COLUMBIA — Beer bottles from the cash bar snapped open as country music drifted from the banquet hall's ceiling speakers. There was laughter and cursing, dancing and drinking. And under it all was the low rumble of smooth metal coasting over slick wood.
The 2011 Missouri State Shuffleboard Championship had entered its third and final day, and the weekend’s biggest event was about to start. Mark Gray and Jim Payne were ready for their much-anticipated rematch.
- Both players stand at the same end of the shuffleboard. Players toss a coin to choose who shoots first. (It is an advantage to shoot last.)
- The first player slides his/her weight toward the opposite end of the board.
- The opponent then shoots his/her first weight in a similar manner, attempting to either knock off the other player’s first weight or outdistance it.
- The two players continue shooting weights alternately until all weights have been shuffled. When all weights have been played, one round of play has been completed. The player whose leading weight is farthest down the board is the winner of the round. The winner’s score is then totaled and registered on the scoreboard.
- The players switch ends of the shuffleboard and begin another round. The winner of the previous round shoots first.
- Rounds continue until one player scores 15 points.
Money was on the line. So was the title of best shuffleboard player in the state.
Gray thought he deserved both.
Chances are you’ve seen a shuffleboard table tucked into the corner of a local bar; it’s the perfect place to set a drink. Occasionally, someone drops in a couple of quarters and starts slinging the red and blue pucks off the edges and over the ends in a sloppy attempt to score. Maybe you’ve even played, following a loose version of the rules or without knowing any of the rules at all.
But if you parked your car on the crowded blacktop lot outside Columbia’s Elks Lodge 594 on this particular weekend in October, walked past four campers and an SUV with “SHUFL-B” on the license plate and pulled open a glass door — or any door of any venue that hosts the nation’s shuffleboard tournaments — you would step into something much more than a bar game.
In these places, drinks don’t touch the table because the playing surface is created and maintained with the same amount of care given to a golf course putting green.
In these places, adherence to rules and gamesmanship is a must because if you don’t act right, well, you can leave.
In these places, shuffleboard is a sport — yes, a sport — that has evolved to offer a close-knit community and intense competition.
Gray, a short man in a baseball cap, met Payne, a tall man with a mustache, at one of the room's six Hudson brand shuffleboard tables. The sought-after championship plaque rested on a folding table nearby. At the top it read, “This Award Signifies the Best of the Best in Shuffleboard in the State of Missouri.” Names of previous winners, stenciled in gold, claimed individual squares. The spot for 2011 was empty.
There are close to 3,000 competitive shuffleboard players throughout the U.S. and Canada, including 188 in Missouri, according to Ron Bowers, the creator of the Bowers Rating System — a volunteer operation he and his wife, Debbie, started in 1993. At the time, the Texas-based couple ran a tournament and wanted a way to ensure players would be evenly matched. They started organizing players into three divisions of competition based on a handicap system they devised.
“It was just trying to make the tournament more fair,” Ron Bowers said. “Someone who just started playing wasn’t going to play against someone who has been playing 20 years. It gives everyone a chance to win.”
The rating system spread as other states wanted structured competition.
Ron and Debbie Bowers now rely on 96 volunteer raters who span across the country. Missouri has six. These raters, all shuffleboard players, are responsible for gauging other players’ skills. They report to the Bowers once a year, allowing a new, updated list of rated players to be released annually.
This year, 84 players competed in the Missouri State Shuffleboard Championship. Fifteen entered Division I singles, the most competitive bracket of single-player competition. Double elimination thinned the pack until only Gray and Payne remained.
Payne hoped to put his name on the champion’s plaque for the first time. Although not a newcomer to the Missouri shuffleboard scene, this was the first time he was in position to take the title since he relocated from Nebraska to Stockton. He cruised to the finals undefeated after beating Gray early in the tournament.
Gray was not accustomed to losing. His name already claimed five years on the championship plaque (2004, 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2010), and he was eager for a sixth. He crawled his way back from the losers’ side of the bracket for a second shot at Payne.
Before the game started, the shuffleboard table was wiped down and re-covered with a heavy sprinkling of an unexpected mixture: tiny silicone beads and ground up walnut shells.
Gray and Payne shook hands, and the championship began.
Shuffleboard players have stories, tales of circumstances that led them to the game.
Keitha Ellison didn’t have much of a choice. She met a man she liked. He warned her he played a lot of shuffleboard. She could learn or find someone else.
