The pinball Belles of Tampa Bay are scoring big

A world champion and her devoted group of all-female contenders find sanctuary to sharpen their skills in Tarpon Springs.

By Sophia Makris Community & Culture Beat Reporter

TARPON SPRINGS, Fla.Bobbi Douthitt, the world’s 18th seated pro women’s pinball player, is the leader of a women’s league, Belles & Chimes, right here in Tampa Bay. Hosted by the Replay Amusement Museum in Tarpon Springs, she and other local pinball fanatics have crafted a space where girls can come to socialize, compete in tournaments and discover the inner workings of the game.

Upon entering the Replay Amusement Museum, guests are greeted with an impressive display of machines and a vintage arcade sign.

According to the Belles & Chimes official website, the club was originally founded in Oakland, California, in 2013 and named after vintage pinball mechanisms that use bells and chimes that ring and whistle to signal a high score, multiball or skill shot. Since then, it has expanded to become an international network of chapters prioritizing the inclusion and empowerment of women in pinball.

But for Douthitt, the love of pinball started way before 2013.

“I’ve been playing ever since I was a kid,” she said. “[The game] kind of grew with me and machines started popping up in bars as I got older. I just kept with it and now, it’s what I do.”

On the road to being a world champion, Douthitt competed in state and national competitions and even helped form a Belles & Chimes chapter in Ocala. Moving up in the ranks, she now constantly defends her title on the International Flipper Pinball Association’s (IFPA) scoreboard and frequents worldwide competitions. The key to her training: just keep practicing. When the opportunity arose to form a Tampa Bay chapter, she took it.

“There is always more room to improve our inclusivity,” she said. “I want to make space where women can be represented and feel comfortable to learn in the spirit of friendly competition.”

Despite technically being a player-versus-player game, the Belles & Chimes pinball league has an uplifting and enthusiastic team energy.

Ailsa Riddell, an employee of the Replay Museum and proud Belle, said that the spirit of teamwork was inspired by Douthitt’s determination to foster solidarity in the pinball community for all identities and skill levels. When asked why and how she got into the sport of pinball she simply replied, “It’s all Bobbi.”

“Most of the girls here owe our whole pinball career to Bobbi,” Riddell said. “She’s really encouraged us to try and get better and took us under her wing.”

Rachel Ristow, a Belle from a Wisconsin chapter, said on their official website “…It’s women empowering women – supporting each other, teaching each other, and competing with each other as a means of both individual and collective growth.”

Metallica’s character, Sparky, “electrifies” during an Electric Chair Multiball.

The tight-knit, for-women by-women community’s mission is simple: provide a social and fun space to indulge the passion of pinball.

Airi Macaluso, a Tampa Bay Belle, expressed how playing with men can be intimidating, especially because the game and culture are male-dominated. Many women feel outnumbered when confronted in a tournament where they are the only female opponent.

“Competing against men can be super stressful and I don’t need more of that in my life. When I come here, I just have fun, no pressure or stress attached,” Macaluso said.

“When I first went to a competition, I absolutely hated it. I told myself I would never do it again. But Bobbi told me to just try the women’s league, and I’ve been back every month since,” she said.

On the second Monday of every month, the Belles meet at the Replay Amusement Museum in Tarpon Springs for a potluck.

A player pauses to line up a shot on The Black Knight.

“We come here to eat, play, hang out, build friendships, and most of all, get better at pinball,” said Jenna Silverman, another member of the Tampa Bay chapter. “It really is a safe space; femmes and thems, we’re all welcome.”

Based on ratings and experience, competitors are paired with similar skill-level players and assigned a random machine. By selecting two players on the machine, each contender gets three balls to try and win the match, switching off when their respective ball goes down the drain.

One game at a time, for a total of 10 games for each player, the opponents with the most one-on-one wins move through to the finals, where the top eight compete for the four-spot podium and themed prizes. One-on-one wins move through to the finals, where the top eight compete for the four-spot podium and themed prizes.

Game over: a pinball goes down the drain on The Mandalorian machine

But the sport was not always fun and games. There was once a time in history when pinball was demonized and illegal, called the American Pinball Prohibition.

When coin-operated pinball machines were first released in 1931, they did not have the flippers that make them the games of skill and strategy they are today. Instead, the path of the ball was random, and people often made bets on which hole the ball would fall in. This association with gambling led many cities across America to ban the game until the 1970s when the ruling was largely overturned.

Since then, dedicated players and fans, like Douthitt, have cultivated a rigor for the game and nurtured its presence back into the world (read more on the IFPA website), teaching and advocating about the complexities that make pinball such a compelling and hard-to-master sport.

With pinball machines dating back to the ‘50s, the Replay arcade is a playable exhibit of games past and present, a video game time capsule that shows how the sport of pinball developed through Prohibition and beyond. In addition to Belles & Chimes, Replay hosts a non-gendered club, the Last Friday Pinball League, also spearheaded by Douthitt, as well as a youth league for aspiring pinball all-stars.

From left to right: Ailsa Riddell, Jenna Silverman, Airi Macaluso, Bobbi Douthitt (Courtesy of Belles & Chimes Tamba Bay’s Facebook)

“Number one is learning, two is community, and three is pinball, and once you have those priorities in order, it creates a really dynamic environment where we all thrive,” Macaluso said.

Although Douthitt has a world-renowned talent, she remains humble, raising the local leagues to success. While most Belles started with little to no pinball experience, many of them like Silverman and Macaluso now qualify for state competitions alongside Douthitt. Through Belles & Chimes, these women delve into the game of pinball, exploring it through friendship and a common passion.

Participants from the February Belles & Chimes tournament, the biggest turnout to date with over 20 competitors. (Courtesy of Belles & Chimes Tamba Bay’s Facebook)