'The Sporting Life': … or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Start Loving to Lose

   I must destroy Happy Jack.
   I am a sporting man, a gambler, and man of leisure. I am a gentleman.
   All the same, I must destroy Happy Jack.
   The game is shuffleboard, an elegant game played by proud warriors in bars all across this land, and, perhaps not so surprisingly, on the lido deck of many a luxury liner cruising the high seas.
   Happy Jack, the King of the Shuffleboard Table, has been in my nightmares, waking me up in the middle of the night with a cold sweat lining my tired brow, haunting me with visions of horrible and painful defeat.
   “Heh, heh,” his raspy laugh taunts me. “Way too hard!”
   And it’s true. The man is right. I’ve thrown the weight off the end of the board, yet again sealing my fate.
   I am a loser.

   Shuffleboard seems to have originated in England, a fine enough place, all in all, for a thing to have originated. The English did, after all, give us both our language and a love for bad government.
   First called shoveboard, and then shovelboard, there is record of the game being played as far back as 1532. The earliest form of the game appears to be the shoving of coins across a polished tabletop, and the evidence suggests that it was a pastime for royalty. I personally can envision the foppish knaves ho-humming and sliding a gold piece across a wonderful wooden table, yawning while trying to decide whose head would be on the block next.
   Or am I underestimating the royal character? Hard to say.
   The game did, in time, become popular with the masses and grew to be more so until the lowly peasantry had the gall to actually stop going to work, devoting all their time to what amounts to a pursuit of happiness, I suppose.
   The royals, of course, reacted by banning the game.
   Fast forward a few hundred years. The game had survived, thanks to the devious and relentless work of alehouse patrons. Drinkers. Men and women of vice. The colonists (not the Puritans – heaven forbid!) brought the game to America, where it continued to grow in popularity, all the way through to the early part of the 20th century.
   Then a bad word was heard all across the land: Prohibition.
   Prohibition killed many a buzz. It nearly killed shuffleboard, too. Speakeasies didn’t need or want any games of skill. The game rapidly declined in popularity. The party, it seemed, was over.
   The repeal of the national Bad Idea saw a few pockets of shuffleboard players reappear on the East Coast, as the tavern industry began to change.
   With the onset of World War II, men from all across the United States were routed through New York and the Northeast on their way to Europe. After the war, shuffleboard went national, as the men returning home took the game with them to places like Kansas, Minnesota, and Utah.

   I discovered the game as a kid on a family trip to Red River, N.M. We were staying in a cabin with no phone or television. I believe there must have been a football game or something my dad really wanted to see, because I soon found myself in my first bar, the Bull O’ the Woods, as a wide-eyed 12-year-old.
   I don’t think I got a beer, though I might have swiped a sip when the old man wasn’t looking.
   I remember being in awe of how long the board was. It seemed to go on and on, like a woman’s legs, and I was amazed at how the two old men playing the game slid the pucks down the table so effortlessly. The crack! of one weight colliding the other was all it took to make me very curious.
   “What’s that game, dad?” I asked.
   “Shuffleboard,” came his reply.
   “How do you play?”
   “Heck if I know.”
   It was clear he was more interested in the game that was on the television than the one that was being played right in front of us. Not me, though. I wandered over to where the old men stood, smoking cigarettes, drinking Molson beer, and talking about fishing. Their own game seemed of little importance to them. Sooner or later, they realized I was watching them intently.
   “You ever played this game, young man?” asked one of them, a burly man with a thick white beard. He wore a hat that had a Coors logo on it. I did not ask him why he wasn’t drinking a Coors, even though my dad drank Coors, and my uncle drank Coors, and as far as I knew, men were supposed to drink Coors, regardless of what any other beer advertisements might claim.
   “No,” I said. “Never have. It looks fun.”
   “It sure is,” said the man. “I like to play everyday. Probably because I always win.”
   “Like hell you do!” grumbled the other man. He looked older than the first man, his clean-shaven face lined with creases and wrinkles, with jowls hanging slackly.
   I laughed, and the two men joined me.
   “Is that yer dad?” asked the oldest looking man.
   “Yup,” I replied. “My uncle’s gonna meet us here.”
   “Oh, that’s nice. How nice,” said the man. “They gonna teach you how to play?”
   “No, I think they’re gonna watch football.”
   “Well, do you wanna play?” he asked.

