At 8 a.m. on a recent Monday the Japanese team was doing calisthenics in matching green jackets. Australians with bejeweled kangaroos on their hats milled about drinking coffee. A middle-aged Brazilian man wearing Elvis glasses and fake sideburns beamed with pride.
As the mayor of St. Petersburg welcomed the 160 players from 14 nations to the World Shuffleboard Championship, my palms got sweaty and my mind raced. I'm a virtual novice at shuffleboard, and in a few moments I would be squaring off against the best players in the world. Should I have practiced more? Was my basic strategy — clearing my opponent's discs while scoring with my "hammer," the last shot — enough? Could I keep my swearing to a minimum?
I was introduced to shuffleboard about a year and a half ago by friends who played in a very casual Friday group where the quality of the beer was as important as the quality of the play. But I took to the game enough that I entered a qualifying tournament at the St. Petersburg club, which because of the 100th anniversary of shuffleboard in Florida was designated this year's host of the world championship. I did well enough to earn a spot in the five-day competition.
In my first match I drew John Brown. His name may be plain, but his resume is anything but. The short, slender 77-year-old Hoosier with the cowboy hat is a hall of famer with five national titles who has played on every continent besides Africa. (He considers Antarctica a "subcontinent.")
Brown easily dispatched each block I put up — the "Tampa" (a little off the tip of the 10-point triangle on my side) and the "St. Pete" (placed halfway between the triangle and the edge of the court on my opponent's side). But I kept it close and even held a slight lead late in the game. That's when I got a fortuitous break, scoring a seven for myself while knocking Brown's disc into the "kitchen" — the negative-10 area at the base of the scoring triangle. With a 54-43 win I had achieved the highlight of my tournament within the first two hours.
"I'm not as good as I used to be," Brown said with a wry smile.
Round 2 wasn't as upbeat. Henry Strong, a 67-year-old snowbird from Ontario, plays 60 hours a week and is one of the top players in the world. Though I led at the halfway point, Strong's machinelike precision wore me down, and he coasted to a 53-39 victory. Strong told me he makes $300 to $500 a year playing shuffleboard while spending thousands in travel and tournament fees. The tournaments are a money-suck for the players involved, with hundreds of dollars in entry fees and often no cash prizes.
The financial commitment is just one reason the game is dominated by retirees in North America. Time is the other. At 27, I am the youngest North American player by 14 years. I had to take a week off work to compete, which is not something everyone can do.
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St. Petersburg has the history, but the game is picking up a youth movement internationally, with teenagers from Brazil and Russia and 20- and 30-somethings from Norway and Germany all competing. I defeated one of those — Sven Wuellner, a 32-year-old shuffleboard court maker from Frankfurt — bringing my record to a respectable 4-4.
One of my last matches was the most enjoyable drubbing of my life. It came at the hands of 84-year-old Phil Hill, an Englishman armed with James Bond's charm and killer instinct. Hill, all of 5 feet 5 and 150 pounds, knocked me into the kitchen too many times to count en route to a 30-point victory.
After a few more matches, including a victory over "Shuffleboard" Bob Zaletel (who sported a 70-year-old wooden cue, plaid knickers and two-tone saddle shoes), my final record stood at six wins and eight losses, good for 59th out of 88 in the men's division and better than I expected. How many people can say they're 59th in the world at anything?
After the awards banquet, the international contingent was led back to the courts to join the crowd that gathers each week to take part in the game they love. A band was set up on center court. Food trucks lined the perimeter. The beer flowed freely. Hundreds of people pushed discs back and forth just as we had done all week.
I found the friends who had introduced me to the game, cracked a beer and watched as players from all over the world intermingled with the Friday-night crowd. Two courts over, a Russian and German played two locals. "Kitchen!" said the Russian as his yellow disc glided to the back of the scoring triangle. "10 off," said the smiling German.
Erik Hahmann is senior editor of DRaysBay.com, a website devoted to the Tampa Bay Rays.