Craig “Doc” Bendickson remembers playing at Harpo’s as a graduate student at MU’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
Bethany Rohr started when she was 18. Her friend had a crush on a boy, and Rohr got guilted into tagging along on a date to a bar.
Gray and Payne’s paths were more common. Payne switched over from pool because shuffleboard offered more prize money. Gray had always liked to play, but the competitive bug bit him when he played in his first tournament nearly 10 years ago.
“What intrigued me was the fact that there were people that loved this game as much as I did,” Gray said. “And they were all in this building at the same time.”
Now the 47-year-old John Deere employee banks vacation time so he and his wife, Barbara, can leave their Kansas City home for trips across the country. He plays in 15 to 20 tournaments every year.
Gray said he fell in love with the silly sport. He isn’t alone.
Gray and Payne stood at the same end of the shuffleboard table as they took turns sending weights. Lines on both ends of the board designated spots worth one, two and three points. A weight hanging off the back edge of the three-point area counts as four, and a weight that slides off the board doesn’t count at all. “Shooting” means the weight is sent with the purpose of hitting an opponent's weight off the board. "Lagging” meant a weight’s only purpose is to score.
The weights cruised down the straight stretch of wood. Their red and blue caps spun in tight rotations, and the silicone beads worked like tiny ball bearings beneath silver bottoms.
Underneath the shuffleboard, a series of vice-like contraptions called climatic adjustors were tightened to the perfect tension. Their job was to warp the board into a slight concave. The curve in the playing surface was impossible to see, but its effect was noticeable. It guided the weights toward the center “like a gutter,” said Danny Sapp, the sole contractor for Hudson Shuffleboards.
Sapp, a carpenter, and his workers carry out every step of the shuffleboard-making process in the two-story garage behind Sapp’s Columbia home. The finished products, which cost between $3,000 and $15,000, are shipped to Hudson dealers and private buyers across the nation.
A board’s legs and accessories can be made quickly. The playing surface itself — created by gluing together 27 three-quarter-inch strips of rock maple, pressing, cutting, sanding and sealing the final product — takes time. Slabs built for tournament competition are 3 inches thick and 20 inches wide. Lengths can vary, but the Hudson shuffleboard Gray and Payne played on was 20-feet-8 inches long, the required size for tournament competition.
Payne started hot. He lagged a four-pointer then scored again. Gray's first series of shots were unsuccessful; 5-0 appeared on the digital scoreboard hanging over the middle of the shuffleboard. The men walked to the other end and started the second round.
Woodie Cockrum watched from the back of the banquet hall. A college football game played on the big screen behind him, but the 86-year-old kept his back toward the TV and his eyes toward the boards.
He fell in love with the sport 65 years ago, back before his neatly combed hair turned white. For the first time in its 10-year history, the Missouri State Shuffleboard Championship was in Columbia. Cockrum didn’t want to miss a moment.
The sport has had its ups and downs in popularity. But it has survived since the English started sliding coins over polished tables in the 16th century.
A 1967 Sports Illustrated article titled “The Demanding Game of Shuffleboard” mentions the Puritans’ push to end the game because of their “detestation of idleness.” It also says colonial Connecticut and Massachusetts believed shuffleboard to be a pastime where “much precious time is spent unfruitfully.”
Shuffleboard has gone through name changes (first called shoveboard and for a time shovelboard) and continues to battle with an imposter (deck shuffleboard), the version played on boat decks and satirized as a staple of Florida retirement life.
Cockrum got caught up in the craze at what he thinks to be the highpoint, the 1940s and ’50s. It was right around the time he moved to California after serving as a gunner in World War II.
There was no Bowers Rating System back then. Every region had its own rules, making it hard for players to compete away from local venues, and easy for hustlers to sandbag and swindle. Newcomers stayed away. Participation started dropping.
At that time, Cockrum will tell you, shuffleboard was going “down, down, down.”
The rating system and rule changes are what turned things around. They made it easier for new players to get involved. These days, Cockrum is happy with the state of the sport.
Shuffleboard’s most frequent players are the game’s biggest advocates. Gray is the vice president of the Table Shuffleboard Association, the nation’s governing shuffleboard body. He is also the president of the Missouri Shuffleboard Players Association — the nonprofit organization Cockrum started in the early '9os to unify shuffleboard players across the state.
