It's a balmy spring evening, and the patio in front of Lyman's Tavern in Petworth is deserted. Inside, people hover around a row of pinball machines: Attack From Mars, Star Wars, Eight Ball Deluxe, Red and Ted's Road Show. The mechanical sounds of the games mix with players' chatter; it feels like a carnival has been squeezed inside a shoebox-size room.
Some of the region’s best pinball players are here, participating in a charity pinball tournament for a local library branch, one of many tournaments that Lyman’s regularly hosts. At the Pabst Can Crusher, the first machine in the line, Stephanie Traub drops in a coin and starts to play. A State Department lawyer by day, Traub, 37, is the top-ranked woman in Washington and 19th in the country, according to the International Flipper Pinball Association, an organization that tracks pinball players. Men and women regularly compete against each other in tournaments, though increasingly women like Traub are organizing their own leagues and tournaments to encourage more women to play.
“This game is awful,” she says as her ball falls past the flippers, ending her turn. “Argh!” she groans. Game over.
When the long-standing neighborhood bar John’s Place in Fairfax, Va., closed in 2013, pinball enthusiast Paul McGlone lamented to The Washington Post, “There’s no place to play pinball in a public facility anymore.” But today, pinball is having a resurgence as a hobby and bar activity. The site pinballmap.com lists about 20 bars and restaurants with pinball machines inside the Beltway alone. The Black Cat on 14th Street NW hosts league tournaments every Sunday evening, Bar Elena on H Street NE has two machines, and the owners of Pop’s SeaBar in Adams Morgan recently bought five. Traub says if she wanted to, she could compete somewhere every night of the week.
One of the game’s biggest local boosters is Scott Nash, the founder and chief executive of the grocery chain Mom’s Organic Market. He owns about 40 machines; a new one can set you back about $6,000. He houses many of them at Vük, a pizza joint and pinball arcade he owns in Bethesda, and in a special pinball room in the back of the Mom’s store in College Park, Md.
I ask Nash why he, a successful businessman and grown man (he’s 54), likes to spend his free time flicking a tiny metal ball around a big box decorated with cartoons. As a kid, he says, he used to ride his bike to an arcade in Beltsville, Md., to play pinball with quarters stolen from his mother’s purse. Playing now still fills him with that same intoxicating mix of competitive drive and solitary Zen. “It’s the perfect combination of luck and skill,” he says. “It is, to me, a perfect hobby.”
Like many other area pinballers, Traub considers the College Park Mom’s store to be one of the best places in the region to hone your skills, due to the sheer variety of machines spanning pinball’s three ages: electromechanical machines dating to the ’30s, classic games from the ’70s and ’80s, and modern machines outfitted with microchips and complex computing systems.
Traub plays in weekly tournaments there and often broadcasts her games on the live-streaming platforms Twitch and Facebook Live. (Disclosure: Twitch is owned by Amazon; Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) They typically attract about 1,000 unique viewers, Traub says, but they’re among the small fish in the growing pinball video ecosystem. One Twitch account, DeadFlip, has 2.7 million unique views. Watching pinball online is an important way to improve your game; it helps familiarize you with machines that you might need to play on during a tournament.
Great pinball players have different strategies for every machine they encounter. Some tournaments use only classic machines, which have shorter game times and smaller flippers than newer ones. Other tournaments have participants play rounds on every era of machine. And some machines are heavier than others, which makes them harder to “nudge” — that’s when a player bumps or tilts the table to shift the ball’s trajectory. Many manufacturers even install tilting mechanisms to keep players from nudging games too hard. Nudging is one of the few areas of the game where physical strength comes into play.
In most of the tournaments Traub participates in, she’s one of the only women. Men don’t have much of a natural physical advantage in pinball — no woman I spoke to had any difficulties with nudging — but it remains a male-dominated activity in the same way that video games and bar sports like pool are. Plus, many of the most popular pinball machines are decorated with cartoonish or sexualized images of women. There’s even one called Whoa Nellie! Big Juicy Melons, which features a blond woman in cutoff shorts and a bikini top holding two watermelons in front of her breasts. Traub herself owns the game Baywatch, complete with Pamela Anderson in a small red swimsuit.
One of the few other women players at Lyman’s, Mollie Lee, tells me that she does consider the images and themes of many of the machines to be sexist, but the 27-year-old likes playing on them enough to put on blinders. The biggest pinball maker in the country, Stern, still designs new games (including, recently, one with a “Game of Thrones” theme), so she hopes more non-offensive ones are on the way. “I can’t wait for the day that there’s a ‘Sex and the City’ pinball machine. It’s gonna happen,” she says, grinning.
Meanwhile, Traub’s gone back to play Pabst Can Crusher again. No one’s watching her closely — it’s bad form to stand over a machine while someone is playing. She has a good turn, and when she’s done, she’s smiling. “It’s very fulfilling, in a weird way,” she says. “You’re alone, but you don’t feel alone.”
Mikaela Lefrak is the arts and culture reporter for WAMU-FM (88.5).