Fools for Foos

Denver's a mecca for those mad about foosball.

To those who knew and were related to him, Mares had already shown plenty of commitment to the game. In fact, his commitment was worrisome. "It was all BMX and foosball when I was growing up," he recalls.

Robert was thirteen when the Mares family got its first table. For a while, the table stayed in the living room, the center of the family's life. But even when his mother made an executive decision that the table would be moved to the back porch, the game remained the focal point of Robert's existence.

He was relentless, playing constantly. First he beat his brother. Then his brother's friends, and then everyone in town. He got so he could shoot from anywhere on the table, with any player. He almost never lost. "When I was a kid," he says, "I played a lot of foosball."

Still, it was an eye-opener when Mares went to his first arcade and started competing against guys like Ditto. He did okay, but it wasn't a slam dunk anymore. The next stop was the Tucson bars -- usually Click's Billiards -- where, as luck would have it, the reigning world champ, Randy Stark, a local player, was holding court. Stark took Mares on as a protegé, dragging him along first to local tournaments, then to big national ones. Mares steadily improved.

In 1994, Mares indulged in a rite of passage for any aspiring foosball competitor: He crammed his belongings into his mother's basement and went on the road, sharing a Chevy van with another top player, Terry Moore, who'd financed the wheels with a foosball purse. The two crisscrossed the country, following the national circuit.

They'd finish a weekend tournament in, say, Fremont, California, late Sunday night. Monday was for sleeping in and recovering (foosball is a game for night owls). Then it was back into the van and off to Atlanta for the next big tournament, stopping only at a friend's house here and there for a night of sleep and a few quick practice matches in the guy's game room. They were gone for seven months and covered tens of thousands of miles.

It was worth it. Their success paid their way. "I was living well," Mares recalls, "sending money back to my mom." More important, though, was the effect the constant competition had on his game: "It sharpened me up, gave me an edge."

Since then, Mares has been on a run, winning a major title in each of the past ten years. He still practices at least an hour a day, conducting solo drills on his home table. (All pros have their own table; Bowers owns seven.) In the frantic time leading up to the world championships, held at the end of every summer in Dallas, practice time balloons up to ten hours a day. "The last match is going to be for the championship," Mares says. "You gotta have the stamina."

He's growing up a little: In addition to getting married (to a woman he met at a foosball tournament), these days Mares runs a couple of businesses. But in many ways, foosball is still the biggest part of his life, from the thick callus on his right wrist, to the clinics he gives all over the country, to the regular Saturday-night date at the Cue. At tournaments, Mares is such a well-known figure that organizers pay his fees just to be able to say he'll be there. He is sponsored by a foosball grip-maker.

In 1994, following his cross-country foosball odyssey, Mares was a free bird, at loose ends. He wondered where he would live. In the end, there really was no question: Colorado's mountains were nice, and the weather was swell. But when it came down to it, it was all about the game.

"Foosball was a big part of the decision to come here," he says. "I was a professional already, maybe in the top fifty. But I was ready to take it to the next level. And everybody knows Denver is a great foosball town."

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