“Do not disturb while flipping,” reads a warning on the back of Nicki Eisenrich’s T-shirt as she leans in and flips with precision, her score on the Ghostbusters machine rising by the second.
Interrupting a pinball player is a breach of etiquette. But when Eisenrich plays at local bars and breweries, she often is accosted by mansplainers who tell her how to improve her skills. She designed the shirt to ward them off.
“One of my more memorable experiences was I was playing a machine with some of my friends and this guy comes up and says, ‘Hey, can I give you a tip?’ While I’m in the middle of a ball! I just turned to him. I said ‘No,’ And he said, ‘OK, well, if you actually stand up straighter, you can tilt the machine more.’ I was like, ‘OK. You don’t want to tilt the machine,’ ” said Eisenrich, a technical recruiter and skilled pinball player. “ ‘Everyone has their own posture, there’s not a right way to be playing pinball.’ ”
Eisenrich didn’t stop at the T-shirt. She also started a Minneapolis pinball club for women only.
The game, which seemed destined for obscurity after its heyday in the 1960s and ’70s, is back in a big way. In Minnesota, dive bars, “barcades” (part bar, part arcade) and brewery taprooms are adding pinball tables and hosting tournaments. One local pinball website includes a map of more than three dozen public places to play, from a soda shop in Spring Lake Park to a VFW in Uptown Minneapolis.
But while the industry is rebuilding, it hasn’t entirely shed its man-cave qualities. Men overwhelmingly outnumber women, especially in competitive play. Many of the tables are cluttered with sexualized images of women, including a 2002 Playboy machine with interchangeable inserts so the Playmates can be nude or clothed.
That’s why Twin Cities women are banding together to carve out a space of their own in the male-dominated scene. They aim to bring more women into the hobby they love, lower what they see as “barriers to entry” (the ratio of women to men, the intensity of the competitions), and build a supportive community.
The movement has a wide reach — Eisenrich’s club is one of 21 chapters of the international women’s pinball network Belles & Chimes, which started in California in 2013. About 15 members now attend monthly meetups at local pinball spots. Through the club, Eisenrich hopes to get more women to participate in official competitions.
She’s getting help from Kaitlyn Schick, a Maple Grove kiosk service technician who became obsessed with pinball after a friend brought her to TILT Pinball Bar a few years ago. This winter, Schick came up with the idea of having a women-only tournament night at the Minneapolis barcade.
“It’s mostly a guy thing,” said Schick. “I just wanted women to be more comfortable competing.”
The TILT women’s tourney is now a monthly event, held on the third Wednesday of each month. It follows International Flipper Pinball Association rules, which assigns groups of four women to a different machine for each round. The top scorers sail on, the lowest gets a strike. Two strikes and you’re out. The players rack up IFPA points, which count toward the group’s women’s rankings.
There are gift card prizes for the top three scorers, and Ms. Lakesha, TILT’s beverage director, usually creates a power women playlist for the night, a lot of Beyoncé, Britney Spears and Lady Gaga.
“Just being able to know that we’re all here for this exact same thing, that we all love the same thing, makes it really easy to bond with these women,” said Schick.
‘You can do it!’
When Eisenrich attended her first women’s tourney at TILT, the thwacking noise of 20 pinball machines rose above the din of the music. The bar was packed and dark, with the glow of the machines lighting the players’ faces.
Early on, Eisenrich’s high scores led her and three others in the field of 19 into the fourth round without a single strike. (The field initially included a 4-year-old girl who folded early because of her bedtime.)
Facing off on the Future Spa machine (which promised players “a new dimension” when rolled out in 1979) were Dina Bizzaro, a middle school science teacher who has loved pinball since her dad taught her to play when she was a kid; Amanda Eggers, a research librarian whose dad used to repair pinball machines (“he didn’t believe me when I told him that pinball was a big thing again,” Eggers said); and Kayleigh Kurschner, a nurse who likes to play to decompress after working a late shift.
As they played, Eisenrich encouraged them on: “You can do it!” she called. “One ball, that’s all it takes!”
Eisenrich had been playing pinball regularly for about three years when she moved back to Minnesota in 2016 after stints in Chicago and New York. She went to a coed IFPA tournament in the Twin Cities, where there was only one other woman out of more than 20 players.
She founded a coed recreational league called Pinball Twin Cities, and successfully recruited women as well as men to join. But as the league grew, she noticed that while many of the women were improving their game, they weren’t trying their thumbs at the more intense official IFPA competitions.
That’s when she reached out to Belles & Chimes, and formed the Minneapolis club for women only.
“I just thought it would be awesome to create a space for women who are curious about it, but don’t feel ready to jump into the deep end of competitive pinball,” Eisenrich said.
Belles & Chimes allows its chapters to determine how to operate, aside from two rules: The events are for women only and “sexualized imagery” isn’t allowed in promotional materials.
“That’s something that you’re inundated with, playing pinball,” said Eisenrich. “It’s hard to find a machine that doesn’t have really sexualized imagery, or isn’t objectifying women. Which is another reason I feel like it’s really important to have a female presence within pinball.”
Hugs and high-fives
As the tournament at TILT went into its third hour, less-than-ideal scores on the Beatles machine (a 2018 release that is without a bikini-clad babe) bumped Eisenrich out of the running. She ended up in a tie with Eggers for fourth, right behind Elizabeth Boelke, a petite White Castle general manager and TILT regular who always plays in heels. (“I just need that extra boost to see,” she explained.)
The women who took part in the tourney agreed it was a female-friendly event.
“No creeps, right?” said Kate MacLam, a writer who ended up tying for 11th.
By the final round, Bizzaro and Kurschner were the last players standing. Schick punched their names into her iPad. The software program randomly assigned them to a pinball table: FunHouse, a 1990 issue that features a ventriloquist doll head that taunts players with lines like “Now who’s the dummy?”
In the end, Bizzaro claimed the top spot. When she bested Kurschner by more than a million points, the two hugged.
“I like that Kaitlyn has created this opportunity just for women,” said Bizzaro, “because we’re very supportive of each other. We compete fine against guys, but it’s just better for us to be alone for awhile.”