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Looking for some fun? Slide on over

Earl Bell retired five years ago with full intentions of golfing, and his back yard in the Betmar mobile home community is a mere chip shot from the tee box of one of the course's 27 holes.

On most days, however, that's as close as he gets to the golf course, opting instead to drive a few blocks and spend hours at the community's shuffleboard center. He found Betmar _ and shuffleboard _ when he came to Florida to visit his wife's parents.

"Every time I'd visit, my father-in-law would take me off to the shuffleboard courts and beat the stuffing out of me," the 57-year-old said. "I didn't care much for the game. Then I played in a tournament with him, and he beat the stuffing out of everyone else to play and I started to get excited about it."

Beginning today, Betmar will play host to the Florida Shuffleboard Association's Central District tournament, bringing 48 of the area's top shufflers together for three days of competition.

Betmar, as a whole, gets excited about shuffleboard. This isn't two lanes of crumbling asphalt and a rusty bench. The center has 24 pristine lanes made of reinforced concrete, with a roof overhead and plenty of fans to allow residents to enjoy the sport year-round. There are lights for night play, bleachers for onlookers and a room where the 6-inch yellow and black discs are waxed after each use.

The community has about 1,600 homes, and the shuffleboard club has about 220 members. The sport is ridiculously affordable for residents _ it costs $10 a year to join the club, plus $2.50 for a numbered hook in the cue room to store a stick or two. Eager to lure new members, the shufflers are nothing if not friendly, offering everything from coffee and doughnuts in the mornings to the endless barrage of wisdom unleashed on any interested visitor.

Preparing for today's tournament, 64-year-old Bill McMillan scrawls a half-dozen arrows in various directions on a diagram of the pyramid at the end of a lane, scouting the "drift" the same way a golfer might read the break of a putting green.

"Six, 16 and 21 are the crookedest," Bell explains, pointing as a disc he has pushed careens a little more toward the middle line than usual.

For many, the lure of shuffleboard is its malleability _ it can be a daily challenge as perhaps only golf is for most, a mental workout like chess, or a leisurely game taken no more seriously than a bigger version of checkers.

"There's a place for everyone," said McMillan, who will compete in the state amateur division. "You can enjoy it a lot without getting serious and driving all over the state. If you drive a great distance for a tournament, then when you miss a shot, it's not as fun."

McMillan admits to years of "fooling around in the park" before he came to appreciate the nuances of shuffleboard three years ago. Betmar has both ends of the spectrum: Some cue sticks hanging on the wall are made of aluminum, with the grips on the end showing years of wear; Bell's cue has a graphite shaft custom-cut 5{ inches shorter than the standard 6 feet, 3 inches.

Like most sports, shuffleboard has its own rich language; the last of eight discs to be pushed down a lane in a game is called the "hammer." When Bell warns you not to shoot yourself in the kitchen, the only real danger is pushing a disc too far, beyond the scoring pyramid to a deadly strip of concrete that will dock your score 10 points. There is regional dialect as well: A disc carefully dropped in front of the side of the pyramid is a "St. Pete block," while one that comes to rest square in the middle is a "Tampa."

Thirteen of the 48 competitors at Betmar this week are from Zephyrhills, easily the most of any city in the district. The Florida Shuffleboard Association boasts 25,000 members throughout the state, and when Florida's top 16 players return to Betmar for the annual season-ending Pro Masters tournament April 1, three players, including Ball, will be on their home course.

The event features competitors only from Florida, but Bell, who competed in an international tournament in Brazil last weekend, touts it as the world's 16 best players. Americans and Canadians are the world's best, he explains, and any respectable shuffler spends his winters in Florida.

And in the home state of shuffleboard, Zephyrhills has a feverish interest among retirees, enough to keep it in the same breath as larger cities such as Clearwater and Bradenton.

"Zephyrhills is a big shuffling community _ it's a real hotbed," said Sun City Center's Lary Faris, a member of the national Hall of Fame who writes weekly shuffleboard strategy columns that appear in several state papers. "There are certain areas of the state where it's just more popular, and that's one of them."

Betmar has hosted the Central District tournament only once before, and next month's Pro Masters will be the first in Zephyrhills. The only thing bigger is the International Shuffleboard Association's world championships, which will be held in Clearwater in November. Teams from the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia and Brazil are expected to attend, and Bell is one of 12 men on the American roster.

The game can be enjoyed at all ages, and McMillan says his "greatest joy" is walking down to the center at night and watching some cocky teenager, a three-sport star at his high school, getting annihilated by his grandmother.

His favorite story recalls how he and a friend, still learning the sport, once won three straight games against a pair of women, both in their 90s. His friend was savoring the victory perhaps too much, and McMillan had to rein him in.

"Easy now," he told his friend. "Remember, they both were using walkers."

Sue Cates watches the path of her disc while practicing her shuffleboard game Wednesday on the courts at Betmar, a retirement community in Zephyrhills. Cates and David Earle, left, will be participating in the Florida Shuffleboard Association's Central District tournament, which begins today at Betmar.