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THE ALTERNATIVES

Shuffle up to the bar, sport

March 13, 2003|James Verini | Special to The Times

"Back in jolly old 15th Century England they played a game of sliding a 'groat' down a table: a 'groat' being a rather large British coin of the day, worth about four pence. The game was called shove-groat and/or slide groat. Later, a silver penny was used, and the name of the game became shove penny or shovel penny. The game never died. It was played by the young and old, rich and poor. It was a favorite game in the great country houses of Staffordshire."

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So reads the introduction to the handbook of the now-defunct American Shuffleboard Co. of Union City, N.J. -- "shuffleboard" being the name of the game once called shove penny, and having nothing to do with that ridiculous tomfoolery that takes place on the decks of cruise ships. This is a bar sport.

But none of the shuffleboard players at the Cozy Inn in Culver City bothers to look at the handbook much anymore (though the bartenders will gladly retrieve the 40-year-old document for you from a drawer beneath the cash register). The shack of a bar on Washington Place is so uneager to impress that you'll drive up and down the block four times without seeing it.

The Cozy Inn cognoscenti don't care in what jolly old century the game originated. They just want to play. They can't wait to get their hands on those pucks (the technical term is actually "weight," according to the handbook), and start sending them down that long, insanely polished table.

"It's an exciting game," gushed Robert Struth, 32, who has been playing shuffleboard in and around Los Angeles for eight years. "You're the master of your own destiny."

Master of your own destiny? In a bar sport? But that is the kind of hyperbole that shuffleboard inspires in its devotees. And who can say it doesn't warrant such praise? Shuffleboard is a gloriously elegant game. It's egalitarian as well -- as many as eight people can play at once -- which may explain its appeal to the hoi polloi as well as English nobility.

Once the domain of lords and out-of-work mechanics, shuffleboard is experiencing a renaissance among Gen-X night owls these days. The average player at the Cozy Inn is male and in his early 30s, and you'll have to contend with dozens of him if you want to get a game on a Friday night.

To the youthful, its raw, tactile appeal is clear: The weights, with their shiny metal bottoms, scream out to be held. The light coating of sand (it's actually finely ground wax, specially manufactured for shuffleboard tables) beckons like the beach.

And that table.

That wooden table, so shiny you could use it as a mirror, shooting across the bar like a golden perspective line. It's almost classical in its grandeur. You just want to touch it. What's more, shuffleboard aptitude seems to increase with drink, unlike pool or darts.

"You don't have to be so sober to play it well," says Winkie Robb, who owns the Cozy Inn with her husband, Bill.

The game is beautiful in its simplicity. Here's how it works. Two teams, made up of one to four players (two are ideal) divide onto either side of the shuffleboard, a long, narrow table -- the handbook discourages the use of "table," preferring just "board" or, better yet, "longboard" -- which may measure anywhere from 16 to 22 feet in length. The Cozy's is 22.

Each team is allotted four weights: Roughly equal in size and heft to a hockey puck, they are distinguished by red or blue plastic coverings.

On the far edges of the table is a series of end zones, ranging in value from three points to one point. The three-point zone is on the very edge; the two-point zone, of equal width, just behind that; and the one-point zone, much larger, behind that. Surrounding the board is a narrow gutter, like in a bowling alley.

The two teams alternate, manually sliding the weights, the object being to get your weights as far down the shuffleboard as possible without them falling off. Knocking the other team's weights off the table is allowed -- highly encouraged, in fact. The first team to get to 15 (or 21, or 60 if you like, it all depends on how many quarters you put in) wins.

That's it. And yet that's not it. Shuffleboard technique takes years to master. There's the defensive importance of blocking, in which you protect a well-placed weight from being knocked off by your opponent (the handbook calls a well-backed-up weight a "buried weight.")

There's the subtle art of "caroming," glancing your weight off your opponent's to gain position. There's side-wheeling, rail-shooting, hangers and half-shells (check the handbook). There are alternate forms of the game, such as Horse Collar and Tap and Draw, and even shorter tables with bumper lanes (handbook).

If you go to the bar at the American Legion in Redondo Beach, for instance, you're sure to find Fred Mosley, 82, who always shoots down the rails. "If you shoot from the rim, you can go across the board, you can go behind blocks," said Mosley, who was in the Navy, from the North Africa campaigns to Normandy. "You can't win against me if you just shoot free-hand."

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