June 25, 2009


Now No One Plays for Keeps (DAN ACKMAN, 6/25/09, WSJ)

The first national marbles tournament was born out of a fight for bragging rights. Charles "Buster" Rech, of Jersey City, N.J., declared himself world champ after winning an all-city contest. Buster and Jersey City were then challenged by winners of tournaments in Washington, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Newark and New York. Big-city mayors promoted an intercity tournament in 1922, after which Baltimore's Frank McQuade Jr. was declared the first national champion, according to a history of the game written by Stan Flewelling for the National Marble Museum in West Virginia.

The following year, the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain decided to sponsor a truly national tournament. Rules were standardized; the official game was Ringer, in which 13 marbles are arranged in an 'X' inside a 10-foot circle -- the first player to knock seven marbles out of the ring would win. That tournament, open to kids under 14 (today the minimum age is 8), was held in Atlantic City -- up the beach from where it is held today, and the same town where the Miss America pageant was born a year earlier.

The inaugural contest was between 40 city champs from as far away as Los Angeles and San Francisco. Harlin McCoy of Columbus, Ohio, took the title, and a crowd of 10,000 hailed his homecoming. The tournament grew from there: By 1926, Mr. Flewelling writes, three million kids played in local contests that fed into the national championship. Interest remained strong for a generation.

During this time the sharp-eyed mibster became an icon of American youth: tough and independent, but also a bit of a hustler. Playing for keeps on sidewalks, on dirt and in back alleys was, after all, a form of gambling, not an activity sanctioned by national committees.

The game and the tournament started a long decline in the mid-1950s, with television the main culprit. Lately, participation has been diverted further by video games and all manner of organized sports. But marbles' popularity persists in such pockets as Pittsburgh, Clay County, Tenn. and Mesa County, Colo.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 25, 2009 6:43 AM
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