This team is going for all the marbles

Competition: A group of Americans gets set to roll over the opposition in a British pub sport.

April 15, 2000|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

MIDDLETOWN -- British men have been shooting marbles for 300 years in the hamlet of Tinsley Green outside London. Leave it to a bunch of kids largely from Maryland to give that tradition one big jolt.

They call themselves the "USA Marble Team" and have been practicing for a year -- at the municipal park in Middletown near Frederick, or between the garden hose and trash cans in team member Ben Nelson's back yard. Friday, they'll be at the British World Marbles Championship.

The team's nine teen-agers and one adult, who will arrive in England on Tuesday morning, are jittery about the international flight and about fitting in among British gentlemen, who view the sport, in part, as a prelude to downing beer. (The championship, which draws several thousand spectators, is held at a pub.)

But when it comes to the competition, the Maryland team appears fearless. "I've seen the British play," says 16-year-old Nelson, who was the 1998 U.S. boys' marbles champion. "They don't take it seriously."

Just some pregame trash-talking? Maybe not. The official word from England:

"It's a tradition rather than a competition. British teams play to play. American teams play to win," says Julia McCarthy-Fox of the British Marbles Board of Control, a private group that organizes the championship. "I'll be surprised if the American team does not win."

The sport of marbles has myriad variations, but most resemble pool with smaller balls and no sticks. The sport's roots reach back to ancient Egypt, where people played sundry games with balls of clay.

The U.S. team has had to adapt to the version played at Tinsley Green. Two teams of six players gather around a sand-coated ring 6 feet in diameter. Forty-nine marbles are placed in a tight circle in the middle. One player takes his "shooter" -- often made of flint and costing as much as $15 -- places it between his thumb and forefinger, and flicks his thumb so the shooter whisks toward the pile and breaks it up.

The goal is to knock a marble out of the ring with every shot. Players keep flicking until they are unable to force a marble out, then cede to an opposing player. The team that first forces out 25 marbles wins.

The key, say the ultimate aficionados -- the teen-agers' parents -- is backspin.

"You want to hit the marbles hard enough to knock them out, but you don't want the shooter to follow it," says Nelson's mother, Barbara, also making the trip to England. "If you'd have told us 6 or 8 years ago we'd be traveling around the world to play marbles, we'd have said you were crazy."

The team's entourage totals 40 in all, and the trip will cost about $80,000. Some of the money was donated, and the rest came from pizza and hoagie sales, a basket-bingo fund-raiser and the players' parents.

"If this was softball, they'd have sponsors coming out of the, you know, from everywhere," says Christine Martin, whose 14-year-old daughter Emily is one of two girls on the team. "Some people say this is not a sport, that it's a game. But you have to have a good eye. You have to be accurate."

Team specialties

Team members specialize. Ben Nelson is responsible for breaking the pile of marbles at the beginning of games. "I'm not the most accurate," says Nelson, who also plays football and works as a dishwasher at a restaurant near his home. "But I'm powerful."

In contrast, Emily Martin, the girls national champion in 1998, is a finesse player -- she comes in at the end to knock the last marbles out.

She's never been out of the country. "I've been counting down the days, from 246, for this moment," she says.

Marbles tournaments have been taking place at Tinsley Green since the 1600s. Legend has it that, during the reign of Elizabeth I, two men were vying for the love of a woman and decided to pick the winning suitor by playing a game of marbles.

'It's a pub sport'

Barry Ray, 57, of Abbey Dore, a village in western England, has been playing at Tinsley Green since he was 9 years old. His team of men, all in their 50s, will compete again Friday. "We do practice a bit, but it's a pub sport, along with darts, snooker and pool," he says. "With a fair wind blowing behind us, we'll always have a chance. I know those wretched Maryland chaps, they treat it seriously."

A win by the Americans, who will compete against teams from Britain and Germany in a round-robin tournament, would punctuate what has been a surge of interest in marbles in the United States, especially among teens and particularly in western Maryland.

Resurgent pastime

Many adults remember shooting marbles on street corners and in schoolyards as children. The pastime faded but has returned since the early 1980s in organized competitions. Children younger than 14 can enter the National Marble Tournament in Wildwood, N.J., where winners receive $2,000 scholarships.

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