ST. PETERSBURG, FLA.-We’ve only been playing for 10 minutes, but somehow, I’m already behind by 48 points. Worse, I’ve managed to lose one of my biscuits. And I’m embarrassed by the fact my score is actually less than zero, the consequences — I’m told — of spending a little too much time in the kitchen.
Around me, millennials and 30-somethings, all of whom have brought their own beer and wine and red Solo cups, take their tangs and slide disks down one of the dozens of green courts, bursts of laughter interspersed with faux-competitive trash talk, everyone having a fine Friday night under the strings of white lights of the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club.
For the game’s enthusiasts, this is hallowed ground. Still the world’s largest shuffleboard club (with a total of 72 courts), Christine Page, the club’s executive-director, tells me it was established in 1924, becoming the first shuffleboard-only club.
“All the modern rules were standardized here,” she explains. “This place is the Wimbledon of shuffleboard.”
But, Page recalls, things slowly devolved from its heyday in the first half of the 20th century, when the club’s ledger held as many as 6,000 members, to the 1990s, when it had dwindled to just 35. Its fine, historic buildings were falling into disrepair. The city government was threatening to take over management. A proposal had been floated to knock it all down and turn the space into a parking lot.
“We now have about 1,000 members,” Page says with just a tiny bit of triumph in her voice. “That all started with the free Fridays.”
Page gives me a lesson. I learn what most of us would call “the stick” is actually called a “tang” (or “cue”), and those round disks are known as “biscuits.” Scores are determined by the numbers within the segments of an isosceles triangle painted on the ground, but if the biscuit is touching a line — any line — it doesn’t count.
And whatever you do, don’t get caught in the kitchen. An 18-inch-wide zone that runs all the way across the base of the triangle (and sometimes labeled “10 OFF”), any biscuit that remains there at the end of a frame will reduce your score by 10 points.
“The name comes from the Great Depression. The hand signal to indicate you have a biscuit in the kitchen is like stirring soup,” says Page. “It’s a bad thing. Like being in the bread line.”
Secure in the fundamentals — and my own shortcomings when it comes to actually playing — I wander over to a friendly foursome, two 20-and-30-something couples, who offer me a smile and a bottle of their local craft beer from a small collection of booze that includes a bottle of red wine and margaritas. The men have been here before, but it’s the women’s first visit.
“We heard it was BYOB, and open containers allowed, and thought, ‘y’all are lying,’ but it’s true!” exclaims Kate Ehlke, 26. Her friend Erica Forehand, 25, adds that part of the allure is the club is just three blocks from her home — she can walk home afterward.
“I don’t need a pub crawl. I like it here, there’s a real laid-back vibe,” she explains, with her husband Gavin Forehand, 28, adding, “It’s all about the environment. It’s not stuffy and old here.” And, Erica notes, no athletic skills are required. “I’m not the most gifted sports person,” she admits. “But it’s not so hard, once you get the hang of it.”
Some, it seems, come mostly for the environment. A relatively raucous birthday party is taking place three courts over. “We’ve been here almost two hours, and we haven’t seen them play a game, yet,” Erica confides.
And it can be a good place to find more than a teammate, Page says, noting a lot of couples come here for their first date, and sometimes come back for their wedding. (I stumbled across one couple that was perhaps in the process of concluding a successful date, she in wedge heels, he with a six-pack of Stella under his arm, sharing an amorous kiss and then disappearing toward the parking lot, their night of shuffleboarding apparently over.)
Deciding to let the young foursome get back to their craft beer and their game, I head back to my own court for a little more practise. Taking up my tang, I find my missing biscuit, and start sliding, using the smooth motion Page had taught me. I need to learn how to score more points — and, most importantly, how to stay out of the kitchen.
Play: A tradition since 2005, the St. Pete Shuffle (stpeteshuffle.com) runs free of charge and on a BYOB basis every Friday night from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Eat: Within easy walking distance of the club, FarmTable Kitchen and its Locale Market (localegourmetmarket.com) have been a key part of downtown St. Petersburg’s recent revitalization, with gourmet dining (including an eight-course tasting menu) upstairs and a five-station casual restaurant downstairs, that includes everything from poke to pizza.
Posted 2017 05 27.