Skeeing There: At The Skee-Ball Super Bowl

Skee-Ball originated on boardwalks, and has become hipster caricature shorthand. It is, however, alive and well in the present, and a lot more interesting than all that.
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When Joey the Cat rolled a last-frame full circle to nip DaVinskee in the semifinals of The BEEB, he appeared to have his third straight cream jacket fully sewn up. Snakes on a Lane stood in his way however. That’s just how things go down in Cherrytown

The clash between Joey and Snakes made for a thrilling finals at the fourth annual Brewskee-Ball National Championship—world’s preeminent skee-ball tournament—in Austin, over Memorial Day Weekend. The best roller won thousands of dollars. As both incentive and consolation, all contestants got a bunch of free beers. It’s a winning formula.

A confluence of my wife’s love of live music and some cheap flights brought us to Texas’ capital city, and a dear friend’s ascent in the Brewskee-Ball rankings ensured that we’d spend some time at the BBNC. “It’s The BEEB,” the poster proclaimed, and so let’s call it that. The event had been held in New York City for its first three years and I’d never attended, and never even really considered attending. But a certain wanderlust prompted me to join the 64 rollers at Austin’s Historic Scoot Inn—a bar established in the 19th century and located in what is now the city's booming scrap metal district, just across the train tracks from chic East 6th Street—for the fourth national tournament organized around a century-old arcade game. It made logistical sense at the time, and makes a different sort of sense in retrospect.

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The contenders at The BEEB are all serious rollers and seasoned veterans; most have at least five or six skeesons of competitive Brewskee-Ball under their belts (there are three skeesons in a calendar year). They take their skee-ball very seriously, and each assumes a focus on the lane akin to a pro athlete, although it’s not (yet) possible for someone to make a full-time living playing the game. Still, without fail, every roller exhibited kinesthetically quiet, deliberate and repeatable mechanics, a uniquely nurtured stance and routine. The players attended to their task with absorption and held each other in a palpably high regard.

This was not some ironic showdown between hipster savants. It was, instead, an earnest exercise in a uniquely American game, and one that builds community and camaraderie as surely as it assaults sobriety. The only performance-enhancing drug in evidence was Costa Rican beer, which remains perfectly legal in Austin and elsewhere.

Skee-ball was patented in Philadelphia in 1909 by a Princeton alum named J. Dickinson Estes. It persists as a remnant from the bygone era of boardwalk gaming (think Nucky Thompson) and arcades with limited electricity (though modern lanes must be plugged in for the scoreboard and decorative siren). There are nine balls, one ramp and seven holes; it takes a minute to learn and a decade to master. Step right up.

In a world of Xboxes and streaming video and Spotify and so on, who needs skee-ball? Well, no one, really. And yet, the 100-year-old arcade game has not just persisted, but thrived: Skee-ball is, to a certain extent, the new darts, only less British and with just as much beer. Increasingly, old lanes have migrated from the boardwalks of places like Point Pleasant, New Jersey to dark corners of bars in Manhattan’s Alphabet City. Brewskee-Ball touts itself as the “first ever competitive skee-ball league,” with its national home at Full Circle Bar on Grand Street in Williamsburg. The bar features four old lanes harvested from Coney Island, and constitutes a paradise of skee-ball, hot dogs and canned beer. Initially, the two co-owners, Eric Pavony and Evan Tobias, decided to start a skee-ball league at Ace Bar in Manhattan because they got sick of travelling to Coney Island for a game. In time, the place’s identity shifted with its location from a bar with skee-ball on the Lower East Side to a skee-ball bar in Brooklyn.

And now, they’re  SkeeEOs at BBNC IV, uniting rollers from New York, San Francisco, Austin and, of course, Wilmington, NC (blame the 14,000 students at nearby University of North Carolina). It’s not just that, either: Full Circle tracks fantasy skee-ball and publishes Full Circle Magazine (formerly SKEESPN the Magazine). The real ESPN traveled to the bar to film a segment on “how to hurl a hundo,” the risky art of rolling a 100. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times have also profiled Brewskee-Ball. It’s not a joke and it’s not a secret, but what compels people to travel thousands of miles for skee-ball is harder to pinpoint.

***

The soundest strategy, Brooklyn resident and Oakland transplant Ridgely Dodge (a.k.a. ticklish?) told me, is to go for 40s on all nine balls; succeed, and you’ll have an ideal score of 360, hence the term “full circle.” So: crouch down, lean your shin against the machine—opposite foot forward, though Dodge rolls goofy-footed—hold the ball in your fingers, not the palm, and follow through to your target. If you miss the 40, it might roll into the 30 or more likely down to the 20, which lies at the bottom of a larger ring containing the 40 and 30. Attempts at the 50 or smaller 100 often fall down to the 10 if they go awry.

It looks easy enough, or at least a lot easier than it evidently is. The BEEB works well as the Super Bowl of skee-ball, and is fun to watch even for a non-roller. But it’s also a reminder that this sport—and you’re free to debate its sportsiness if you wish—is not easy. You might be able to roll a couple of 300-plus games, but can you maintain a 310 average over hundreds of rolls for a few months? Would you even have the perseverance to try?

