Is it going too far to say that foosball saved Shelly Langley's life? Possibly. But it would not be out of line to say that table soccer altered its trajectory -- and certainly for the better.
"I'm from a tiny town out on the Colorado Plains -- Kit Carson -- and when I was growing up, there were only two things to do," Langley remembers. "One was foosball, and the other was parking. And parking had consequences." Wisely, she chose to play the table her mother had installed in the local restaurant she owned: "Foosball was my self-imposed birth control."
Three decades later, the telecommunications engineer -- now one of the top 100 best foosballers in the world -- is celebrating her prudent decision by leaving her well-planned family at home for the evening and heading to the Golden Cue in Thornton. The Cue is ground zero for the foosball scene in Colorado -- which, if you know anything about the game, pretty much makes it the place to be for foosball in the entire country.
"There's tons of titles in this room," Langley says, surveying the crowd, which consists of a Noah's Ark mix of foosballers and pool sharks, as well as a pocket of Groove Hawgs fans and black-leather-encased one-percenters, including a few Sons of Silence. "Every title that can be won is in this room," she continues. "People from all over the world come here to train."
Look, over there -- the short guy in the trench coat, with the long braided ponytail and black doo-rag? It's Ditto Hobbs. His real name is Chuck, but that's his father's name, too, so everyone calls him Ditto -- especially now that Chuck Sr. has moved up to Colorado and plays a vicious foos doubles with his son.
Ditto had been playing in Tucson since the mid-1980s, pounding everyone who came into the local arcade, introducing them to a little tournament-style foosball. "I had always run the game room," he says -- not a boast, just a fact. He'd been a professional-level foosballer for more than a decade, playing out of Arizona. But when you get to a certain age, you realize what's important, and so a couple of years ago, Ditto made the move to Denver. "To play foosball, man," he explains. "It's the best scene in the U.S."
Bart Butcher made the drive from Colorado Springs. While he admits there may be other ways to spend a Saturday night, he'll stay until the night's over, maybe as late as 2 a.m. He wouldn't miss a weekend at the Cue. "I come up here every Saturday," he says. "Where else can you play the best players in the world?"
Or over there, the old guy: That's Mike Bowers -- but you probably already knew that from the Foosball World Championship jacket he's wearing. Bowers is the godfather of Denver foos, the man who was here at the start and has stayed through it all. "It's a foosball mecca," he says, nodding toward the six tables going full speed. If it is, Bowers helped make it that way.
Bowers's foos roots run deep. When he was a student at the University of Colorado, in the early '70s, his frat had a foosball table in the basement. "I became addicted to it," he remembers. He beat all the guys in the frat, then their friends, then anyone who was stupid enough to want to play him. Soon he was making several hundred bucks a week just from local tournaments.
Bowers became a headhunter and a trophy seeker, obsessed with foos. Whenever he heard about some guy who supposedly couldn't lose, Bowers would seek him out. This sportsman thought nothing of driving a couple hundred miles just to find a game and take whoever needed humbling down a peg or two. On a good night at a bar, with a bunch of drunk guys who thought foosball domination was just a matter of enough beer and entropy, Bowers could add $200 a night to his pocket from hustling.
In 1974, when the first-ever foosball world championships were held in Denver, at Elitch Gardens' Trocadero Ballroom, Bowers was waiting. He won the whole thing, beating out more than 500 other contestants. The following year, he earned about $13,000 from foosball tournaments -- not bad for 1975.
For a while he was virtually unbeatable, reeling off a record 88 singles tournaments in a row. He opened his own game rooms across the Denver area, trying to spread the gospel of table soccer, the foos love. Into one of those arcades walked a skinny kid named Todd Loffredo. Bowers took him under his wing, and the Denver kid became the best foosball player of his generation. Now a resident of Chicago, Loffredo has won nearly two dozen world and national titles -- just one more Denver foosball legend.
And look! There, just coming in the Cue's door -- it's got to be Tom Spear. Spear, whose white-boy dreads, soul patch, shorts and Jesus hat are unmistakable, marches to a different beat, everyone agrees, but he's more than welcome here. After all, in his day, with a clear mind and a bullwhip wrist, he won more than his share of world-championship titles.
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.
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."
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."
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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."