Tom Petty and REO Speedwagon boomed off the grandstand seats. Players were illuminated by twinkling white Christmas lights hanging from the rafters above the open-air setup. The hubbub was punctuated by the rhythmic smacking of heavy plastic discs against each other and the intermittent eruption of cheers. I stood, stunned into silence, marveling at this unfettered display of youthful vigor. When did shuffleboard — that bastion of geriatric time-killing — become cool?
Florida is home to all manner of kitschy roadside attractions, but the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club — which bills itself as the "world’s largest shuffleboard club" — is no Gatorland. I certainly wasn’t expecting a party. But when I arrived this spring, I was greeted by a tailgate gone tropical, with hundreds of people — natural hair and teeth intact — digging through beer coolers and crowding around dozens of smooth green courts.
I grew up with the occasional afternoon shuffle on the sun-bleached concrete courts near my grandparents’ condo. In my mind, shuffleboard was a retiree affair, a low-stakes game that required little brainpower and even less physical might. I decided to check out the Friday Night Shuffle in a fit of boredom, figuring I would shoot the shit with some salty old-timers, drink a beer, and call it a night. But that Friday was just the beginning.
A few weeks later, I was back in St. Pete interviewing dedicated league players and board members about the history and evolution of the club, trying to figure out if the scene I’d witnessed at the Friday Night Shuffle was a fluke or something like a renaissance. The St. Pete crew is committed — among its members are Florida’s youngest pro player (he’s 31), a computer programmer who makes shot-motion analysis videos for fun, and a decorated Hall of Famer who refused to give her age ("let’s just say it’s over 60") and now coaches the next generation of competitive players. The club is hugely important to the sport — in addition to being the oldest and largest in the world, it’s where the modern rules of the game were standardized. This is, after all, the shuffleboard capital of the planet. But it’s not where it all started.
Everyone at the club said I had to talk to Jim Allen. The third-generation owner and operator of Allen R. Shuffleboard Co., based in Seminole, Florida, manufactures virtually all of the shuffleboard equipment sold in the United States. His grandfather started the company to meet the huge demand during the shuffleboard boom in the 1940s, and today Allen is a walking encyclopedia of shuffleboard knowledge, as well as a tireless promoter of the sport. So I call him up — he’s pleased to hear from a Yankee youngster — and ask for some background.
To find the origins of shuffleboard, Allen tells me, you’d have to go back to 15th-century England, where a game called shovel-penny, which involved using a shovel to flip a big disc that resembled a manhole cover into a scoring zone, was first born. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, passengers on transcontinental ships from the U.K. to the U.S. wanted a way to entertain themselves, so a miniature version of shovel-penny, with small wooden discs and a pole pusher, was invented to play on deck. By the 1890s, table shuffleboard tournaments in New York City and along the Eastern Seaboard were getting written up in local papers, and the West Coast’s first tabletop version appeared in a pub in California in 1904. Shuffleboard was first played on land in 1913 in Daytona Beach at the Lyndhurst Hotel, whose owner had just returned from a cruise ship vacation and fallen in love with the game. That was the catalyst for the construction of the St. Pete Club, which opened in 1924.
St. Pete, nicknamed "The Sunshine City," was rapidly becoming a major tourist destination, particularly in the winter, when it played host to visiting snowbirds from the Northern U.S. and Canada. (Canada, of course, is the homeland of curling, whose rules and techniques are not so different from shuffleboard.) By 1935, the St. Pete club was already billed as "the world’s largest," and boasted a membership of 4,781 people playing across some 100 courts. A St. Petersburg Times article from that same period explains that "it is in Florida where land-played shuffleboard originated in this country, and where it has reached its highest degree of popularity," and that there were more than 50 shuffleboard clubs in the state, and "probably more than 20,000 people who enjoy the game during the winter months." By 1949, membership at the St. Pete club was up to 8,400, and the complex boasted 110 courts, in addition to a baroquely adorned clubhouse for parties and bridge games. Hollywood took notice, too, as pinup girls and bandleaders picked up the sport. But Florida has always been ground zero.
The setup is simple: Shuffleboard can be played in singles or doubles, and the objective is to use your cue (a.k.a. tang) to shoot a disc (a.k.a. biscuit) into a painted triangle at the end of the court. Different parts of the triangle are worth different points, and you want to avoid landing your biscuit in the kitchen — the wide part of the base of the triangle — which is an automatic 10-point deduction. Players are encouraged to knock their opponents’ biscuits out of scoring position. Games are traditionally played to 75 points, or, in more casual undertakings, in eight-to-10-frame rounds. And most undertakings are indeed causal — one major selling point is how conducive shuffleboard is to being played with a drink in one hand. You won’t break a sweat playing it, which is part of the appeal for retirees and nonathletes, and the team setup builds instant camaraderie when you’re putzing around the court.
