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St. Pete shuffleboard event highlights sport's surging popularity

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Published:   |   Updated: October 21, 2013 at 11:33 AM

ST. PETERSBURG — Walking though the storied St. Petersburg Shuffle Board Club is like visiting a kitschy museum on the history of American leisure. But, with an international competition kicking off this week and a younger audience slowly shuffling toward becoming club regulars, club members hope to breath new life into the vintage courts.

In celebration of the 100th anniversary of shuffleboard in Florida, the oldest and largest club in the world will host the 32nd annual International Shuffleboard Association World Singles Championship. About 150 of the best players in the world from 14 countries will spend the week vying for top honors on the courts, culminating in a public shuffle party where the pros can play with their hopeful successors.

Some of the biggest milestones in shuffle board history have happened within the club's white and green stucco walls, said St. Petersburg Shuffle Board Club president Christine Page. After opening in 1924, modern tournament rules were developed at the club, as well as the Florida, national and international shuffleboard associations. However, the last “big moment” for the club was when it served as a backdrop for the 1985 sci-fi film “Cocoon,” Page said. The depiction of the curmudgeonly and humdrum retirees that spent their days at the shuffleboard courts wasn't exactly a good omen for the club's future, and as memberships dropped and the courts began to show their age, the landmark was in jeopardy of becoming a parking lot.

“There was a time when we really thought this place would go under as the city really developed,” Paige said. “This is our first time hosting a tournament since the 80s, that's really an indication of how much better the buildings look now then it has for years, and we've made a huge push to attract a wider variety of people, not just retirees. It's just become magical again.”

The week-long competition plants the spotlight back on the shuffleboard club, she said, and will hopefully attract more people to purchase memberships and attend the free, Friday night shuffleboard parties that have helped keep the club alive. A mix of young, old, hipsters, nerds, jocks, all come together to listen to local bands, eat from local food trucks, try local brews and rediscover a sense of community. Now, local artwork has been added to the trophies and black and white pictures that line the stucco walls.

With more members, the club could someday afford to open a cafe and gift shop for members to purchase refreshments, Wate said. It could also open its doors more than once a week for the eclectic mix of city businesses.

“This will really help us give visitors a taste of St. Pete that they haven't really had a chance to get before,” said Carrie Wate, member of the board of governors and the event coordinator. “It's just so fun and a great alternative to the bar scene.”

Just like the senior citizens in the film that made it famous, the club is slowly being rejuvenated by an unexpected alien life force — a cult-like following of young people craving nostalgia and authenticity. Membership has grown by 50 in the past two weeks and is now at about 250 players.

However, the strategy behind the game is what separates the young players from the old, and those looking for a memory from those who are here to win, said tournament entrant Roy Norman, of Quebec, Canada. Norman, who will celebrate his 86 birthday Friday, has traveled the world competing in tournaments with his wife Doreen since the 1980s, and unlike most sports, age is not a factor in determining skill. Both are pro players, both are in Canada's shuffleboard hall of fame and Roy is in the International Hall of Fame in Clearwater. They were recruited by the Canadian National Team in a competition at the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club, and the Florida competitions always seem to be the toughest, Roy Norman said.

But even players competing in the tournament recognize that the sport is built for conversation and relaxation. Trash talking between opponents is usually more flirtation then foul language, as they knock the others' round discs, called biscuits, with coquettish nudges across the board. While some, like the much revered pro Earl Ball, come dressed in sports wear, others, come in 50's style dresses or, more commonly, plaid shirts and shorts, straw visors, white ankle socks and Velcro shoes.

“As a kid we would take these 36-hour-long road trips to West Palm Beach from Westchase, New York to visit my grandparents and we would play shuffleboard at Century Village, and I think a lot of people have those memories,” said Johnathan Schnapp, a computer programer and first-time entrant in the tournament. “Florida embodies vacation, and coming back to a court with some friends, it's like a song you haven't heard in a while, or a food you haven't tasted.”

Thirty years later, on a trip to Florida with Ashley Albert, the two found the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club on a Friday night and immediately decided to replicate it by opening a hip, shuffleboard night club in Brooklyn, New York. Royal Palms Shuffleboards, which will open in December, is a warehouse space featuring bars, rows of shuffleboard courts and space for food trucks to drive into the building for an affordable night out. The swanky spot hopes to recreate the visceral reaction casual players have upon walking into the St. Pete building for the first time, right down to little blue buttons modeled after the club's membership pins.

But this week's competition is not for the novice player, Albert said.

“I've already had so many invaluable conversations on everything from waxing the board to holding the cue the right way that have completely changed my game,” Albert said. “Before we left I was telling Johnathan that whatever we do, since its our first time, we can't trash talk and we can't win. Now I think it's hilarious that we even thought we had a chance of winning. These are the best players in the world, that's not even an option.”

The tournament ends Friday with a 7 p.m. party and shuffleboard games that are free and open to the public, Wate said.

adawson@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-9851

Twitter: @adawsonTBO

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