"PRINCESSES OF PINBALL, PLEASE REPORT TO THE TROPHY ROOM!" booms the PA at Shorty's. It's Sunday afternoon. Outside, a cold spring rain pours onto Belltown's near-deserted streets. Inside, it's hot girl-on-girl pinball action: the Powder Puff Pinball Tournament, head-to-head double-elimination, anatomical females only (honor system). Fewer competitors have turned out than at last fall's all-comers tourney—maybe 24 women today versus 64 total contenders in November. Also notably absent by way of comparison: a certain boys'-locker-room fug and any semblance of aggressive jackassery. In the open tournament, it's not unheard of for enraged male losers to require ejection from the premises. Here, now, two women jubilantly high-five each other, hollering, "LOSERS BRACKET!"

Women smell better and they have more fun, but while the play is tense and serious, they just don't get the scores men do. Speculation about why includes cultural bias against women going to bars alone, thus getting less practice overall. Gender clearly remains a factor in starting young; today, still, how many people hand a little girl a quarter and tell her to go play pinball? Some entrants have only been playing for a year or so. And, as always, biological function keeps females down. Longtime pinballer Jill has been otherwise occupied for a couple years, bringing up babies. Her husband, who won Shorty's 2005 open tournament, is very supportive, but Jill still has to run home midtourney to breastfeed. ("I'm just glad to be out," she says.) The Powder Puff, in the spirit of affirmative action, gives women a chance at a tournament grand prize: today, a 1975 Williams Pat Hand vintage pinball machine depicting a baroque, demure poker-queen beauty.

A woman named Julie with a wrist brace steadily moves up through the brackets; her T-shirt, from Pinball Expo '06, reads "Shiver me flippers" above a pirate skull. The elimination of Bonnie—the gracious representative of our neighbors to the north via the Vancouver Regional Pinball Association—assures the grand prize will remain stateside. A charged matchup pits Angela of Crazy Flipper Fingers of Portland, Oregon, against Shorty's regular Cheese Boat, nicknamed by her male pinball mentors for her habit of ordering the cheese for her nachos on the side. Angela, with blond spiked hair and leopard-print leggings, kicks like an elegant donkey while she plays; Cheese Boat plants one cowboy-booted foot firmly behind the other, listening to her own music on headphones (psychobilly for newer, faster games; honky-tonk like Waylon Jennings for older, slower ones). A couple of Portland supporters, already eliminated, vie nearby for the coveted drunkest contestant prize, though uncertain what the prize is. "I hope it's more beer!" says one as the other says, "I hope it's not more beer!" Then, one to the other: "You just spit in my face!" They dissolve into laughter.

In the final, Julie handily defeats a Portlander named Carrie on the grand-prize machine. Despite Oregon's finest efforts, the award for drunkest also stays proudly, sloppily in-state. recommended