Both organizations share the same goals: to promote shuffleboard and recruit new players to the game.
Gray is convinced participation levels rise and fall with the economy. (Travel costs and tournament fees can pile up quickly.) But he also wonders whether two trends tied to the sport affect its commercial appeal.
First, of course, is the drinking. Odds are if you’ve ever played shuffleboard, you played in a bar. And odds are, people in that bar— maybe even you— were drinking. The bartenders at Elks Lodge 594 on this tournament weekend in October served a steady line of customers. Fruit wine filled plastic cups, and empty Bud Light bottles filled trashcans. Shots of Southern Comfort were tossed back.
The other issue: Calcutta. The auction-style betting system lets people pick their favorites to win each event. All bets go into a pot. The winners and their sponsors split the cash. The official prize money for the state championship was $500, but a Calcutta can give a healthy boost to the winnings. One player admitted the side-bet system is “just a touch illegal.”
Competitive shuffleboard players won’t deny it. Drinking and betting are woven into the game. They will remind you, however, that no one has to drink or bet to join. Those serious about winning pick up water instead of alcohol. And the tournaments that hinge on big money are few and far between.
The die-hards ask you to set aside preconceptions and see the other side of shuffleboard, the side that warms the heart and makes it easy to see why someone would be willing to spend days driving, then sleep in a parking lot to play.
Gray and Payne didn’t speak during the game. Only their eyes betrayed their excitement and frustration. Gray trailed early because of Payne’s hot start, but he began to find the spots on the board that Payne’s weights had trouble reaching. Fewer of Gray’s weights were pushed off onto the shuffleboard table's carpeted sides.
He looked relieved. He was coming back.
Grabbing a seat next to Cockrum was the fastest way to make new friends. He reckoned he knows most of the competitive shuffleboard players around. His age and arthritis have done their best to dull his competitive edge, but he still travels to tournaments to socialize and play.
“We have a few new ones come in every year,” Cockrum said. “By the time they leave here, we will know them next time we see them.”
The ones who keep coming back only grow closer.
Keitha Ellison decided to stay with that guy she liked, and that meant learning how to play shuffleboard. She and Roger have been married for eight years now. If the song playing from the ceiling speakers is slow enough, the couple from Springfield might join hands for a slow dance and a quick kiss. “My wife and I built a great relationship playing shuffleboard,” Roger Ellison said.
Craig Bendickson’s veterinary skills came in handy a few years ago at a shuffleboard tournament in Houston, Mo. A player had a heart attack, and Bendickson helped administer CPR until an ambulance arrived. “Stone cold dead,” the small animal doctor from Stockton remembers thinking. But the man lived.
The shuffleboard folks held a couple of benefits to help him out.
“If anybody needs anything in this group, we take care of them,” Bendickson said.
Bethany Rohr got bored playing sidekick to her friend’s date, so she picked up a weight. She’s been playing ever since. The 26-year-old squeezes in tournaments between work and a full load of nursing classes at Texas County Technical College in Houston, Mo. When her mom died earlier this year, Mark Gray was among the first to call.
“You know, that’s something that people you play a stupid bar game with don’t do,” Rohr said. “That’s family. That’s love.”
The digital scoreboard now showed 10-10. Maybe, just maybe, Gray could complete his comeback. Maybe he could win his sixth state championship.
Then Payne did it again.
He sent a weight sliding, its tight spin and graceful curve carrying it toward the perfect spot at the far edge of the board. The low rumble slowed, then stopped. The weight's silver half hung over the shuffleboard's back edge. Payne had lagged another four to make the score 14-10.
Gray needed points fast. His chance was slipping away. He won the following round, but still trailed 14-12. The points were welcome but also meant he — according to rules — had to shoot first in the following round. Payne played defensively, clearing Gray's weights off the board while holding for the final shot. One more point and Payne would have his first state championship. He sent the final weight. 15-12.
Gray's quest for his sixth state championship was over. Gold letters of a new name would be stenciled onto the plaque.
“That’s why there’s always next year,” Gray said after shaking Payne’s winning hand.
Within minutes, he and Payne moved to the corner of the room to talk with friends.
More beer bottles from the cash bar snapped open as country music drifted from the banquet hall's ceiling speakers. There was even more laughter and cursing, dancing and drinking. And under it all, the low rumble of smooth metal coasting over slick wood.