Portlander Zoë Vrabel Is One of the Globe's Best Pinball Players
Of all the things in Portland we take for granted—infinite craft beer, easy public transit—pinball ought to be near the top of the list. In the city with the country’s most machines per capita, you can stumble into bars and find the kind of games that, in other places, might be hidden in a collector’s basement. And what do good pinball options breed? Great players like Zoë Vrabel, currently ranked second among women in the world. When she’s not working to help students get into college at InsideTrack, the 2016 Women’s Pinball Championship winner organizes Portland’s weekly Flip City pinball tournaments. She’s also training for the state championships in Eugene in January—a process that involves more Cardi B and meditation than you might expect.
Do you remember Space Cadet Pinball on Windows 95? As a kid ... I played that without knowing what pinball was, just as a computer game. I’d gotten too good at all the solitaires and Minesweeper, and I started playing Space Cadet with my cousins. I realized that you could manipulate the game and get points, while everyone else was just smashing on it. When I was 21 and started going to bars there were pinball machines. I didn’t even make the connection. I’d never even seen a pinball machine.
I moved [from Boston] to go to Reed College. The Ship Ahoy Tavern was our dive bar of choice. I know exactly what [pinball games] were there when I started playing in 2005—Medieval Madness ... Indiana Jones, which has a gun instead of a trigger button to launch the ball. I literally got a gun-shaped bruise on my leg from hip-checking the machine so many times.
Growing up, I was a preprofessional violist and opera singer. Whenever I’m doing something I’m trying to operate at the top level. So, for me, it’s always been because I love [pinball], I want to get good at it. 2016 was the first-ever Women’s World Championship of Pinball. They invited the top 16 ranked women, and I was up near the top. And I won! I was like, ‘Oh shit, I’m not just a random Portland person who plays pinball for myself. I’m actually good at this.’ Since then, I’ve played in bigger and bigger tournaments. The biggest prize I’ve ever won is $450. I’ve won three machines, including Iron Maiden, designed by the no. 1 pinball player in the world.
I struggle heavily with anxiety, so a huge part of getting better competitively has been using meditation and breathing exercises as a way of managing it. I like to put on upbeat music before I play [a match]. Before I won my last machine, The Hobbit, I bumped some Cardi B in between balls, and that was very helpful.
I like older games—the solid-state ’70s and ’80s games are really what I prefer to play. You have to find them. They’re not the ones you’re going to walk into every dive bar and [see]. Wedge Head would be a really good place to call out [if] you want to go play older games. Part of [what makes Portland a pinball town] is how much we have to stay inside ... pinball lives in the bar culture of Portland. [Our] ethos of “do the weird thing” ... is very much in line with the pinball community. I came to Portland because I wanted to be somewhere I could be nerdy.
The competitive pinball community has 100 percent increased. [The local tournaments] started out in someone’s garage; they were haranguing players, people, friends, anyone to show up to get a bracket. [Today] we’re averaging 35 players. I’m really organized and kind of anxious, so when I didn’t have anything to do at tournaments, I’d help run them. And that ended up with me running [Flip City]. The vibe has definitely changed. It used to be ... drink a lot of beer, swear, kick machines, smoke a lot of cigarettes. Being good at pinball was good, but it wasn’t the goal. Now it’s like, everyone is welcome. Tell me if you’re not having fun. Tell me if someone is making you uncomfortable. [The scene is trying] to move more the way society is moving.
I have three things I would say if you want to [level up at pinball]: First, don’t flip both flippers at the same time. Think about how each flipper impacts the ball. No. 2, talk to anyone you see playing. Pinball is collaborative and people are nice. [No. 3], go to events. There are ways to get involved at your comfort and skill level. I was not great for a long time. When I’m playing, people notice and tell each other: ‘That’s a former world champion.’ But nine years ago, I was coming in last at every tournament. I was just happy to be there.