There is a professional circuit with a convoluted point system for qualifying, but not necessarily a ton of incentive to pursue it. With no sponsorship opportunities, competitors play for pride over cash. (There’s a saying: "You retire to play shuffleboard; you don’t play shuffleboard to retire.") To boot, most professional tournaments are held on weekday afternoons, making it difficult for nonretirees to physically participate. On top of that, pros can no longer play in amateur games (which are often held on easier-for-the-working-man weekends and evenings), so many players who technically qualify as pro decide to stick to the amateur circuit. Allen admits: "It’s still a recreational game."
But talk to serious players at any level and it quickly becomes apparent that shuffleboard is a complex sport. Nearly everyone I interviewed compared it to chess. "You have to think — not just about this shot, but several rounds ahead, and you have to be flexible in your strategy," explains Mary Eldridge, a multiple-time champion and Hall of Famer who now coaches at the St. Pete Club. "You not only have to keep making points, but you also have to protect your points because someone can knock them off." There’s a whole language of shuffle strategy, involving blocking and hiding your biscuits (the two most common blocking positions are the St. Pete and the Tampa; the decision over which to use is often based on knowing the drift of the court), running the alley and shooting the hammer, or last shot. It’s part of what makes the game more than a hobby; dedicated players study up on this stuff to inflict maximum damage upon their opponents. The competition is fierce.
One of Mary’s protégés is 31-year-old Erik Hahmann. As of March, Hahmann is the youngest pro player in Florida. "What I really love about the game is that there is no physical advantage — shuffleboard is a game of touch, feel, and precision," he says. "An 80-year-old woman has just as much of a chance to win a game as a 18-year-old man. There’s not many other sports like that." Hahmann likes to say that you can learn shuffleboard in five minutes, but you can spend a lifetime getting better at it. And though the physicality of the sport is low, there’s a high degree of mental strain, stemming from the endless strategizing and the ruthless psychological techniques opponents inflict upon each other.
"It sounds mean, but part of the fun is that you prey on the weaknesses of your opponents," says Kerry Bailey, 31, another St. Pete member who has played in world tournaments (and is Hahmann’s girlfriend). "If they make a mistake, you capitalize on it. You get into their head."
Hahmann and Bailey are part of a dedicated group of pre-retirement members at the St. Pete Club who are working to introduce the sport to a new generation of younger players. But there’s a lot of history to overcome. By the 1960s, membership numbers at the big clubs in St. Pete and Clearwater had dropped precipitously, often dwindling to just a few hundred from thousands of members.
"People say shuffleboard died in the 1960s," says Allen. "But really, it just spread out." He explains that in the early years of the sport, formal clubs in central locations were the only place for people to play, hence the huge membership stats. But shuffleboard was in some ways a victim of its own success, as developers began building courts in mobile-home parks, motels, hotels, retirement centers, and more.
"People didn’t want to travel to play anymore" says Allen. "Building your own court became a lure, especially as property value on the coast shot up and people started moving inland. The senior market in Florida was really good in the 1970s, and all of these towns were filling up with mobile parks and city recreation centers that built out shuffleboard complexes to attract retirees."
As the state population continued to climb in the 1980s and ’90s, more shuffleboard courts were poured, but the clubs that had thrived a generation earlier struggled to survive. Retirees with disposable income shifted their attention to golf, and St. Pete tourism officials worked to revamp the city’s image with open-air shopping malls and waterfront attractions.
The St. Pete club, once a glamorous social hub immortalized in countless postcards and advertisements, fell into a state of extreme physical disrepair. At one point, there was a proposal to relocate the club and turn the grounds into a parking lot. By the early 2000s, membership was down to just 35 members, most of them 75-plus years old.
But in 2005, a curious thing happened: A group of 30s-something artists who lived nearby visited the club and fell in love with it, in all its crumbling grandeur. They got permission from the club’s existing members and the city to start hosting free-to-the-public games on Friday nights, with a more festive atmosphere (music, drinks, etc.) than the staid daytime games. Within a few weeks, 50 people were showing up — often other artists and musicians — and then 75, and soon, a few hundred. "They happened to be young, with young friends, and more young people got into it as a result," says Christine Page, 47, the executive director of the club, who is herself a part of the second-wave enthusiasts for the sport.
