New Austin league Belles & Chimes gives women, nonbinary people space to enjoy pinball

Aimee Knight

Pinball might seem like an arcade staple, popular with preteen boys. But two Austin women are getting the ball rolling on growing female interest in this niche, nifty activity.

With more than 20 chapters across the United States and one as far flung as Auckland, New Zealand, Belles & Chimes is an international network of pinball leagues run by and for women and nonbinary people. Now, the Texas capital boasts a chapter of its own — and its network continues to grow.

Austin residents and active pinballers Tracy Abrahams and Kelli Raisler started the Austin group two months ago to provide a welcoming space for women and nonbinary people to practice, compete in and enjoy pinball. Both women had competed in coed leagues but said this group provides something unique — a space to alleviate the challenges that often crop up for those who identify as something other than male in a male-heavy hobby.

“It’s less like we’re excluding men and more like we want to be around other supporting women,” Raisler said. “We can focus on what we came to do, which is play pinball and have fun.”

Pinball is most often played in bars, which presents some risk associated with potentially inappropriate behavior, Raisler said. Playing pinball also puts people in a pretty vulnerable position, since their hands are occupied, their back is turned to the people around them and the person playing doesn’t have the ability to walk away.

“If you’re a woman enjoying a hobby or sport in a predominantly male-dominated community, it can be daunting sometimes,” Abrahams said. “We wanted to provide a safe space where we felt more at ease, where we were more able to play and concentrate on the game because we didn’t feel on edge.”

Rebecca Salam, an Austin-native and member of the group, said she grew up swimming and playing board games competitively and has been playing pinball for about a year. Having a space that feels secure, Salam said, is essential.

“I would say it’s a really important thing to have an option,” Salam said. “It’s nice to have an environment for and with other women. Sometimes you don’t get that in competitive environments.”

The group hosts biweekly league nights, and Abrahams and Raisler stress that anyone of any skill level is welcome and encouraged to participate.

“It’s all about community,” Abrahams said. “We want all skill levels, all ages. We just want a variety of people.”

Besides Austin, other Texas chapters include San Antonio, Houston and Dallas. Despite their chapter’s young status, Abrahams said she has high hopes for the group growing and aspires to eventually have enough members to travel for competitions in other Texas cities.

The tournament directors encourage anyone interested to take the leap and come and check out the gatherings for themselves and to take advantage of the space the group is creating.

“For the most part, there’s pretty decent people in pinball,” Abrahams said. “But Belles & Chimes is important to us because we can gather with people and not feel threatened by the few bad apples who are out there.”