Taking in a deep breath, she places her hands on the quarter-size buttons that sit on each side of the machine. At the crank of the plunger, the ball shoots through the world of "Star Wars," and it’s go time.
Tracy Abrahams lets nothing stop her from playing pinball, including the fact that the game is male-dominated. She found that there were women like her who also thought gender should play no role in the game of pinball.
Belles and Chimes, an international network of women’s pinball leagues, started in 2013, providing a fun and social environment for women to play the usually male-dominated game. Abrahams heard about Belles and Chimes at an international pinball tournament and had to start an Austin chapter.
"A lot of women and nonbinary folks that like this hobby feel a little hesitant to go into a league that is mainly a male-based hobby, so I think Belles and Chimes is important to grow the hobby for those that are nervous about joining," Abrahams said.
Abrahams started playing pinball only in the past few years to destress and has been getting "lost in the game" ever since. With adrenaline running through your body and your eyes focused, Abrahams says, each game is like a conversation with the machine.
She describes pinball as a science. While chance is involved, the player has to think about angles, momentum and tricks to manipulate the ball inside the machine.
Wendy Cloudberry, Belles and Chimes member, considers herself a novice player, although she has been playing casually since she was a kid. Like others in the league, she didn’t think she was league qualified, but Belles and Chimes isn’t about how good a player is; it’s about having a good time.
Cloudberry said it’s great to have a place to be bad at something she enjoys, and it’s nice to be in a space where everyone is supportive.
"I spent a lot of time in male-dominated spaces with other things in my life, so this was a very unusual space for me," Cloudberry said.
The emphasis Belles and Chimes puts on positivity allows for a space of like-minded individuals who aren’t going to be aggressively competitive and who will look out for each other.
Abrahams said women and nonbinary individuals can encounter a lot of negativity when they take part in a hobby dominated by men, but Belles and Chimes empowers women to slam the buttons and nudge the machines the way they want.
"A lot of men don’t realize they have a little bit of a more comfortable environment to work in, they don’t have to feel worried that they are being looked upon because they’re a certain sex," Abrahams said. "Gender and sex should not have a play in something like pinball, and women are a little behind because we have to worry about other aspects that men don’t have to."
Jesse Bodell, food and beverage director of Buffalo Billiards, is part of the pinball open league in Austin. He said he didn’t think the women’s league would get much traction because there didn’t seem to be that many competitive female players at the open league tournaments, but Abrahams and co-coordinator Kelly Raisler have brought in women he didn’t know played pinball.
"I don’t see the growth rate slowing down anytime soon," Bodell said. "There is obviously a need for tournaments and leagues of this nature."
Abrahams plans to have a tournament quarterly throughout the year. The last tournament was Jan. 25 and included members from the Belles and Chimes Houston and San Antonio chapters. The next one is expected to happen during the summer.
While the league is growing, Abrahams hopes to increase the number of women who show up to league nights. Belles and Chimes meets every second and fourth Wednesday of the month and announces on its social media channels whether they will meet at Buffalo Billiards (201 E. Sixth St.) or at Recess Arcade Bar (222 E. Sixth St.). Women and nonbinary people of all ages and skill levels are welcome. There are no fees to join the league; players pay for games as they go. More at bellesandchimespinball.com.
(The date of the last quarterly pinball tournament in this story has been corrected.)