One Big Family, One Serious Game

The men of the Hendersonville Shuffleboard Club. Photo by Rimas Zailskas

Life lessons can come from anywhere, as Jay Fitzpatrick learned when he started playing shuffleboard. It was 1999, and he’d just moved to Hendersonville from New Jersey. He was 55 at the time, relatively young in the shuffleboard universe, but he picked up the game quickly enough to win a national championship match in Florida in October of that year. He returned to Hendersonville in triumph — but “not many of the players in the 55-60 [age] category came back to Hendersonville during the winter like I did, so I found myself playing at home against older players, some of them in the 75-80 [age] group,” Fitzpatrick recalls. “And I couldn’t come within 50 points of any of them. That’s when I knew I was still a rookie.”

Club president Jay Fitzpatrick talks strategy. Photo by Rimas Zailskas

Seventeen years later, Fitzpatrick is now president of the Hendersonville Shuffleboard Club, which will once again be hosting national championship play this month on its courts at the Whitmire Activity Building. About a hundred players, from as far afield as New England, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, will compete in men’s and women’s singles and mixed doubles under rules set out by the USA National Shuffleboard Association. “A lot of Northerners are starting to travel South for the winter in September to play in the Florida championships in October,” Fitzpatrick says, explaining the sudden influx of so many players. There’s an added attraction this year, too. “We’ll be honoring Wilma Rudolph, who lives in Texas now but played in Hendersonville for many years. She’s 86 and has won more women’s championships than anyone else.”

Rudolph will be inducted into the National Shuffleboard Hall of Fame in Clearwater, Florida, the national headquarters for the sport.

Hendersonville Shuffleboard Club vice-president Harold Thorne takes a break on court. Photo by Rimas Zailskas

Shuffleboard may conjure images of cruise ships or vintage amusement parks, but devotees are serious about the sport. “I play four or five days a week,” says the club’s vice-president Harold Thorne, who, like Fitzpatrick, discovered the game after moving to Hendersonville nine years ago. Aspects of it remind him of curling in his native Canada, minus the ice.

“It’s a sport for any age,” Thorne insists. “There’s a 32-year-old doctor from Ohio who’s played here, and he’s been shuffling since he was eight years old. It’s just a lot of fun.” He calls the shuffleboard community “one big family around the world.” At press time, in fact, Thorne was about to leave for Brazil to compete in the shuffleboard world championships near Rio de Janeiro, where his U.S. team, its members culled from around the country, will be going up against opponents from Germany, Japan, and Russia, among other countries.

Lynda and Warren King win Club Championship Mixed Doubles in Hendersonville. Photo by Rimas Zailskas

Shuffleboard is a game of strategy, with offense and defense, “and there are many different ways of playing,” Fitzpatrick says. “You have to figure it out. It’s a mental game.” Each player or team deploys four colored, plastic-topped steel pucks or “weights” onto the court’s triangular scoring zone for maximum points. A player needs to block an opponent’s pucks from entering a scoring zone while maneuvering one’s own pucks around them. After all eight pucks are played, scores are tallied based on “good” pucks that have landed inside a scoring zone without overlapping that zone’s boundaries, a skill requiring delicate hand-eye coordination. Play continues up to a certain number of rounds or up to a pre-determined point total.

90-year-old national champion Al Buffum is on top of his game. Photo by Rimas Zailskas

Like any sport, shuffleboard has its legends. “The best player I ever saw was in Florida,” Fitzpatrick recalls. “He was from Canada, maybe in his 30s, a small guy — 5’4” or 5’5”. He was deaf and traveled with his mother, who’d help him out with communicating, but his concentration on the court was amazing. I often wonder what happened to him.” Thorne remembers a 92-year-old woman from Burnsville, NC, who won 13 straight national championships. And the sport is not without its scandals: there was the time a few years ago in Brazil, during the world championships, when two Russian players defected.

Attracting younger players to regular competitive play remains problematical, though. “It’s a matter of logistics, because we play during the day, when a lot of younger folks are working or in school or otherwise occupied,” says Thorne. “And to be a good player, you have to have the time to learn to be competitive.”

The Hendersonville Shuffleboard Club (shuffleboardhnc.weebly.com) hosts national championship play at the Whitmire Activity Building (310 Lily Pond Drive) September 7-16. To learn more about the club, which offers free clinics and lessons, call Harold Thorne at 828-698-5998. Read up on shuffleboard strategy at national-shuffleboard-association.us.

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