Pinball Wizards: Amy Kesting

Joel Oliphint

About 10 years ago, Amy Kesting and Brett Ruland traveled to Pittsburgh to pick up some records, and while they were there, they heard the Andy Warhol Museum had 20 or so vintage pinball machines on display in its lobby. On a whim, they decided to check it out.

“We never even paid admission to the museum. We just played pinball in the lobby for two or three hours,” Kesting said on a recent afternoon at Spoonful Records, the Downtown shop she co-owns with Ruland, her husband since 2014. “We couldn't stop. We were hooked on pinball.”

Over the next few years — before the advent of arcade bars like 16-Bit, Level One and Arcade Super Awesome — Kesting and Ruland would hop around town to spots like the Library on campus, Ledo's Tavern in Old North and Pointe Tavern in Upper Arlington to play on different pinball machines. But the most exciting nights for pinball came when John Geiger, now the owner of Arcade Super Awesome, would open up his private collection.

“Before Arcade Super Awesome was a thing, there was just the Mill,” Kesting said, referring to Geiger's private collection, housed in a refurbished mill near Olentangy River Road and King Avenue. “You'd see on Facebook, ‘The Mill is open tonight, BYOB.' We'd go and play all these amazing games for five or six hours.”

After more bar arcades opened in Columbus, Kesting began playing in more tournaments, the results of which get reported to the International Flipper Pinball Association (IFPA), which manages the worldwide rankings of pinball players. About 18 months ago, Kesting began paying attention to her IFPA ranking.

“There's less than 2,000 ranked females out of 50,000 players,” Kesting said. “It doesn't make sense that pinball has been such a boys' club, but it has been. … It's all the same stupid stuff that happens to women in the workplace. You're playing a ball and a guy will come up to you and say, ‘You know what the trick shot is, right?' You just roll your eyes and go, ‘Those are my initials [under] grand champion.'”

After doing well in many tournaments, Kesting is now in the IFPA's top 600 ranked players, and in the women's standings, she currently sits at 15th in the world — a ranking high enough to earn her a spot at the third annual IFPA Women's World Pinball Championship, which takes place on March 1 at Flipperspiel Wunderland in Las Vegas.

To prep for the championship, Kesting keeps a notebook with key info about the 27 possible machines that women might use in Vegas (competitors will likely use nine of the 27). And while tournaments at the Mill and Arcade Super Awesome provide good training opportunities, Kesting has had to branch out to get playing time on other machines.

“I drove out to this place in Pennsylvania that has 300 pinball games. It took me like four hours, but they had seven of the games, so in five hours I just worked on seven pinball games,” Kesting said.

On Friday nights, she drives two hours to a tournament at Kidforce Collectibles in Berea, Ohio, where she can practice on the comic book shop's Paragon and Viking machines. A couple of locals have games in their basements that they've let Kesting play, and Columbus pinball titan Trent Augenstein — currently ranked seventh in the world — has given Kesting practice time on his Iron Man machine.

“I still haven't laid hands on Hardbody or Twister,” she said.

Competitive gaming is not new to Kesting, who played high school sports and went through an intense ping-pong phase. “At our wedding we had a ping-pong table set up,” she said. “I've always been competitive, but it's also a playfulness. I want to play games. I grew up in a board game family. We always played Monopoly and Risk and card games. So this is sort of a continuation of that.”

Pinball, though, is more than nostalgia for Kesting. It's a strategic game of risk mitigation and patience.

“It's like chess, but it's not you against another player,” she said. “It's you against a machine.”