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Doug Clark: Pinball champ learned to play in Spokane

Raymond Davidson won the world pinball championship this summer in Denmark. (Doug Clark / The Spokesman-Review)

Jordan Spieth, Jimmie Johnson, Tom Brady …

Who wouldn’t take time to chat with a world champion if he just, say, happened to pop into town?

Not this guy.

Unfortunately, none of these planet-beaters paid us a visit.

But that’s OK, because Raymond Davidson did, in fact, drop by.

And who is Raymond Davidson, you ask?

Why, just the 24-year-old Mukilteo resident who last June won the world pinball championship in Copenhagen, Denmark.

I know. We’re talking about shiny metal balls bouncing off bumpers inside a brightly lit and glass-topped machine covered with gaudy graphics.

But I say that world-class excellence on any competitive field should be celebrated.

“I love pinball,” Davidson said. “It has layers and goals, but it’s really just about passion. If you have the passion to be good.”

Roger Federer said pretty much the same thing after winning his eighth Wimbledon.

Ah, I remember well my own pinball days at the Silver Lanes Bowling Alley on the South Hill.

All the change I pumped into those machines could have bought me a new Rambler Ambassador, probably.

I was especially hooked on this baseball game that shot balls at a bat-shaped flipper.

Ding. Ding. TILT!


Davidson, too, honed his pinball chops in Spokane, which is what brought him here on a recent Saturday. He came to his grandparents’ home on the North Side to retrieve the very machine that started it all: a 1976 Pioneer Bicentennial model.

Manufactured by the Gottlieb Company, for you statistic-minded fans.

“This definitely got me started,” said Davidson, leaning an elbow on the glitzy Pioneer. “We have a photograph of me playing it when I was 3 or 4.”

B.F. “Dave” Davidson, Raymond’s grandfather, bought the used machine from a downtown business for 300 bucks in 1977.

The elder Davidson, who died last January, was a federal probation officer. He got the machine for Chris, his son and Raymond’s dad.

Chris Davidson thought he was pretty hot stuff, too, back in the day. When he was young, he said, he played the game nonstop with his pals and eventually set what he thought was the all-time Davidson family record at 275,000 points.

He even taped a sign with the score on the machine to preserve his bragging rights.

Then young Raymond came along. He took to the game like Tommy Emmanuel took to picking a six-string guitar.

The kid racked up over 300,000 on the first ball he put in play.

“I didn’t know any better,” said Chris with a laugh.

Dad realized his reign as family pinball champ was over.

Long live the new king!

Raymond had found a calling. Being young meant he couldn’t play pinball in bars. Damn. So he’d haunt the go-cart tracks and restaurants just to play the pinball games.

In middle school, he created a virtual pinball game on his computer.

Competitive play at 14. A year later he takes ninth in a tournament. The next year he wins one …

Raymond earns a paycheck as a computer programmer for a startup company. He still lives with his father and mother (Jerilyn), but there’s a very good reason for that.

All nine of his pinball machines (10 now with the Pioneer) are lined up in the basement.

The games are of varying ages and degrees of complexity. Playing them all regularly keeps him in top form for competitive play.

The older games, he added, have about a 60-40 skill-to-luck quotient, which may explain why just about all of my balls seemed to automatically drain. The skill level rises to 90 percent on more modern machines.

It’s still about “controlling the ball,” he said. “The better you get, the less luck you need.”

Winning Copenhagen upped his ranking to third in the world standings, he said.

The event is considered the most competitive of tournaments, a news report claimed, because only “the top 64 out of more than 50,000 ranked players qualify to compete.”

Davidson has been in Pittsburgh this week, playing a major tournament called Pinburgh.

Winning that earns you a $15,000 prize.

Sadly, being a pinball pro isn’t exactly the Yellow Brick Road to riches – yet.

For winning the world title in Denmark, Davidson received a cool flag-covered trophy, $1,000 and a brand new Ghostbusters machine.

But Raymond Davidson is not in this for the money.

“The future looks promising,” he told me, adding that there are rumors about a pinball pro circuit with sponsored professionals.

And so we made it. I promised Davidson that, unlike so many others who have written about him, I wouldn’t regurgitate anything about him having a “supple wrist” or how he “played the silver ball” or any other tired lyrics from the rock opera “Tommy” by The Who.

“It’s so clichéd,” Davidson said. “So overdone.”

He really is a pinball wizard, though.


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