In tournament, shooting to win

Marbles: Cross-generational matchups and supportive fans mark the U.S. championship.

August 09, 2004|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

MIDDLETOWN -- The matchup pitted a guru in the world of competitive marbles against an up-and-coming teenager.

With a little luck and plenty of time spent on his hands and knees, Jeff Kimmell -- a 36-year-old computer engineer and avid booster of the game -- took home the top prize in a national tournament he founded in 1993.

"That was real tense," said Kimmell, who topped 18-year-old Ralphie Dillon, 50-37, to claim the $500 top prize in the two-day U.S. Marbles Championship.

"It feels great ... spectacular. It's the greatest tournament. It's like the Masters in golf," said Kimmell, of Frederick.

For Dillon, the second-place finish surpassed his expectations and topped his third-place finish last year.

"I figured I'd do good this time but not like this," said Dillon, of New Milton, W.Va.

The competition at Middletown Park in Frederick County appeared fierce, though players and fans were cordial and supportive. Eight quarterfinalists knocked each other's marbles out of the rings over several hours of play.

In the end, players and fans left hopeful that the game's fortunes would improve. After peaking in the first half of the 20th century, the game has barely held on. Most of the players -- young and old -- are from the Mid-Atlantic region, mainly Western Maryland, southwestern Pennsylvania and western Virginia.

Whereas marble tournaments in the 1920s and 1930s would attract 10,000 people, yesterday, about 35 -- players and fans -- showed up. And because only three women registered this year, they competed with the men.

Kimmell and other organizers have doggedly pursued a revival of the game over the past decade, building an intimate community of players and their families. Many know one another, and root one another on.

Randi Hulse, who has two sons who have each won the National Marbles Tournament -- a different annual competition held in New Jersey for children to age 14 -- said her sons' peers look at the game "a little differently" since they each won $2,000 scholarships, she said.

"It's a dying culture, unfortunately, and we don't want it to die out. It's very hard to compete with football and soccer," said Hulse, who has never played marbles.

The game of marbles has some physical demands. The players line up shots on marbles within a 10-foot ring on their hands and knees. Many wear kneepads and use towels to dry sweaty hands and cushion their nonshooting hand as they lean on the concrete pad.

The marbles are made of glass, while the "shooter" is usually a smooth ball made of a light stone, such as agate or flint.

In the U.S. Marbles Championship, the contestants play a version of the game known as "ringmaster." In one-on-one matchups, the goal is to be the first to knock 50 marbles out of the circle. Players often liken the game's strategy -- and requirements for hand-eye coordination -- to shooting pool.

The competition is the stiffest in the world, say Kimmell and other players there. And cross-generational matchups -- where people in their 30s or 40s play against teens -- are common.

The tournament was an eye-opener for Aaron Nees, 14, who won this year's national championship in Wildwood, N.J. His win at that event earned him a chance to play against older, more experienced players in Middletown.

"This is way harder than nationals," said Nees, who was eliminated before yesterday and who had set up a marble circle in his parents' garage for practice. "In nationals, we have to knock out seven [marbles] to win. In this, we have to go to 50."

For Kimmell -- who has acted as coach and mentor to a few marbles champions -- yesterday's win was a stunner. For years, he had been so busy organizing the tournament that he never left time to practice. And on tournament weekends, he was focused on running a smooth event.

He won the national championship at age 13, and the win brought its 15 minutes of fame: He was interviewed on the Today show with Bryant Gumbel.

"Back then, we didn't really have video games," Kimmell said. "Most kids did outdoor things, so we played marbles, and I got good."

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