A rousing “Star-Spangled Banner,” courtesy of Lena Leon (skee name: Sex Panther) kicked off Saturday’s World Mug event, which is the team tournament. Not all hats were removed. This was hardly the only event of the day, as idle rollers and those not competing must be entertained. The weekend saw a great many other things going on in “Extra Positive Land,” including a Can Jam tournament, the Texas Piñata Massacre and something called a Bouncy Castle Kibbutz Slip n’ Slide, not to mention karaoke in the bar and an off-site Hall of Fame induction ceremony. There was also a bit of Clam Slam—it has its own logo, and sorry about the name—which is a sort of the female cousin of the chest bump. Suffice to say, it’s a good way to twist your ankle.

Costumes abounded. Local roller “Doozles” donned her “Golden Bullet” outfit—basically an amber unitard—which was completed by Texas flag shorts with “DOOZLES” written across the butt. Another contestant named “Boosh” dressed as a shirtless ‘80s wrestler, right down to the rock-hard beer gut and Patrick Ewing-esque kneepads. For some, the silly skee names didn’t just serve as amusing aliases, but indicated the larger-than-life alter egos. There was, during the events themselves, esoteric terminology (right angle, cherry, chip, high five), copious puns (let the good times roll; from skee to shining skee) and a great many punny names (Flock of Skeegulls, Skeemelio Estevez, 8-6-7-5-Skee-0-9).

And then, for the final rounds of the tournament, there was the ceremonial installation of Purple Lane. This special skee-ball lane sits on the stage during the tournament, illuminated by the purplish hue of a black light. The crowd sings a slightly altered rendition of Prince’s “Purple Rain” as it’s put into place; a certain tipsy reverence pervades. That tipsiness is par for the course when ousted rollers have been drowning their sorrows, and casual onlookers have spent eight hours in a beer garden watching skee-ball.

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If this even bears mentioning, alcohol played a fairly significant role over the course of the weekend. As Dodge observed, there’s a delicate balance in achieving and maintaining the sweet spot of inebriation for skee-ball. If you’re sober, you’ll be too anxious to find the groove; too drunk, and your rolling will become sloppy. His advice is to remain buzzed though not drunk, which is a tall task in general and even moreso over a two-day tournament. I asked him if there are rollers that don’t drink; “Not as far as I know,” he replied, although he did point out a few “extended breaks” of a year or more that some players have taken, including the co-founder Pavony himself. Regardless, when it comes to crunch time, many of the pros imbibe only water.

Aside from or despite or because of all the frivolity, skee-ball is a moneymaker as well, largely because of alcohol’s significant role. Crass, maybe, but true: the game has the capacity to generate solid revenue streams for the hosting bars and creates ideal sponsorship opportunities for (mostly) beer companies. Genesee sponsors at Full Circle; Imperial, “Costa Rica’s National Beer,” sponsored BBNC IV. A homophobic comment made by the representative from Imperial to one participant sparked a partial boycott of the brew, but the Scoot Inn serves up other fermented options for under $3, so the bar was not impacted.

The winner of the Rollers Tournament received a novelty check for $3,000 with “For: The Love of the Lane” written on the memo line (plus a real check for $3,000), and donned the coveted cream jacket—so named due to drinking “too many Genesee Cream Ales,” according to Pavony. “Living the cream,” it seems wise to mention here, was another of those punny slogans.

Of the final four teams left on Saturday, three hailed from Brooklyn and one from San Francisco, just as was the case in 2012. During the finals, New York’s Star of David Cross rolled a below-average 270 and slammed his cup of water to the ground in frustration. He knew any hiccup against Joey the Cat would likely prove fatal. And verily, Joey proved to be the San Francisco treat—the punniness comes so easily—by rolling risky 50s at will and guiding his team to a second consecutive World Mug. His hometown fans roared with approval as most others offered golf claps for the widely foreseen result. Most were drunk, some were pleased by the result and all were happy with the long day’s journey into skee.

The next afternoon saw the kickoff of the Rollers Tournament, with 64 skeers seeking the individual title. 2013 HOF inductee Snakes on a Lane appeared inspired by his team’s second-place finish the previous night and got himself onto a ridiculous roll, tallying the tournament’s first-ever “perfect game” in the second round, rolling a 40 on every ball for 10 frames (90 40s, or 10 full circles). Then he did it again in the very next frame. But Joey the Cat is the two-time reigning individual champion for a reason, and a mammoth effort would be required to beat him in the finals, where they naturally met.

The crowd of around 150 people assembled in rapt attention, giddy with anticipation and swelled by an accumulation of ale. The mood before the finals fell short of the coarse Bleacher Creatures bacchanalia  in Yankee Stadium’s right field bleachers—think pouring a beer on a rival fan’s head—and more closely resembled the good-natured boisterousness of the Stadium’s left field bleachers (think pouring some beer on your best friend’s lap). Shitfacedness is the common denominator, and as the finals began before the well-served throng, history seemed very much in the making.

