Pinball was originally outlawed in the ’30s and ’40s because it was viewed as an “illegal game of chance” no different than gambling. It wasn’t until the ’70s, when pinball aficionados testified it was a game of skill, that the ban began to lift across the country.
But pinball was technically still illegal in Oakland, California until June 2014. So, when Belles and Chimes, an all-women pinball league, was founded in 2013 in Oakland, the group was technically an illegal operation. Echa Schneider founded the group during the recent resurgence of the retro game. There are 21 chapters throughout the United States, and Tucson may host the next.
Tucson Pinball, a local games company, is hosting the first ever Tucson Women’s Pinball Tournament in collaboration with the Phoenix chapter of Belles and Chimes in an effort to begin a Tucson chapter.
The idea for the tournament came from a conversation between Wayne Saeger, owner of Tucson Pinball, and Tracy Lindbergh, founder of the Phoenix chapter of Belles and Chimes and a top female pinball player in the state. Saeger started an open pinball league in Tucson that meets monthly, gathering 15 players on a regular basis, though only about four female players attend.
Saeger was an Air Force brat growing up, and every base had an arcade, where he first started playing. He said even when his parents got a Nintendo, pinball wasn’t available at home. It was “out in the wild,” adding to the allure of the game.
“It’s an in-person analog experience,” he said. “You’re manipulating flippers that bat around a steel ball. There are video games like it, but nothing is like the real thing. There are different machines with different goals, rule sets…It’s a really cool package of fun.”
When Saeger started Tucson Pinball in 2015, Lindbergh and her husband would drive down from Phoenix to play in the league. When there was a lull in the Phoenix league schedule, she came up with the idea of a tournament and recruited to make the drive down to Tucson.
The Phoenix chapter of Belles and Chimes, founded by Lindbergh in 2017 was “such a leap of faith” because she didn’t know how much interest there would be. Now, there are 24 members in the Belles and Chimes Phoenix chapter. The group of women playing is diverse, from teenagers to retirees.
“The pinball community here is like that—everybody gets along,” Lindbergh said. “Belles and Chimes have become very close to each other. Let’s say it’s a knockout open tournament with one woman left. Women who have been knocked out will stay to cheer on the one woman left.”
Prizes are given to the top three players. Entering the tournament is free, and playing only costs putting quarters in the machine, which generally adds up to about $5.
Scores for the tournament are submitted to the International Flipper Pinball Association. Within competitive pinball, there is a state, national and world championship. Saeger started the Tucson pinball championship, too.
Seasoned pinball players have learned not only about goals for each game, but also techniques to control the ball. One technique is called a “dead bounce,” where the ball is slowed down by catching the ball on a flipper before choosing the next shot. There are tutorial videos, and streaming of pinball has become very popular, including big events with top players, which can be helpful to new players in learning pinball strategy.
“A lot of it comes from playing the game and seeing which strategies are a little on the safer side,” Saeger said. “There’s also risk reward, so if you go for the more dangerous targets, you rack up more points. A lot is learned through playing the game… I understand it can be nerve racking and you can be worried about stuff, but it’s just pinball. It’s just fun.”
The first ever Tucson women’s pinball tournament will be held at Tucson Pinball in the Tucson Indoor Sports Center (1065 W. Grant Road) July 20. Registration and warm-ups are from noon to 1:00 p.m., games will end around 4 p.m.
Meredith O’Neil is a University of Arizona journalism graduate student and Tucson Local Media intern.