Shuffleboard king is modest, but global business is anything but

Published Nov. 23, 2013


Sex. Murder. Scandal.

As much as I would like to stir a little tabloid juice into my story about shuffleboard, I won't, at least not right now, because this is a family newspaper and because I am going to talk about Sam Allen, the nicest guy on earth.

A grandfatherly gentleman of 84, he is quick to smile and enjoys a jolly laugh. He loves kids and fishing. When asked to talk about himself he says, "I'm not very important,'' but in a way that doesn't make you feel like a yellow journalist for putting him in that embarrassing position.

Sam Allen is known as "the King of Shuffleboard,'' not for his prowess on the court but for his contributions to the sport. His store, Allen R. Shuffleboard, founded by his dad in 1941, is the largest of its kind in the world. If you have ever played the game in North America or in Europe, South America or Asia — or on a cruise ship — you have probably used equipment built at the family factory at 6595 Seminole Blvd. in Pinellas County.

The King of Shuffleboard will be inducted into the International Shuffleboard Hall of Fame on Oct. 20 , a day before the World Singles Championship begins in St. Petersburg. He has been asked to open the ceremonies by marching onto the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club's court, though since he is too modest to tell you it is left to his son Jimmy to spread the news.

Jimmy runs the business now. Jimmy loves shuffleboard, too; unlike Papa, he even plays a passable game. Because Jim is 56 and kind of hip, it's natural to wonder if he might say something about sex, murder and scandal in the same breath as shuffleboard and spice up this story, but no dice.

So we will, for the following reason: This year is the 100th anniversary of the wholesome sport of shuffleboard in Florida, the 90th anniversary of shuffleboard in St. Petersburg and — this is the big one — the 500th anniversary, or thereabouts, of shuffleboard on our planet. So let's dish about Henry VIII.

• • •

Yes, that Henry, the 15th century bad-boy English monarch who liked to eat turkey legs, the Henry who was obese, irritable and married six times, the adulterer who dissed the pope, got booted out of the Catholic Church and never minded summoning the occasional swordsman to lop off the noggin of a perceived enemy and a couple of unfortunate wives.

Yes! We we are happy to announce that Henry VIII was a shuffleboard player.

Only it wasn't called shuffleboard then. It was called "shove-groat" and played with coins on a smooth table. But the object of the game was the same: Slide a coin to a place on the table where you earn points and knock the coin of your opponent off the table so he loses points.

Henry, according to shuffleboard legend, loved the game. He thought it could be addictive and even banned play by his royal archers because they spent more time twiddling coins than practicing with their bows. What if Spain attacked?

Stay with us for more history:

Columbus landed in the Caribbean, Ponce de León in Florida. Europeans flocked to the new world. They brought pigs and horses and venereal disease — and shuffleboard, a game often played on ships during long, boring voyages.

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In 1913, a Yankee who had played the game on a cruise ship built a court behind his Daytona Beach hotel, the Lyndhurst . We don't know if any sex, murder or scandal happened, but we know the game proved wildly popular. In 1923 it came to St. Petersburg. In 1924, the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club opened. Before long 8,000 members were shuffling on more than 100 courts.

Sam Allen's dad, a hard-nosed German from Pennsylvania who had moved to St. Petersburg, noticed. Richard Allen was more interested in the business of shuffleboard than playing. He began manufacturing the first modern sticks, called cues, and the pucks now known as discs.

Lacking people skills, he was a lousy salesman. Sam, the world's nicest man, took over Dad's business in 1967. Sam began selling shuffleboard equipment in St. Petersburg to Webb's City, kind of an early version of Walmart, and soon he was selling stuff all over the world.

Reporting this sounds like bragging to Sam. Instead, we should tell you about all the great people he met in the awesome world of shuffleboard, the terrific men and women who taught him important lessons, who helped him EVERY STEP OF THE WAY.

Some are still around. Some died. Shuffleboard almost died too, at least in St. Petersburg. The great shuffleboard club at Mirror Lake fell into disrepair.

Things looked gloomy at the world's largest shuffleboard company as well. The King of Shuffleboard and his son still sold equipment, but they worried about the future. They looked at the old postcards featuring straw-hatted shufflers demonstrating their magic on the courts and watched by hundreds of spectators packed into the bleachers. They missed the old days when a few passionate players were moved to write poetry.

Most players are as nice as can be.

And to watch them at play is a

pleasure to see.

Of course there's a few who are not

pleasant at all.

And you hope not to draw them on

the same call.

There is no evidence that Agnes R. Travis, shuffleboard's Homer, was thinking about Henry VIII when she wrote about bad-sport opponents who would as soon cut your head off as look at you.

• • •

In 2005, things started changing. Young folks showed up at the courts on Mirror Lake and picked up cues. They enjoyed shuffleboard. Told their friends, who told their friends, who told their friends.

In 2013, on Friday nights, the shuffleboard courts are packed. Sometimes I see a few folks with white hair, but mostly I see young hipsters with ball caps turned backward and their music blaring. No Rudy Vallée or Guy Lombardo but modern musicians like Elvis Costello, who sometimes sings about sex, murder and scandal.

Torben Hussman , a native of Germany, sometimes attends. He is 18. He discovered shuffleboard when he was 10 during a vacation to Turkey with his family. His dad, Dieter, liked shuffleboard so much he started Germany's shuffleboard association.

Torben, tall and polite, speaks perfect English. He asks if I want a game.

It's been a while.

He steps up to the line and shoves his cue; his disc whisks across the court and lands where he intends it to land. "I have effectively blocked you from that side,'' he says, explaining strategy. Then he tells me where I should place my disc.

I am lousy, helpless. Torben is excellent and confident. For good reason. When he was 16, he finished second in the world. In June, he won America's championship. You can look it up.

In front of a good number of people, he beats me soundly. He's so polite. He's so nice. Shakes my hand. What a good sport. The Ugly American part of me wants to do a Henry VIII on him.

"Thanks for the game,'' I manage to tell him.