wizard mode

words: nina st. pierre

photography: victor isaac alvarez


Before they were married, Louise and Eric Wagensonner spent their Thursday nights playing pool at Delirium, a windowless, tunnel-shaped dive bar in San Francisco’s Mission District. One night, in 2010, they arrived to find that the line for the pool table was too long, so they wandered into a backroom they’d never noticed. Along the wall was a lonely trio of old pinball machines. Louise was drawn to one in particular, a classic ’90s machine: Theater of Magic. 


The machine’s avatar, a black-suit and bowtie-clad apprentice magicienne welcomed players into a world of illusion. To help the apprentice unlock her ultimate power—Grand Wizard mode—the player had to levitate, complete a Houdini-esque trunk escape, and metamorphosize into a dove. Louise, at 30, had never touched a game. “I didn’t even know what pinball was,” she says. A Welsh HIV research scientist, she’d moved to San Francisco to take a job at UCSF’s experimental medicine lab. 


“Don’t worry,” Eric said. “I’ll teach you.” Little did they know this would be a dual genesis: of their eventual marriage and shared love of pinball. That first night, it was all mystical affirmations, as the magicienne lured Louise into her world, via hat magic and trap doors. 


You can do it, she boomed in a husky voice. 


You have the power.


You have the magic. 


Louise Wagensonner would go on to become one of the top woman pinball players in the world. 


At UCSF’s Hunt Lab, I don protective goggles, shoe covers, and a long-sleeved hospital gown. I’ve been granted clearance for Biosafety Level 2 labs, areas designated to study moderate-risk infectious agents. In one room, a giant autoclave dwarfs me. In another, gallons of industrial bleach line the shelves in orderly rows. 


Pathogens—viruses in particular—have always captivated Louise. As she leads me through the lab’s halls, she marvels, “It’s incredible that something so tiny and simple is capable of such destruction.”


Raised along the banks of the River Usk in Caerleon, a verdant Welsh village that some historians say was home to King Arthur’s Round Table, Louise had an innate wanderlust. “It’s sort of rare to meet a Welsh person outside of Wales,” she says. But keeping up with her older brother and his mates cultivated independence and a sort of Zen swagger in Louise. She would not stay home and live a traditional life. She could do—and did—whatever the boys did.



After completing a PhD in immunology, working in San Francisco was her first choice. With its cultural history as a gay haven and proximity to Silicon Valley tech, the city has always been at the cutting edge of HIV research.


As we enter a room one step above my clearance, she points out a machine called the flow cytometer. It sorts blood samples according to sets of characteristics, tagging cells with various fluorescent markers, so that when the sample is run by a laser, the fluorescence reacts at different light frequencies which articulate information about the cells. I picture the cytometer, analyzing thousands of particles per second, as a sort of wild, neon rave for the cells.


Dr. Howard M. Shapiro—who literally wrote the textbook on flow cytometers—and his friends used to accumulate broken pinball machines to build their own proto-computers. “The digital components of the 1940s were primarily electromechanical, built of switches and relays,” he writes. “A pinball machine was a good source of such components.” 


Pinball as we know it is the result of two eras of major innovation. The 1970s, the “golden age,” ushered in microprocessors for the first digitized games. These new, solid-state machines were controlled via microchips instead of relays and allowed for deeper storylines and more complex rules. The ’90s, “the renaissance” era, introduced dot-matrix displays like those on the machines at Delirium.


“Lab research is slower paced than pinball,” says Louise. “But the approaches are somewhat analogous.” There are thousands of machines, she explains, each with their own storyline and rule sets. In competition, great players adapt their game depending on machine behavior and opponent dynamics, while in the lab, scientists use logic to determine how different elements interact in complex systems, then conduct processes of testing and refinement.


As she’s explaining this, her boss, the Dr. Hunt of Hunt Lab, swings into the room, belting out: “Ever since I was a young boy, I played the silver ball!”


Apparently, I’ve blown her cover. 


“They knew I played, casually,” she grins. “But they didn’t know I was ranked or anything like that.”


Louise is leaving the next day for INDISC, one of the world’s biggest pinball tournaments, where she’ll fight to defend her 2019 Women’s Champion title. 





With over 1,100 games packed into 40,000 sq. feet, the Museum of Pinball in Banning, California, is the largest privately owned collection of pinball machines in the world. The main arcade is a cavernous, fluorescent-lit room with hundreds of games in orderly rows, all pinging and thwacking little metallic songs. It’s an intoxicating cult of sparkle and sound. Here, it’s easier to understand why pinballwas once considered illicit. Outlawed in the 1930s as a form of gambling, it remained banned until 1976 when Roger Sharpe, “the man who saved pinball,” hauled a machine into a New York City courtroom and called all his shots, proving it was a game of skill, not luck.


