Pinball wizards

All-female pinball league tilts expectations

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Nathan Calkins / The Torch
Jamie Blair watches and supports teammate Conley Phelps during a Flash Gordon pinball game at Blairally Vintage Arcade. Blair and Phelps have been teammates on the all-woman pinball team Belles and Chimes for the last six months.

Since 2015, the Belles and Chimes pinball league has lit up the scoreboards at Blairally Vintage Arcade. They’re a gathering of 12 female pinball aficionados, united by a friendly spirit of competition, retro gaming nostalgia and black hoodies with the league name emblazoned in red on the back.

On the second and fourth Tuesdays during their seasons, the Belles meet for tournaments at Blairally, a vintage arcade and bar in the Whittaker neighborhood. Using a randomized group knockout format, the women compete against each other until only one remains, the winner then earns points toward the season’s championship. At the end of the season, the top three women take home prizes paid for by league dues.

Despite the competitive nature of league play, Belles and Chimes organizer Katie Sheehan explained that it’s much more than just a way to compete.

“Really, this just gives us a space to be girls,” Sheehan said. “We’re really not that competitive, we’re here to spend time together and have some fun.”

That feeling of sisterhood has been the main draw for many women getting recruited to the league. Jamie Blair, one of the newer league members, was recruited into the Belles just by hanging out at Blairally.

“When I first moved here, I was so socially uncomfortable, so I just came here and played pinball,” Blair said. “Then, Katie [Sheehan] kept coming up and watching my scores and then said ‘You know, you should come on Tuesdays.’”

The predecessors to what are now known as pinball games first came around in the mid-19th century, but modern electric pinball machines first became popular around the American Midwest in the 1950s. Until the coin-operated video game craze of the 1980s, pinball machines were a staple in arcades, bars and drugstores throughout the United States, with people of all ages sinking millions of dollars into the machines one quarter at a time.

Nathan Calkins / The Torch
Belles and Chimes members Jamie Blair and Conley Phelps work together, each controlling one flipper in a technique called a ‘split flip’, on the Flash Gordon pinball machine at Blairally Vintage Arcade. The Belles hold tournaments at Blairally on the 2nd and 4th Tuesdays during their seasons.

As gaming went digital and moved into the American home, pinball games faded from mainstream consciousness. However, pinball machines (and vintage games in general) have roared back into fashion in the past few years, with arcade-bars like Blairally and Level Up Arcade fostering a new interest in vintage gaming. According to the International Flipper Pinball Association, over 4,800 pinball tournaments were held in 2017, compared to just 487 in 2009. Pinball leagues like Belles and Chimes are an extension of that nostalgia, with league members often bonding over the pinball machines they grew up with.

Conley Phelps, a Lane Community College student who finished third in the most recent Belles and Chimes season, reminisced about her own memories of pinball growing up in the Chicago area.

“I’ve been passionate about pinball since I was tall enough to reach the machine,” Phelps said. “For me, [pinball] has been a whole thing connected to my development and emotional growth, and I just get lost in pinball games.”

Teamwork is a big theme among members of the Belles. Though they don’t offer much help to one another on tournament nights, during practice weeks, league members will trade tips and tricks with one another on achieving the highest scores on different machines.

“During a tournament, I won’t tell anyone how I did anything on the machine,” Sheehan said. “But at the next practice, I’ll tell you everything I know.”

Even with the tips and tricks under their belt, the Belles explained that practice is the most crucial part of achieving unbeatable high scores on pinball machines. Blair and Phelps will stand in front of one machine and play it “over and over and over again” until they learn the machine’s ways. Once they learn a machine, that knowledge sticks.

“Playing a machine is not unlike reading your favorite book, the ride that it takes you on,” Phelps said. “The ins, the outs, the ups and downs, the strategies, you know, they become like a friend.”

A new Belles and Chimes season begins “sometime in March,” according to Sheehan. All are welcome to play and watch alongside the Belles, but official league play is open only to women who pay the $15 league dues.