INSIDE THE NORTH CAROLINA FOOSBALL CHAMPIONSHIP
On the second day of the North Carolina State Foosball Tournament, three players stand around Table 1 waiting for Nathan Thomas.
“Holy sh*t, where is he?” asks Paul Smith, an 18-year-old foosballer from the Midwest, who’s paired with Nathan Thomas, in this first event of the weekend, the Open DYP or draw your partner, against another young foosballer, Daniel Colton, 20, of Meridien Miss. and Aaron Hill, 13, of Asheboro.
Smith and Colter are calling, texting, scanning the room for Thomas, but he’s nowhere to be found.
“I bet he’s smoking,” Smith says. “In between every match he’s got to go smoke like a pack of cigarettes. Then he comes back and smells like smoke.
“Tard,” he adds.
He’s been playing since the 1970s, when he picked it up at a bar in San Antonio, Texas while a student at the University of Texas. He believed in the game so much he took his student loan and rolled it into a few tables that he placed in rock clubs around the city. He graduated with two BAs and a master’s in ministry, did a stint in the Air Force, but foosball was always a part of his life.
“For me, it was a game that turned into a pastime, that turned into a part-time business, that turned into a fulltime business, that turned into a career,” Mackintosh says.
He runs tournaments like this all over the country, from Florida to New York. In Greensboro, he runs the weekly tournament held every Tuesday night at Orion.
This year’s state tournament is shaping up to be a solid one — not the biggest, but certainly one of the best. North Carolina’s best foosballer, Bryan Jones, is here, along with Bruce Nardoci, regarded as one of the best in the world on the Bonzini table. Up-and-comers like Smith and Colton swell the ranks, and second-generation players like Thomas, whose parents met over a foosball table, and Dakota Diaz, whose father Bobby was a world champion. And this year, a player regarded as the best in the world on the Tornado table will be playing — Tony Spredeman. In the world of foosball, he’s a rock star.
Twenty-five tables. More than 100 competitors. Four days of competition. Thousands of dollars on the line. One of these contestants will make the Foosball Hall of Fame. A handful will go on to France for the World Cup in January. Some will reinforce their reputations, others will make their names. It’s the big time.
Back a Table 1, Thomas has finally shown; he was in the bar. He pulls off his fleece and wraps his handles on the defensive end with long, colored strips of grip tape, secures them with small, thick rubber bands. He warms up for about a minute, tic-tacking the ball between the defensive men on the 2-bar and slamming it home into the opposing goal.
He’s ready. Smith scores first, pinning the ball with his center man on the forward 3-bar, positioning a shot while Hill pistons the defensive rods, then slamming it home with the meaty part of his hand on the pommel. They trade goals, but Colter and Hill take the first game.
They have the King’s Seat, finishing first in the Winner’s Bracket. If they can beat Smith and Thomas, who finished first in the Loser’s Bracket, in the first best-ofthree match, they win the event. But the underdogs come back to win the next two games, and then go on to win the next match. Smith and Thomas take the first event of the weekend.
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You probably think you know foosball.
Maybe you had a table in your frat house, or in the basement when you were a kid. Maybe you play sometimes at the corner bar. But there’s a big difference between slapping the balls around at Walker’s in between Jger shots and the serious, competitive play on exhibition at the NC State Tournament.
Here, there’s money on the line —lowtier events pay out between $40 and $400, the Pro-Am Doubles event pays $700 for First Place and the winning Open Doubles team splits $1,400.
With purses like that, it makes sense to hone your game.
Elite foosballers make it look easy. They tic-tac the ball between players on a rod, pass easily from one rod to another between the defense, use the forward 3-rod to fire goals like gunshots, score with their goalies. A pull shot, executed by lining up the ball on the side of a man’s striking foot and then pulling the rod while maneuvering the foot behind the ball before shooting, can confuse a defense. Good players can shoot bank shots or pass plays. But the money comes from the snake shot or wrist shot, where the ball is passed up to the center man on the 3-bar and pinned down. The shooter plays the ball up and down the line while the defense moves to cover. The shooter then places the handle high on his wrist and with a clean jerk spins the man for a hard slap.