The growing numbers put the club back in the spotlight and led to some $500,000 worth of repairs (paid for by the city) in 2009, along with a wildly popular league night (which has since expanded to two nights to accommodate overflow from league players, who boast team names like House Tangaeryn and Academy Award Nominee Mark Shuffalo). Membership numbers recently hit 1,000 — not quite the circa-1940s peak, but a 2,700 percent increase over numbers more than a decade ago. For younger players, it’s an alternative to the bar scene, and on languid Florida evenings, the club is a downright lovely place to linger. The game itself is a full-body experience — you feel the direction of the wind, angle your tang just so, and put the right amount of power behind each shot. Listen to the whizz of the biscuit traveling the length of the court for a few gloriously anticipatory seconds, and then relax when you hear the satisfying thwack against your opponent’s disc. Then sip your drink, rinse, and repeat.
"Our Friday nights are a blessing — they’re what made our resurgence possible," says Josh Dulabaum, the 31-year-old self-described "shuffleboard geek" who created a system for shot-motion analysis for fun and maintains an online database of every shuffleboard court in Florida (current count: 2,592). "But there is a bit of a divide between the established shuffle players and the newer recreational players. Over the past few years, a lot of us have tried to become liaisons between the two, by going to tournaments or sitting on [regional club] boards. We respect the game; we show we care."
The revitalization of the St. Pete club has inspired a new wave of shuffleboard clubs elsewhere in the country too. The most prominent is Brooklyn’s Royal Palms, which partners Jonathan Schnapp and Ashley Albert founded after a "transformative" Florida road trip that included a stop at the Friday Night Shuffle. Schnapp and Albert fell in love with the game, but also with what could be described as the shuffleboard aesthetic. They raised $2 million to build a club in a once-industrial part of Brooklyn, outfitting it with 10 courts and a museum-worthy collection of vintage shuffleboard paraphernalia ("I have an eBay problem," says Schnapp), old equipment, and drinks named after famed players like Floyd Swem (author of The Great Outdoors Book of Shuffleboard: Those Capricious Discs) and Shuffleboard Bob (Jim Allen and Christine Page also have drinks named after them).
"Here’s the dirty little secret," says Schnapp. "I love the game as much as anyone, but it’s not that fucking fun. The things that make it fun are what we do with it." Hence the transportive Old Florida aesthetic, and a few tweaks to the playing experience to make it more conducive to a bar atmosphere, like running fast eight-frame games, as opposed to going to 75 points, which can take hours. "We were worried about only having 10 courts. But what we saw is that people don’t need to be playing shuffleboard the entire time — we give them good vibes, nice drinks, and great music, and suddenly the fact that the game itself isn’t that fun works kind of perfectly," says Schnapp.
Still, Schnapp has a deep respect for the game and its traditions. He travels to Florida several times a year to play in doubles tournaments with Jim Allen, and every person to step foot on a Royal Palms court is given a lesson on rules and scoring before they’re allowed to pick up a tang. At several points during our interview, Schnapp jumps up to gently reprimand guests for walking on the courts when they’re not playing. ("Look, I know it’s not going to hurt the floors. But it’s a respect-for-the-game thing, and that’s a big part of us being a real club.")
The retro-chic approach has worked in St. Pete and Royal Palms, and supporters of the game are hoping it augurs a new generation of shuffle enthusiasts. There are some signs of a national renaissance: Royal Palms is opening a second location in Chicago this winter, two new clubs have popped up in Ohio in the past two years, and there are rumors of a new operation in Tampa built with the club model. A bar in London hosted a shuffleboard pop-up in October and is searching for a permanent space. Jim Allen travels frequently to promote the sport overseas, always carrying his patented portable snap-together court to introduce shuffleboard in Brazil, England, Russia, Australia, and more. The International Shuffleboard Association is hosting the world championships in Rio de Janiero this July, and several members from the St. Pete club will be competing. The dream for many, says Allen, is that one day, shuffleboard will be an Olympic sport. "You need more countries with national organizations in order to apply for the Olympics, and we’re nowhere near it with eight countries," he says. "I realize it won’t happen in my lifetime, but if nobody starts it now, it won’t ever happen."
There’s more work to be done. The surge in membership at the St. Pete club and the success of Royal Palms give shufflers hope, but the sport is still something of an endangered species, as older players pass away without passing along their love to the next generation. That’s why Mary Eldridge is so committed to sharing their passion: "We say there are 7 billion people on the planet, and we teach them one player at a time."
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that the St. Pete club had more than 200 courts; it had 110 courts.