   I didn’t see another shuffleboard table for nearly 15 years after that. Even after I came of legal drinking age and began frequenting bars,, I didn’t see any shuffleboard tables. Not in Stillwater, Okla. I took to pool. I had to. As a man of sport, the urge to win is always present, and I needed a game. And everywhere, it seemed, had a pool table. Deep down, though, in the marrow, shuffleboard lay waiting, knowing that one day we’d be reunited.
   That day came after I moved to Austin, when I walked into the Horseshoe Lounge for the first time.
   Through the thick cloud of smoke that greeted me, I could make out a dizzying array of neon beer signs. A Kansas City Chiefs sign, too, which I found odd being, as it was, so deep in the heart of Texas. There were tables and chairs and a horseshoe-shaped bar with a friendly gal behind it. A pair of boxing gloves hung from the ceiling at one end of the bar. Sure enough, they had a single pool table, and if I wasn’t mistaken, an old Lefty Frizell tune was playing on the jukebox. It was my kind of place.
   I hadn’t even noticed the shuffleboard table yet.
   It stood against the northern stone wall of the joint, an ancient-looking table, chipped and worn by the hands of players of some thousands of games its surface had seen over the years. Upon first glance, the table looked to me rather rickety. However, a long bar lined with stools separated the table from the rest of the lounge, and people were actually sitting on barstools watching the shuffleboard game being played, whooping and hollering as the players bumped each other’s weights from the table.
   Weeks passed before I actually played a game. Many reasons, and good ones at that, existed as to why I did not immediately jump back into the action. You could say the flesh was willing but the spirit was weak. Hot damn! Some of the people who played were good. It was apparent that these folks played regularly, refining their skills and mastering their shots. I had to study, prepare myself mentally for the challenge at hand.
   I needed to refresh myself with the rules, too, because after all, it had been awhile since I’d pushed a weight. There was plenty of shuffleboard lingo to learn as well. Words and phrases like hanger and knock-up (not what one does to, say, Britney Spears if one is seeking to avoid work). And was I a freehand shooter, or should I ride the rails?
   Even more pressing, I needed a partner, a teammate … someone I could trust and even lean on when the game was on the line and our backs were to the wall. I needed a person of grit and determination, a comrade and brother-in-arms who above all else possessed the sheer will to win, if at all possible, in the most dominating fashion. A true believer in the sporting life.
   Instead, I got my good friend Kevin, the Blond Buffalo.
   The Buffalo is a notorious pacifist, a man prone to defeatism by the acute lack of whatever gene it is that causes some of us to feel our blood boiling with the urge to crush a competitor. In a world of winners and losers, the Buffalo stands as the rare man who is neither, simply because he refuses to participate. I had never known him to so much as watch a sporting event, and it is quite probable that before I enlisted him as my partner, he had not taken part in any form of competition since a two-year stint in little league. We had our work cut out for us.
   Shuffleboard is a finesse game, a game of inches. Anyone who tells you otherwise has never been on the losing end of a game in which the final shot bumps an opponent’s weight just barely over the three-point line. The Buffalo and I were on many such ends as loss upon loss mounted up. We were discouraged, confused, and worse, we smelled of failure.
   We called it a learning curve and devoted ourselves to what used to be the motto of the once-mighty Oakland Raiders: the "Commitment to Excellence."
   We visited the bar several nights a week.
   The barometer of success, as in any game of skill, is the superior opponent. In our case, that man was Happy Jack. In Austin shuffleboard circles, Happy Jack is Roger Clemens, Mike Tyson, and Ty Cobb all in one – except that people genuinely like him. He is a victor, an aged and wise elder, a proud lion who still roars for meat (and, it turns out, smokes his own meat, too, called “Happy Jack’s Roadkill Jerky,” which he sells at the bar for $5 a bag). He’s also a veteran. Losing to Happy Jack, which even today happens more often than not, is an honor, if there is such a thing as honor in defeat.
   He tortured me for weeks and the weeks ran on to months. The nightmares set in. Any sports psychologist or radio talk show host worth half a hoot will agree that once an opponent gets inside your head, your odds of victory dramatically decrease. I was like Brad Lidge throwing to Albert Pujols – good most of the time, but susceptible to freezing up and tossing colossally bad throws.
   Slowly, though, the Buffalo and I improved in our game and it was only a matter of time before we started to win a few matches. It’s the classic life lesson: determinedly practice something and sooner or later you’ll at least get better. The Buffalo and I began routinely beating opponents who only weeks earlier had been beating us by scores such as 15-4 or, even more embarrassingly, 15-0.
   The moral of the story? That’s simple, if you are willing to allow that very little can top the thrill of hitting a winning shot. And understand, too, the agony of defeat. It is played out on baseball diamonds in cities like St. Louis and Detroit, on thousands of Texas gridirons on Fridays and Saturdays, and on the millions of shuffleboard and pool tables, dartboards, and video trivia machines night after night.
   Each moment is important, each shot is big. It’s always an elimination game and you’re trying to force Game 7 – win and you keep playing; lose and you go home. On a busy night at the Horseshoe, there is no guarantee that you will get up again. Many an eager shuffleboarder has waited in vain as their name sat scrawled in chalk on the chalkboard which serves as a sign-up list.
   I’d like to envision my shuffleboard education as a Karate Kid-like fantasy, with Happy Jack in the Miyagi role. But that doesn’t work. I need him as an adversary. I ask no quarter and he offers none. I must destroy him and anyone one else standing in my path. The truth of the matter is that the Buffalo and I have hatched a hare-brained scheme to really get after it, refine our game to the point where we could beat the old man in tournament play. There have been whispers of a run at nationals in Reno. First things first, though. We need to beat Happy Jack.