In competitive play it is illegal to “windmill,” or blindly spin the handles. It is also illegal to jar the table, to distract the opposing players or to curse during match play.
Jason Byrd of Asheboro plays locally at Coach’s Cheeseburgers. It’s his first tournament, and he’s tearing it up. He’s risen to the top of the Winner’s Bracket in the Goalie Wars competition, a game pitting the back two rows — the 3-bar goaltenders and 2-bar defense — against each other without using the offensive players.
After four wins, he’s facing off against Bryan Jones of Beulaville, NC, regarded by many as the best in the Old North State. Jones has won this event the last three years running.
On Table 13, Byrd draws first blood, but Jones drops five in a row, going on to win the first game with blasts from the 2-bar that move more quickly than the eye can follow.
Byrd takes the second game 5-1, winning largely with defense and a strong pull shot. Byrd takes the lead in Game 3 and holds it, winning it 5-3 and the match 2-1 to take the crown from Jones.
Over at Table 8, Mackintosh and Flaherty compete in the Senior Doubles event against Bobby Yates and Dave Phillips. They’ll take it and go on to play Bruce Nardoci and his partner Michael Carpenter. Nardoci and Carpenter will win that match, lose to Ann Carpenter and Donald Parker, but then come as winner’s of the Loser’s Bracket to beat Carpenter and Parker twice to win that event.
At Table 1, Tony Spredeman prepares for his first match of the weekend, the Pro-Am, which pairs a professional with an amateur. Spredeman’s chosen as his partner Stephen Snyder, a beginner with old-tome foosball roots.
Snyder started playing when the game got big in the US, the 1970s, but went on a 30-year hiatus. He got back into it about a year ago, and won a DYP tournament with Spredeman in Atlanta last year.
Spredeman, on offense, wraps his handles — Snyder will play defense with a golf glove on his right hand. They square off against Bruce Stancel and Frank Wilson.
Spredeman’s team quickly moves ahead 4-0 in the first game largely on the strength of his 3-bar play. He threads the ball through the defense with his 5-bar, then pins it with his center forward.
Spredeman holds the handle in a crook formed by the base of his thumb joint and wrist, taps the ball along the horizontal axis with remarkable control and then lets fly. He calls it a “walking snake shot.” They win 5-4, then lose the second game 5-3, one of just a few losses Spredeman will log this weekend. Before Game 3, Spredeman pulls Snyder off to a corner and tells him to work on his passing, to get the ball up to the 5-bar instead of taking shots on goal with his 2-bar. They win the game 5-2, and their first match of the tournament 2-1.
During the match, a crowd gathers at Table 1, filling the bleachers and spaces on the periphery. He’s a superstar here; a discernible ripple spread through the room the minute he walked into it.
Spredeman burst on the scene in 2001, winning the Rookie Singles at the World Championships, then making the finals in Open Singles in 2002. He won the World Open Singles in 20003 and went on to win every major title in the sport. He missed the NC State Championships last year because he was winning the Asian Open in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He’ll be representing the US at the World Cup in France again this year. He’s 28 years old, and this is his full-time job.
“I don’t make a lot of money,” he says, “and I’m not gonna retire anytime soon. But I just bought a house in Florida, and I’m comfortable. And I travel the world doing something I enjoy.”
He is regarded as one of the best in the world on the Tornado table, the gold standard for US play.
“There’s four guys — including him — that can play at this level,” says Bruce Nardoci, who himself is regarded as one of the world’s best players on the Bonzini table.
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The origins of foosball are murky, but it probably started in France in the late 1800s, when French nobles were creating smaller, indoor versions of outdoor games so they could play through the winter. The paper trail begins in 1923, when Englishman Harold Searles Thompson patented a style of table that carries on today. A cousin of his obtained the US patent in 1927, though it eventually expired.
