seven games; the champion will have to win all four rounds. Hooper expects the action, which will start in the early afternoon, to last until midnight.

The existence of both the International Flipper Pinball Association and its new series of state tournaments — other states with enough competitors will hold simultaneous championships Feb. 8 — are a credit to the resurgence of pinball appreciation, Hooper said.

For him, it is a treat to live in the Chicago area, the home of pinball’s legendary manufacturers Bally Entertainment and Midway Games, as well as the only company making new machines today, Stern.

“What Detroit is to cars, Chicago is to pinball,” he said.

Hooper’s love of the game began when he was 4 years old growing up in St. Louis. His father brought home a full-sized “Moulin Rouge” machine, and the child who would grow to be 6-foot-3 was already tall enough to see the playing surface and reach both flipper buttons. As he grew taller and older, he became able to slap the sides of the machine and tilt it from side to side, practices that are legal in the IFPA.

“You’re not playing the game correctly if you’re not moving the machine,” Hooper instructed. “That’s playing defense.”

His interest waned in high school, then burst back to life after his college days. His first job was at Pittsburgh Magazine, at about the time the game themed after the “Terminator 2” film came out.

“When I was supposedly out selling ads, I was playing ‘Terminator 2,’” he confessed. “A lot of long lunch breaks.”

After getting married, he moved into a house with a 2,600-square-foot basement. Hooper got the notion to decorate the basement with the purchase of a pinball game.

The machines weigh between 250 and 400 pounds; a cheap one is around $700 and a collector’s rarity can cost $20,000. Hooper’s collection has filled up several walls in the basement, with machines ranging from his beloved “Moulin Rouge” to the 1995 mega-hit “Attack From Mars” to Stern’s 2013 tribute to legendary rock band AC/DC.

“I’m glad they’re all contained to the basement and not taking over the house,” said Stephanie Hooper, admitting that she enjoys when their children’s friends come over with a sense of wonderment.

Dan Caschetto, an Arlington Heights-based pinball repairman, has been regularly dropping in at the Hooper home to get the machines up to IFPA standards.

“Normal wear and tear, they start to take a toll on the old machines, especially the Ballys,” Caschetto said.

Hooper said blamed video games for nearly eradicating pinball. Pinball manufacturers were producing as little as 4,000 machines a year in the late 1990s, but by 2013, Stern was putting out 10,000 machines a year to accommodate a resurgence sparked by “barcades” around Chicago.

For Hooper, it doesn’t matter who the Prairie State sends to the IFPA’s first national tournament or where he fits into the final standings, he said he enjoys playing host during the game’s resurgence.

“The greatest thing about pinball is that anybody can be good,” he said. “How many things can you do at age 45 and compete at the international level?”

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