Every Wednesday night, 20 or so pinball enthusiasts gather at The 403 Club in the Strawberry Hill neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas, to play a weekly tournament.
Nearly a dozen pinball machines line one wall with themes like Deadpool, Metallica and The Twilight Zone. The place buzzes and blinks with energy as players clatter away on the machines' buttons, frantically trying to keep their games alive.
Amid this jangling hubbub, Keri Wing stands out. She's the one the other players call "champ."
"It's whatever," Wing says. "We're all just really good friends. You play pinball with people every week, you get to know them pretty well."
The world of competitive pinball is dominated by men, but Wing is helping change that. In the past few years, she has quickly risen up the international pinball rankings. Earlier this year, she won the Kansas state pinball championship, played at The 403 Club. Then, in March, she won the women's world championship.
But Wing is now aiming higher.
"My ultimate goal would be to be the overall world champion, man or woman," she says.
'Zen about it.'
At The 403 Club, the other players focus less on Wing's gender and more on her style of play.
"She's very calm and Zen about it. You don't see her get ruffled," Jason Scheffelmaer, a past Kansas state champion himself and a Wednesday night regular, says.
Artie Scholes, owner of The 403 Club, agrees.
"She's amazing. She never gets flustered. You see other players get nervous. Nothing seems to phase her," he says.
It's common to see pinballers nudge and bump their games, hop from foot to foot, and shout and curse at their machine when the ball drains.
Not Wing. When she plays, she remains noticeably still, her only motion, the flick of her hands as she presses the flipper buttons on the sides of the machine.
"I usually stand with my left foot in front of my right," she says. "Everyone does it differently. But I don't lean on the machine too much."
After dropping in some coins, she sends the silver ball ricocheting through the game, dinging off bumpers and wracking up points. Wing says she likes the unpredictability of each new game.
"It's kind of a combination of engineering and art, and it's made to be fun," she says.
A lifetime of practice
Wing's love of pinball and her well-honed technique are not accidents. She's been around the game since before she could walk. Her father is a pinball enthusiast who has amassed a collection of more than 30 pinball machines in the basement of the family's home in Overland Park.
Wing says she started playing on them as soon as she could reach the buttons.
"When I was a baby, my dad would put me on the glass. And I was crawling around and look at it. I was very, very little. And I would stand on a stool, reach around, and play," she says.
Into her 20s, Wing thought pinball was merely a fun, obscure hobby. Until about six years ago, when she discovered competitive tournaments around the metro at places like The 403 Club and Pizza West in Shawnee.
She nearly won the first tournament she entered.
"I got second place, and I was like, 'Ah, so close to getting first.' That just drew me in and made we want to come back and try again," she says.
She has won tournaments here and there, but in the past few months, she's broken into the pinball elite. In January, Wing won the Kansas state pinball championship. In March, she won the women's world title in Las Vegas. At that same event, she was also the only woman to play against more than 50 men in the open North American championship.
Scholes says that makes Wing stand out even more.
"The majority of pinball players are men. So the fact that she is a woman makes it a bit special. It's rare. She's definitely elite," he says.
A gender imbalance
Wing's rise through competitive pinball has come as the game's organizers have made a push to entice more women to play. At many open tournaments, men still outnumber women 9-to-1.
Josh Sharpe is co-president of the International Flipper Pinball Association. He says that ratio has slowly begun to shift ever since they began offering women-only tournaments a few years ago. They also set up a women's only ranking system.
"It helped women sort of dip their toe into competitive pinball in a safe place, in terms of not feeling comfortable with with the 90-10 ratio of men to women," Sharpe says.
But Sharpe says Wing has never shied away from playing against men, and he credits that, in part, to her rising popularity among fans. He says she's become a star and role model for other female pinballers.
"You can see in all the Facebook comments and whatnot of people have genuinely felt a connection to her," he says.
Wing has heard such things herself. She says after one of her very first open tournaments competing against men, a man in the crowd came up to her afterward.
"He's like, 'You have no idea know how important that was for my daughter to see that. She says another woman doing well and that tells her women can play pinball, too, and we can be good at it," she says.
Wing is now ranked 5th on the women's world power rankings. But she's still far back in the overall standings, around 300th. She recently played an exhibition against the top-ranked player in the world, Raymond Davidson.
She admits, she felt some pressure.
"I thought, 'Oh I hope I don't get beat too badly.' I kind of felt like I was representing all the women," she says.
Wing made it through that event playing "decently." But she says it gave her a taste of what it will take to compete against the most elite players in the world and eventually, maybe become overall world champion herself.
"It's a very lofty goal, but recently it's become a lot more attainable," she says.
Given the way the ball bounces, crazier things happen in pinball all the time.
Kyle Palmer is KCUR's morning newscaster. You can follow him on Twitter @kcurkyle.