The INDISC tournament room is less arcade than training bunker. Among the players, a normcore aesthetic prevails. Punk-rock braids and Pantera vests stand out in the sea of New Balances, khakis, and Bill Gates specs. A crew of gangly white teenage boys with identical swoopy, sandy-brown hair chat excitedly as they wait for their next up. Wagensonner tells me that they’re some of the best pinball players in the world.  


Energy is high at the far end of the room, where Louise is one of 16 competing in the Women’s Final. Outfitted in blue fingerless gloves, a signature stretchy headband, and gold filigree hoops, she’s in game mode.  As the quarterfinals begin, I squish onto one of the pleather couches designated  for spectators. For the next two hours, players compete in bracketed playoffs, dropping from 16 to eight to four, two, one. 


In pinball, you have to complete a series of tasks to activate a high-scoring mode, or to line up the crown jewel, multi-ball, which is key to hitting astronomical scores or keeping a single ball in play for ten minutes. “You might be more conservative in what you set up depending on who you’re playing,” says Louise. “Because if you line up a multi-ball, for example, and then lose, the next person could activate it.” 


Louise has first pick of machine and chooses Theater of Magic, which she wipes down with a rag pulled from her back pocket. In the first game, she puts up over one billion points—which will turn out to be the highest score of the entire women’s tournament. But in the second game, her scores tank, and on the third, she’s just about to drain a crucial ball, when a woman sitting next to me screams “Lazarus!” A rare instance of resurrection, a Lazarus is when the ball has fully drained—passed between the flippers—but miraculously gets bounced back into play. It gets her through to the semifinals. 


The semifinals fly past, and we have a final four: Tracy Lindbergh of Chandler, Arizona, New York’s Anna Wolk, Stephanie Traub from D.C., and Louise. 


Louise and Traub, a lawyer from D.C., tie for first. 


The deciding game is a rare tie-breaker between reigning champ and underdog. HIV scientist vs. State Department lawyer. Traub chooses Theater of Magic. Turns out, many of the women players I talk to have a special relationship with the game. “With Theater, you’re playing as a woman training to be the magician. It’s powerful,” says Zoe Vrabel, the International Flipper Pinball Association’s  first-ever women’s world champ. “There aren’t many games with female protagonists who aren’t sexualized.” 



Unlike sports that have performance gaps based on body mass, pinball is, in theory, equal-opportunity. But of the 38,137 people actively competing worldwide and currently ranked by the IFPA, only 5 percent are women. And of those, even fewer are parents. 


“For now,” says Louise. “I’m one of only two top-ranked mothers.”


Before Louise gave birth to their son Daniel, she and Eric traveled the country to play in tournaments together. These days, one stays home while the other competes, which might bring down their averages. But it’s a way to balance pinball with parenthood. 


Back in San Francisco, in the couple’s Noye Valley living room, I’d watched Daniel, now three years old, expertly maneuver the AC/DC pinball game that Louise won in her first-ever competition.  


“We had a kid later in life,” Eric says. “So we wanted him to be a part of the things we liked versus changing our lives. That doesn’t mean he’s a pinfant or anything.” 


A pinfant? 


“Yep! People name their kids so that their initials will look cool on the scoreboard.”


I gawk. Eric laughs. Daniel shakes AC/DC. 


“Don’t tilt, Daniel,” says Eric, patiently. “Remember. Just nudge!” 


Inside each game, a small weighted pendulum hangs in the center of a metal ring. When the machine is jostled, the pendulum swings. If it hits the ring too hard, on older machines, TILT is activated. TILT is a tool—to break into the big league, you have to learn to nudge the machine hard enough to manipulate your ball without triggering it. “You have to ask yourself, ‘How far can I push this game?’” says Waggensonner. “It’s an extension of you.”


Back in Banning, the crowd is hushed as Waggensonner launches her final ball. Her hips wide and tight against the machine, she shoves it. “If you’re not titling, you’re not trying!” she says. 


Traub has the the final ball. Just as she is about to drain and hand Louise the win, the magicienne appears. “Here is another ball!” she purrs. Traub rides it to victory.


In this game, one ball really can change everything.


They say pinball is 75 percent skill and 25 percent luck. For all its smoke and mirrors, magic is the same. We know magic isn’t real, but we are hungry for its illusions. While some of us are happy to suspend disbelief and enjoy the show, others, like Louise, want to know what’s going on behind the velvet curtain. As British sci-fi Arthur C. Clarke once said: “Magic’s just science that we don’t yet understand.” The Lazarus. The rising of the dead. The neon light that leads to a cure.