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.”