Fools for Foos

Denver's a mecca for those mad about foosball.

Today Spear is borderline homeless, a sad story and a tough man to track down. But a good place to start is Saturday night at the Cue. He doesn't travel well anymore, so he hasn't made a splash on the national circuit in a while. He can still crank a wrist rocket if he needs to, though, and all the competition he'll ever need is in this room.

It's a talented crowd, no doubt, and on any given night, any one of them could take the weekly tournament. But the man everyone wants is the fellow with his hair swept back into a ponytail, a neatly trimmed goatee, and a blue and yellow jacket that proclaims its wearer the 2001 World Champion foosball player. That's Robert "Rapid Rob" Mares, and if you need to ask, you don't belong here.

At the moment -- the year 2003 in the world of top-level competitive foosball -- Mares is king of the hill, the man who sets the standard, the number-one-ranked player in the world. He's approachable, but he's also aware of his status; people don't engage him without a reason.

Mister twister: Robert "Rapid Rob" Mares puts his best 
foos forward.
Mark Manger
Mister twister: Robert "Rapid Rob" Mares puts his best foos forward.

It's like finding Tiger Woods fooling around at the local muni. "That's why we come here," says Ditto, shifting his eyes to a table where Mares has just slammed home another goal. "To play the world champion, man."

Let's set the record straight on a few minor points that nonetheless always seem to throw off the ignorant and uninitiated. First, there is a difference between the tournament-level player and the guy with a foosball table in his basement who can dominate his family and friends. To professionals (we'll get to that in a moment), basement foos guy is a joke, a walking mark who can be spotted a mile away, even in a crowded bar.

"I thought I was good until I went into my first arcade," Butcher remembers. "I had no idea; it's a whole different world."

For some reason, anyone who can flip a front pin shot with mild velocity thinks he's a champion -- a fact that makes it a cinch for a real player to hustle. "Foosball players have incredibly big egos," says Bowers. "They're different than pool players. Pool players are wary; foosball players are macho."

In fact, it's so simple for a top foosballer to hustle a basement chump that it quickly gets boring. "It's too easy to go into these small places and skunk people," says Mares. Besides, he adds, "you get into bad habits. It's bad for your game."

Second, there is a professional foosball circuit. You earn your way there by accumulating sufficient points, which are gained, as in bridge or chess, by playing other ranked players and beating them. And, yes, professional foosball players, if they are good enough, can win a fair amount of scratch.

Garrett Scherkenbach of Colorado Springs estimates that he took home about $400,000 in winnings during a career that spanned the '70s, '80s and '90s. During one point, when he was younger, Scherkenbach, now 42, did nothing but hit the foosball circuit. He hitchhiked between tournaments when he did okay, and flew when he was hot and earning enough to score a plane ticket. In 1996 he won the single richest purse ever offered in pro foos: two brand-new Ford pickup trucks.

Of course, it used to be easier to rake in the big bucks. Back in the day, when Jimmy Carter was president and table-maker Tournament Soccer was in business and sponsoring events, the world-championship tournaments offered total prize money of a quarter-million dollars. But the company went bust in 1981 -- a deserved fate, for sure; the tables were shit -- and the prize money went away, too. These days, the top tournaments offer maybe half what they once did, or less.

Still, there's a whiff of revival in the air. This Thanksgiving, a tournament in Las Vegas is offering $200,000 in prize money, the most generous package since the 1970s heyday. It's got a lot of people's attention, and more than one table jockey who had given up on the game is rethinking his retirement. Word also has it that another foos manufacturer is talking up a million-dollar tour.

Positioned to take maximum advantage of the renewed largesse is Mares, who has won eight major titles (the foosball masters, like golf's, bestows a putrid green jacket on its winner each year; Mares has a couple) and nearly five dozen first-place finishes, including a complete domination of southwestern-U.S. regional titles. (And just in case you were wondering, one foos-filled Web site offers the following: "This is to let all you foos-Ladies know, this guy is happily married.")

It's fair to say that Mares, now 34, was discovered by Ditto, back in Tucson, where Mares grew up. "I had heard about this guy at the arcade," Ditto remembers. "Everybody kept telling me, 'You gotta play Sal's cousin.'" When he finally found Mares -- who was indeed Sal's cousin -- there was no doubt the guy could play.

"His ball control and talent -- it was obvious," Ditto says. "He didn't have the refinements -- the five-bar control, the passing, the mental game. But you could tell he had the raw athletic talent. It was just a matter of whether he had the commitment. He was a good player; he just hadn't learned what to learn."

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