Snakes trailed by a total of 13—actually 130, but you lop off the zero—about halfway through the final round and looked to be in serious trouble. Then he channeled Robert Horry and became Mr. Big Shot, locking in on the 50 for some timely rolling. He scored a 41 followed by a 44, just shy of a high five, which is a 50 on all nine balls.

In a strategic miscalculation, Joey continued rolling 40s in the following two frames instead of trying to match 50s and saw his lead evaporate rapidly. The crowd grew more cacophonous with each frame, emitting a noisy explosion after the final ball of each frame. In the final frame, needing 41 to win, Joey couldn’t find the 50 with the same ease he did on Saturday and fell short of the title.

The mood in Scoot Inn’s beer garden was euphoric, as most were doubly intoxicated by the sporting drama of the upset and the $3 tequila shots. Snakes on a Lane became the 2013 Rollers Tournament champion to thunderous ovations. Soon, the Purple Lei hung around his neck and the cream jacket hugged his shoulders. Joey the Cat was magnanimous in defeat.

Neither my wife nor I are skee-ball players. I still have my ticket stubs from David Wells’ perfect game and Derek Jeter’s 3,000th hit. Nevertheless, I can say with confidence that The BEEB was one of the more stirring live sports experiences I’ve enjoyed in my life, even if I can’t quite pinpoint why.

***

So, aside from the serendipity of witnessing a changing of the guard from Joey to Snakes, what is the week-to-week lure of competitive skee-ball?

I spoke with two of the three Sweathogs—Brooklyn skee-ballers, not Brooklyn TV characters—about why they enjoy playing competitive skee-ball so much. The third teammate, Keith Sweat, was otherwise engaged. Pete Marinucci treks to Full Circle from Astoria, Queens to become Sweaty Pendergrass for each week of the skeeson. He usually takes a combination of the G and E trains, though the six-mile journey home can sometimes take over an hour due to commonplace construction and track maintenance at night. He’s planning a move to Brooklyn so he can be closer to the bar and his friends.

Dave Mahler, aka Sweaty Ruxpin, laid out the core of the league’s success. “I’ve been playing skee-ball since 2006, which sounds kind of crazy,” he said. “But if it was just about the skee-ball, I would’ve quit a while ago. It’s the people that keep you coming back.” In the end, the rolling is ancillary, at least in terms of importance, to the creation of a community, even though it’s the rolling that creates the community in the first place.

Brewskee-Ball is far from the nation’s only competitive skee-ball league, as the aptly named SkeeNation has had leagues in Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Charlotte, Charleston, Birmingham and Raleigh. But the moderate expansion specific to the Brewskee-Ball league ensures that it preserves a core philosophy. Different players may define it differently, but from what I saw and what I heard, it appears to be about good people having a good time in the name of skee-ball.

United Social Sports organizes Skee-ball (or “Bar-Skee”) leagues in Washington D.C. and the larger metro area, in addition to other “sports” like dodgeball and kickball. Similar to other organizations like Zog Sports, it’s recess for adults, with beer afterwards (or during). USS also has a fairly strict sportsmanship clause that promises a warning for an initial incident, removal from the game for a second infraction and removal from the league for a third.

I never saw any such injunction at The BEEB, mostly because it was never necessary. There was, for all the beers and goofiness, what seemed like a deep respect between participants: dedicated competition on the lanes and communal merriment during the interstices. It’s far from somber and very far from sober, but much more serious and sincere than you might think.

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Brewskee-Ball drew derision last year from Chadwick Matlin on New York Magazine’s website for its role in a somewhat ill-conceived “Williamsburg Night” promotion in collaboration with the Brooklyn Cyclones. David Matthews wrote more thoughtfully about the night for The Classical, but suffice to say that it was fraught: it became a familiar opportunity to lampoon hipster stereotypes, which wasn’t so much misplaced—they did travel to the game from Full Circle in a rickety yellow school bus and there were discounted concessions for those with beards—as it was narrow-minded.

Narrow-minded, and insufficient. There were innumerable uses of Instagram, Vine and Foursquare at The BEEB; yes, many participants were white and somewhere around 30 years old. But in my time spent embedded with competitive skee-ballers, I didn’t see the corresponding haughtiness or self-absorption or effete coolness that characterizes the pejorative hipster caricature. Part of that is because the caricature is, for the most part, bullshit. Part of it is because The BEEB is not.

There’s no denying that there are nobler ways to spend your time and money than on cheap beer and skee-ball. But the relative nobility of a given pursuit is not the sum total of that pursuit’s value. A community has developed around and because of skee-ball, at bars like Full Circle and around Brewskee-Ball itself. If a New York roller happens to be in San Francisco, they’ll call around to Buckshot Bar for some rolling. They might very well encounter someone they know, likely from the conviviality of a previous BEEB. One of Brewskee-Ball’s maxims suggests that participants “Skee excellent to each other.” The wordplay, as usual, is terrible. The sentiment is not.

Photos by Sean Hojnacki.


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