March 20, 2008

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White-hot foosball action
In the clamour of the bar, players focus on their game
By Brian Early bearly@hippopress.com

Rob Zentz travels from Fairfield, Maine, just to play foosball at Slammers Sports Bar & Grill in Bedford on Friday nights. It’s nearly a three-hour drive he and his friend make about every other week, and most often they play late into the night.

“There’s no place to play up there,” he said. “The level of play is not up to par.”

Indeed, players from Massachusetts make the trip too, as do local area foosball enthusiasts. These are not the folks who play from time to time at a bar. These are the sort of foosball players who have tables in their basements to practice on throughout the week.

There are live bands that rock Slammers. People dance, people drink. But it’s almost like the foosball players don’t even notice the commotion. Under the glow of white florescent lights, four people, two per side, focus intensely on winning the game at hand in the weekly tournament.

“I spent half my life playing foosball; the other half I wasted,” Robert Scanlon is fond of saying. He’s New Hampshire’s state director for the United States Table Soccer Federation., “USA’s Global Foosball Voice!” He even has his own business cards. He runs the double elimination tournaments each week, a $10 entry. On a table is clipboard with the brackets of the evening.

Foosball, or table soccer, is much like the game of soccer, except there is no running. Two teams, usually with one or two people per side, use handles to move “players” (little plastic ones) side to side to pass and kick the ball into the opponent’s goal. It’s often popular in college dorm rooms. And many who played in college think they are top-notch when they first show up at the weekly tournaments at Slammers.

“We used to think that we were world-class,” said Sean Riley about his own and his college buddies’ foosball skills. “Then [we] got down here.” Soon after he started playing, he bought a table to practice on.

The players all pack their own grip tape for the handles on the table, just as ping-pong players pack their own paddles and pool players tote their own cue sticks. It’s the same tape used for tennis rackets. One player even wears gloves. All of this is in the name of keeping control of the handles during intense games.

All are welcome, the players said. The names of everyone who shows up are put into a hat, and teams are selected for the night.

“When anyone new comes, you do everything in your power to have them come back,” Scanlon said. “They grow the sport.”

Sometimes that means letting a newbie break a rule here and there.

They like to play strictly by the official rules of foosball. There are three tables, all leveled, to play on. Ed Schunemann, the owner of Slammers, installed the tables at the urging of one of his friends, Tim “Fuji” Alberts of Billerica, Mass., a former foosball champion player. Ed said that after the tables came in, people traveled from all around just to play him.

He brought in three more tables when he hosted a three-day foosball tournament at the bar. People traveled from as far away as New York to play for the $1,500 game. It’s good business for him, and every week the bar adds $25 to the overall pot for the night.

The toughest part of the game, Bill Warren said between games, is ball control, like the ability to pass the ball around from player to player. That can take a long time to master.

“Once you get the control of the game, it’s a real mind game,” he said. “The control part is a real hard learning curve, especially if you don’t have a table at home.”

Warren said that it’s obvious if a player lacks the skills for the game — that player will be easily pummeled by an opponent — whereas in pool, even a not-so-great player can still win a game from time to time.

Even so, the players are always looking for new people to play, or for people who used to play, maybe in college, who are willing to come down and play again.

“You find a crew like this, and it reignites the fun we had years ago,” Riley said.


Foosball tournament
Where: Slammers Sports Bar & Grill, 547 Donald St., Bedford
When: Fridays. Sign-ups at 8 p.m. Games start by 9 p.m.”