The game grew in the US around 1960, when American serviceman Lawrence Patterson sent over some tables while he was stationed in Berlin. Fans of the game and organized leagues soon follow, but foosball — a phonetic spelling of the German word for “football” — remained largely underground until 1972, when the first National Championships were held in Missoula, Mont. By 1974 it was a bona fide national craze. A “Million-Dollar” US tour — 40 cities in 18 months — kicked off in 1977.
The game continued to pick up steam, with leagues forming in bars and arcades, until it all came to a screeching halt around 1980, when it became a casualty of the video-game revolution.
It was not a steady decline but more like falling off a cliff — Tournament Soccer Inc, the company that held the 1980 championships in Chicago, went bankrupt before paying out the winners. Jim Wiswell, one of the sports early champions, was found dead in his home, a suspected suicide. Not even a 1981 film, Longshot, starring Leif Garrett, could bring back its former luster.
But the game is still huge in Europe, where crowd a thousand strong fill arenas to watch the superstars play or watch tournaments on TV. As the sport prospered, each country developed its own style of table, the variations of which are numerous. But here’s the gist: German tables have lightweight players and heavy balls on a slick surface. The French tables, of which Bonzini is an example, have heavier men and balls made of cork or some other lightweight material that grips the surface. This makes for different styles of play. A German foosball cannot be pinned, cutting out a whole element of the game. On a French table, the lighter ball slows down game speed.
The Tornado table, the standard for US competition, has weighty, plastic men that look more like sparkplugs than soccer players, top-heavy and with wide, flat striking feet that grip the heavier ball well. It has a three-man goalie rod — the European tables have just a single goalie — and a surface that allows for greater control.
All tables feature two-man defense bars, a five-man midfield bar and a threeman forward bar.
A Bonzini table sits at the far end of the Clarion Hotel ballroom, a curiosity for most players reared on the Tornado, but essential for those who hope to compete at the world level — at the World Cup, four styles of table are approved for use.
Bruce Nardoci, who makes his living working for Duke Power in Charlotte as a nuclear engineer, has been playing the Bonzini table for 40 years and is regarded as one of the best in the world on it. He’s competed throughout Europe on the Bonzini, and plays in the NC Championships just about every year.
He began playing in the early 1970s in Asheboro, where he grew up.
“Back then we were inventing the shots,” he says. “Every week someone was inventing something new. Some of it was good. Some of it was bad — high difficulty shots that when you execute it, it looks pretty but [they had] such a high degree of difficulty you can only execute them 30 percent of the time. You can’t win like that.”
He explains that the rounded shape of the foot on the Boinzini pieces — which themselves are shaped and painted to look like actual little soccer players — allows a shooter to hit angles more accurately than the flat Tornado foot.
He likens the types of table to the different types of tennis courts — grass, clay and hardcourt — “You may be good on one, but you have to change up your style. Anybody in here, I can beat on the Bonzini table; there’s people here who are better than me on [the Tornado].”
But by the end of Day 2, Nardoci is rising through the Senior Doubles bracket, along with Senior Singles, Open Singles, Open Mixed Doubles and Open Doubles.
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Jim Stevens sets up his makeshift broadcasting booth behind tables 1 and 2, a jumble of laptops, digital cameras, a microphone and a folding Plexiglass windshield. For these last two days of the tournament he’ll be streaming games live through his website, insidefoos.com, providing play-by-play commentary and updating results for the international audience.
“As far as regional and state championships go,” he says, “[this tournament]’s right up there at the top.”
Stevens, based out of the foosball stronghold of Durango, Colo., is another who makes his living from the game, first as a player in the early days and now as a commentator, statesman and ambassador.
“Old guys like me started playing in arcades,” he says. “Now you only find them in bars,” which cuts a lot of younger players out of the action.
“Most if not all of the top players are second generation,” he says. “They started at 8 years old — like Tiger woods you have to start that young.”
Spredeman, whose father was a touring foosballer out of Milwaukee, Wis., started when he was 11.
On Day 3 of the tournament, Spredeman and Snyder play in the Pro-Am Doubles final table against Bryan Jones and his partner, Jason McCall. It’s one of many match-ups between Spredeman and Jones, a rivalry that goes back years. Snyder is happy to be along for the ride, and he says the pro tips he’s picked up from Spredeman during the event will seriously up his game.