   “Way too hard,” he laughs, the sandpaper quality of his voice unable to conceal the glee he feels, even this late in life, for something as seemingly trivial as me once again hurling a weight off the end of the board, moving him one step closer to victory.
   “How many is that now, Hap?” I ask, knowing full well that this was the fourth weight that has sailed out of play.
   “Too many to win, Bubba!” he shouts back, smiling broadly. He sips a Pearl beer poured over ice in a large plastic mug.
   Like anything worth doing in life, this game can teach you a great deal. It has taught me that to win, I need to keep the weights on the table.
   I’ve also learned – and this may well be totally irrelevant, but it's nonetheless true – that in the Sixties a shuffleboard table was actually installed inside the USS Theodore Roosevelt, a Polaris-class nuclear submarine. It was placed down the hatch on a torpedo rack. During the long periods underwater as the brave crew stood ready to unleash Armageddon at a moment’s notice at the height of the Cold War, navy officials recognized that shuffleboard eased the men’s stress.
   I think it has maybe added stress to my life, but what the heck? It’s been a good run. Highs and lows. Strikes and gutters.
   “Watch this one, Happy,” I holler 22 feet to the other end of the table where he stands. I’m going to attempt a difficult shot, though it is one I’ve hit many times before. Leaning over the table, weight in my left hand, I aim and let the weight leave my hand. It smoothly glides down the table over a fine layer of silicone wax. Mass times acceleration equals net force.
   Or something like that. It looks like I’ve applied too much net force yet again. The weight goes long and I’m reminded just how far the Buffalo and I are from Reno.
   Game over.

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