Sunday, November 1, 2015

Shuffling my way to a world ranking

When Michael Zellner, president of the International Shuffleboard Association, invited me to participate in this year's shuffleboard world championships, I wasn't sure if I was qualified. Although I received a special exemption to play against the world's best players, I knew that my game was not up to snuff to play in a tournament of that level. But Zellner convinced me that his invitation was a significant honor, and I didn't feel like I could say no. So I spent the past week playing against some of the best shuffleboard players anywhere. 

Fast courts, freshly beaded

The tournament started with a practice round on Sunday and I quickly determined that the courts at the Clearwater Shuffleboard Club were fast and they had lots of "drift." Drift is when the disk "drifts" off line due to the slant of the court. I soon learned that skilled players can use the drift to their advantage to tuck a scoring disk behind a blocking disk. The first day concluded with a reception at the Clearwater Beach hotel where most of the players were staying.

Jonathan of the Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club in Brooklyn greets the Allens
from the Allen R. Shuffleboard Company at the tournament's opening reception

The tournament officially kicked off the next day as the teams from all over the world paraded behind their flags. We were welcomed by local dignitaries and shuffleboard officials. A recording of the national anthem for each country was played, and I have to admit I got a little choked up at the thought of representing the USA.

After lunch, matches began and I was extremely nervous. There is a warm-up ritual before each game, and I found it completely confusing. This was my first shuffleboard competition at any level, and I was not sure what to expect. My first match was against a French Canadian with years of experience and I soon found myself in a deep hole that I could never dig out of. I learned very quickly that there is a big difference between recreational shuffleboard, what I later heard referred to as "shoot and giggle", and competitive shuffleboard. My opponents were all very cordial, and most of them were helpful and friendly, but they all played to win. In most of my games I was over matched, and once the game was out of hand, my opponents gave me tips on strategy.

I learned more about the game in one week than I had learned in two years of the Orlando Shuffle. At this level, there is a great deal of strategy and nuance. Players know where to aim, where not to aim, and possess the skills to put the disk exactly where they want to. Age is irrelevant, but experience is. The winner of the men's tournament was the same age as me, 50, but he's been playing since he was eight years old! The players could tell you which disks were faster than others and which parts of the courts were slow. Ultimately I lost far more matches than I won.

My first win came against a Norwegian who led by two scores with three frames left. I cut his lead in the next frame and then he was 'kitchened' on the next frame. The kitchen is the area in the back of the scoring triangle, and landing your disk in the kitchen results in ten off your score. It's the equivalent of a 'pick 6' in football, and it is the great equalizer in shuffleboard. I was tutored to beware of the kitchen, but not be afraid of it. I avoided the kitchen my final frame to beat the Norwegian, who would go on to become one of his country's best players in the tournament.

With my confidence high I entered a match against an undefeated American and at the end of eight frames I was up by a whopping 36 points. The next eight frames he challenged me to try to knock his disks into the kitchen by placing them deep in the scoring area. I knew that he would be right back in the game if I landed in the kitchen, so I allowed him to score. He slowly caught up until he passed me on the last shot of the match. It was a devastating loss. I didn't sleep much that night.

I found when I was in close matches my heart beat fast, my adrenaline flowed and I felt incredibly alive. Overall I was in four close matches, losing two and winning two (both against Norwegians.) I also was on the plus side of one lopsided match against an inexperienced player from Ohio. But the majority of my matches were learning opportunities against better players where I was soundly defeated.

Wednesday evening I gave a five minute speech at the end of the Hall of Fame banquet about the Orlando Shuffle. I reported how over the last two years with the help of a handful of committed shufflers, we have attempted to revitalize the game in Orlando.  After reviewing the old Florida Shuffleboard Association directories on hand in Clearwater, it looks like the official Orlando Shuffleboard Club dissolved in the late '90s.  Now we shuffle on the first and third Saturday each month, and I have high hopes that we can start a league next year. My talk was well received and I think our future efforts will be broadly supported by other players in the state.

When Orlando had an active club, it was in the Northern district with clubs from Volusia and Lake counties. According to another shuffler, the district had as many as 14 clubs at one time, but is now down to five. New Smyrna Beach alone has gone from four clubs down to one. But the game of shuffleboard seems much healthier in areas of Florida with larger retirement communities. According to Jim Allen of the Allen R. Shuffleboard Company, municipal shuffleboard facilities are becoming more scarce, while courts that are amenities for retirement communities are still desirable. As real estate prices soar, the amount of land a shuffleboard complex needs can often become too valuable to be used for recreation. Many of the European players are used to playing on plastic or 'poly' courts, which are becoming more prevalent.

Lakeside, Ohio has a shuffleboard club that has tournaments for kids, and they produced Bob Jones, Jr., this year's men's champion. In addition to the success of Brooklyn's Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club and the St. Pete Shuffleboard Club, a new indoor club in Ohio has opened, bringing the game to even more new players.

While many of the participants were retirees from up north, most of the international players were younger. But the large municipal clubs like those in Clearwater and St. Cloud where the retirees play are not as healthy as they have been in the past.  So I guess I'll keep the "Save Our Shuffleboard" Facebook group active so that folks don't take this great game for granted.

I'm still processing all I learned this week. I made great connections and met new friends. There is a distinct shuffleboard culture and it was fun to be part of the the game's community for a week. I soared after spectacular highs and re-grouped after crushing lows. I got a deeper look into the intricacies of a game that can be both infuriating and rewarding. I got schooled. But it was a small price to pay because at the end the week I held the ranking of the 56th best mens shuffleboard player in the world.