Are You Ready for Some Foosball?
The first thing the foosball players at Crystal City Sports Pub do — after they fork over $5 to Monty, the tournament coordinator, and after they place their drink orders with Heather, the perky waitress — is wrap the table handlebars with sport grip, the rubbery material traditionally applied to tennis rackets and field hockey sticks.
The maneuver suggests a strange seriousness about a game typically associated with teenagers’ basements, recreation centers and bars, and it makes us wonder:
Is foosball — a.k.a. table soccer — having an identity crisis?
Roughly 20 players from all over the Washington area turn up at Crystal City Sports Pub each Tuesday night to play “draw your partner”-style tournaments, for which they’re typically tethered to the tables until 1 a.m. Informal events such as these have popped up across Washington in the decades since 1975, when Seattle foosballer Lee Peppard stirred up competition with a Quarter Million Dollar tournament tour.
The foosball exhibited at these tourneys is not the rattle-and-shake foosball of our youths. Passes are careful and calculated; shots are skillfully whipped past defenders. Older players pop Advil to ease the backaches that result from hunching; newer players watch helplessly as opponents give the ball fast and successive taps — a sign of an oncoming “snake” shot, which can be impossible to defend.
There are aspects of the game that, categorically, make it a sport. Players suffer injuries (blisters), work up a sweat (despite keeping their feet firmly planted on the floor) and make facial contortions (when tournament coordinator Monty Melchior gets poised to shoot, his tongue snakes around his cheek).
Yet the disproportionate number of smokers in the group suggests that lung capacity is not requisite for foosball. And the beverage of choice is beer, not Gatorade.
So. Is it simply a hobby? And if not, then what? Melchior pauses. “Spobby?” It’s a strange little word for a strange little sport that has, it seems, cultivated a small but fierce following.
Melchior, 44 and a Greenbelt resident, has been playing competitive foosball for 12 years. Five years ago, he took charge of coordinating the Crystal City Sports Pub tournaments. You can find him there every Tuesday, assigning teams and keeping track of wins and losses so he can adjust players’ ratings and handicaps. Or he’s stationed at one of the venue’s two tables, fiercely tending goal, quick to heckle the opposition but even quicker to concede an opponent’s well-played shot.
It is, after all, about friendly competition. Sure, there’s a jackpot — the evening’s total tournament fees — but players say it’s not about the money, which is incidental when you tally the bar tab and the entry fee and the six or more quarters each player dispenses into the foosball tables throughout the night.
Players’ backgrounds are as varied as their skill levels. There’s Kitty Shadman, a 51-year-old Catholicschool teacher, and her husband, Ahmad. The Rockville couple played tournament foosball in the 1970s, when they were first married, but stopped after they had children, only to pick it up again when they became empty-nesters.
There’s Jim Allegretto, 45, a CPA from Arlington who plays foosball because it’s fun and because, as a bachelor, he has “nothing else to do on a Tuesday night,” he says. “It’s not like it’s a date night.”
There’s Sammy Amarti, 30, who grew up playing foosball in Morocco. Now he runs a hair salon in Alexandria and says he’s lucky to have a wife who tolerates his Tuesday night foosball addiction.
There’s Kristin Grogan, 36, a Baltimore resident who began playing tournament-level foosball in middle school and is now considered one of the top female players in the region, and Nancy Peck, 33, of Greenbelt, Melchior’s girlfriend (they met through foosball), who has learned a few tricks since the days when she played recreationally in college.
“I thought I was good, because I was playing with all drunk people,” Peck says. “But then I came here, and I got my butt kicked.”
On a recent Tuesday, only seven players turn up, so I drop my reporter’s notepad to step in as the eighth player needed for a tournament. By luck — or perhaps clever arrangement by Melchior — I am partnered with Adil Hizoune, 39, of Ellicott City, the Pele of local foosball. He is, thankfully, as gracious as he is skilled, so he does not appear angry when I let the ball plunk into the goal behind us, twice. No matter, really, because he retaliates goal for goal.
But there are moments when I hold my own, when I block shots and score from goal, or when the ball slides back and forth between the plastic men on our forward line in a display of perfect lateral passing. It is fleeting greatness, but enough to explain the blurry line between hobby and sport. It’s just enough to sense the addiction that is foosball, to understand that the more we tighten our grip on the colorfully wrapped handlebars, the more the game tightens its grip on us.
Jim Allegretto, from left, Fabian Josza, Robert Anderson and Nancy Peck play foosball at Crystal City Sports Pub.