Rulers of the marbles ring

Tournament: At Middletown Park, players are undeterred by the heat of competition.

August 05, 2002|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

MIDDLETOWN -- They call him "Tarzan" or "Wonder Boy," this 17-year-old marbles marvel from West Virginia.

It took Robbie Nicholson less than half an hour to flick 50 marbles out of a ring here yesterday to dispatch his last opponent and become the 2002 U.S. Marbles champion -- for the third straight year.

No, the temperature in the mid-90s didn't bother him. And, no, his thumb wasn't sore, even after shooting hundreds of times at small blue orbs in the two-day competition. It was the three-peat that really threw him.

"I really didn't think I was going to," Nicholson said of winning his third championship -- and taking home $500 as top shooter in the men's division. "I didn't feel that I was shooting that good the first day."

The tournament wrapped up at Middletown Park with some serious marble play. A few of the 70 participants came from as far as Tennessee to take part. Many were former champions at the better-known national tournament, held annually in Wildwood, N.J., barred after victory from playing in that contest again but still harboring a competitive drive in the somewhat obscure sport.

"Most people that come, they're coming for one thing: They want to win," said tournament director Jeff Kimmell, 34, of Frederick, who won the national marbles championship in Wildwood in 1981.

The victor in the women's division, also picking up $500, was Amy Yarbrough of Ridgley, W.Va., last year's runner-up. The 29-year-old mother of four, who is studying nursing at Allegany College in Cumberland, hadn't felt good about her chances. She battles asthma, she said, and doesn't usually perform well in the heat.

"I prayed a lot, because I had not even a week [of] practice," she said. "It was really on a wing and a prayer that I made it this far."

She wore dark sunglasses in the bright, hot afternoon during the final game against Krissy O'Neill, 15, of Lansdowne, Pa.

Their match had the several dozen spectators rapt: It took 46 minutes for Yarbrough to edge out her young opponent, 50-43.

The U.S. Marbles Championship, sponsored by the Frederick County Parks and Recreation Department and the Braddock Heights and Middletown Valley Optimist Club, is in its ninth year.

The type of marbles played here is known as Ringmaster. Thirteen marbles are placed in the middle of the ring in the shape of a cross (each round of 13 is known as a "rack"). Players use a larger marble, called a shooter, to knock the target marbles out of the ring. A player's turn continues until he or she misses, or the shooter itself is knocked out of the circle.

The first person to knock out 50 marbles is the winner.

The men's final between Nicholson and Tim Ratliff, 15, of Smithsburg, was more competitive than the final score, 50-32, would have it seem.

Nicholson, who was part of the American team that won the world marbles title in England two years ago, was up by only four, 28-24, at the end of the fourth rack. After that, he slowly pulled away.

Nicholson, who will attend the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics this fall, said he practiced only four hours before this year's tournament (last year he practiced six). He said the game of marbles is a lot like pool, which he has been playing since he was 5.

His mother, Michelle, 34, has missed only one of Nicholson's marble matches in the past nine years, and that, she said, was because of a bathroom break.

"He's a natural, that's what everybody says," she explained before her son accepted his trophy and $500 check, which, to his dismay, has been earmarked for his car insurance. "Nothing fazes him."

Ratliff, who played barefoot, was pleased with his second-place showing. The matches can get pretty intense, so he has his own technique for keeping calm: He sings songs -- "stupid songs," he said -- in his head.

"If I concentrate too much, I end up messing up all the time," he said.

Tournament director Kimmell, who has coached 11 national marbles champions, was big into sports growing up in Cumberland, but took up marbles as a hobby. He got so good, he won the national championship at age 13.

He said people who aren't familiar with marbles are shocked when they see the caliber of play at the Middletown tournament: "It's really entertaining. When they see this, they say `Whew! My God, how do they do that?'"

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