BEFORE I JOINED a recent Babes in Pinland tournament, I had no idea competitive pinball was such a big deal. Turns out I’ve been missing a lot.
The pinball contests raging in bars and arcades on any given night can be cutthroat, with a definite masculine vibe. Although the annual women’s Powder Puff tournament (it will be May 26 this year) has been going strong for a decade, longtime player Kayla Greet saw few women in regular competitions around town. So she started the monthly Babes in Pinland tournament about six years ago.
“In other tournaments, you’re in it for yourself,” Greet told me during a break in play at the Add-a-Ball arcade in Fremont. But, “Women compliment each other. There’s help and support rather than tearing people down.”
As I wandered Add-a-Ball’s labyrinth of game-filled rooms (“like your cool uncle’s basement,” one player says), I saw women hugging their opponents after games — not behavior you usually see from adversaries.
Each tournament has a different theme that players dress up to match. This night, it was the birthday of a rainbow-loving regular, Kelsie Sherman-Hall. Players interpreted the theme in all kinds of ways, a testament to their overall diversity. In the glow of lights blazing from the machines, all added up to sparkly brilliance.
Maureen Hendrix, who organizes Babes in Pinland these days, joined a few years ago, when a co-worker of her husband invited her. Although Hendrix grew up playing casually, “Competitive pinball was not on my radar at all,” she says. At that first tournament, “I lost every game, but I met a lot of awesome people.”
Now one of Seattle’s top women players, Hendrix says others here were willing to teach her skills and techniques, “which I was blown away by — to have that be part of the culture, I was pleasantly surprised.”
The lack of women players is rooted in pinball history. With a seedy gambling-associated reputation, the game was banned in many cities from the 1940s to the ’70s. Even after that, women were mostly involved as scantily clad, busty decorations on machines. But over the years, they broke into competitive play.
For this tournament, competitors play one-on-one. Three losses, and you’re out; winners advance. Male volunteers help track scores, which go toward world standings — a fairly recent development. The governing International Flipper Pinball Association didn’t count women’s tournaments until about three years ago, Greet says.
Given a crowded field of about 40, tonight’s final game is played after midnight. But most of the conquered players stick around, socializing.
“I came to this tournament with the goal to meet people, and it works,” said Jasmijn de Jong. She recently moved here from the Netherlands with her American husband — they met at the World Pinball Championships.
Tournaments of all kinds are going on pretty much every night in Seattle. Some are open to everyone; others cater to more specific groups. Skill Shot, an online and print zine and podcast, tracks tournaments and other pinball news in the Puget Sound area.
Greet, a longtime Skill Shot contributor, says this area is a pinball hot spot.
Some of the world’s best players are here — the current overall world champion, Raymond Davidson, lives in Mukilteo. Seattle also has eight players in the top 100 of the world women’s standings, something Greet attributes partly to Babes in Pinland.
Enthusiasts of all levels can join top players at the Northwest Pinball and Arcade Show in Tacoma, May 31-June 2. A women-specific tournament there will be one of many, including one specifically for rookies. Time to start warming up those thumbs.