“You got to mix the defense up,” he says.
“You can’t give them a pattern because they’ll pick you off every time. They’re that good.”
A foosball can move upwards of 45 mph over short distances, often too fast for the eye to see. Because of this, it is inadvisable to play what the pros call a “race defense” — to wait for the shot and then react to defend it. When a real player pins the ball with the 3-rod, a seasoned defender moves the goalie and 2-rod shafts in seemingly random patterns, though they’re usually anything but. Some defenders try to bait the shooter with an open hole then close it on impact, others anticipate a player’s favorite shots.
Stevens likens it to the showdown between a pitcher and a batter in baseball.
“[The shooter] can go straight, he can go middle, he can go to the side. You’re trying to out-guess the goalie like a pitcher is trying to out-guess a batter.”
Spredeman and Snyder defeat Jones and McCall to start the day. “I need to practice more,” Jones says afterwards. “He’s got such a good wall pass,” referring to Spredeman’s move from the 5-bar to the 3-bar along the side of the field, a reliable part of his offensive arsenal. “And he can read everybody’s defense,” he adds.
Jones, who works as a machinist for General Electric by day, says he has higher hopes for Open Doubles.
“That’s my thing,” he says. “I want to win Open Singles, too, but everybody knows Tony’s gonna win that.”
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Open Doubles, the main event, draws 39 teams of all skill levels, from masters down to beginners. Highly skilled players like Spredeman, Nardoci, Mackintosh, Jones, Colter and Smith earn byes for the first round. Unlike earlier events, this one requires a best-of-five finish, or the first to three, and the last game must be won by two points.
Paul Smith, with his partner Don Buczkowski, a Marine in for the weekend from Camp Lejeune, win their first match only to come up against Bryan Jones and his partner, Thomas Merritt, on Table 14.
Smith starts on defense against Jones’ offense, keeping most of the action on that half of the table. Smith and Buczkowski are up 4-2 in the first game when Jones hits a pull shot from his 3-bar to make it 4-3, and then another to tie it at 4-4. Jones and Merritt switch positions, and Jones scores the winning goal from his defensive 2-bar.
Smith and Buczkowski take the second game 5-3 largely on the strength of Smith’s sledgehammer wrist shot.
They take the third game as well, with points scored on a quick rebound, a haphazard fumble called “slop” and a magnificent bank shot from the 2-bar.
Jones and Merritt take Game 4, 5-4, tying things up at two games apiece. Smith draws first blood in the rubber match, but then Jones comes alive with goals while Merritt plays inspired defense. At 4-2, Jones pins the ball with the 3-bar and calls a time out, steps away from the table, swings his arms and takes a deep breath. He grasps the pommel, sets his shot and then slams it home.
Jones, characteristically calm, says after the game, “I knew I out-fived him. I knew I was getting more shots. On defense he was baiting me, so I would just pick a side and go for it.”
“His 5-bar was more effective,” Smith says afterwards, “and he got a couple of key shots. His shot looks stupid, but then everything he needed, he hit.”
“This is how I see it,” Buczkowski says.
“If we would have won [our games] the whole way, we would have ended up playing Tony. Now we won’t have to play Bryan and Tony for a while.”
Spredeman, meanwhile, is tearing it up. On Day 3 of the tournament, Spredeman and his Open Doubles partner Deron Bone face off against Charlotte’s Lane Blundell and Brad Altman.
“We’re just trying to keep it loose and have fun,” Blundell says.
In the first game, Spredeman scores four goals on four pin shots from the 3-bar. The fifth goal comes off the slop for a final of 5-2. His streak of unblocked shots continues through the second game, which he and Bone win 5-1. Altman blocked him twice in Game 3, but Spredeman and Bone win it 5-2.
Next up on Table 1 are the Carpenter Brothers, Mike and Mark, also from Charlotte. The Carpenters had more success stopping Spredeman’s onslaught, but still lost the match 5-2, 5-2, 5-2.
Jones and Merritt take out Daniel Colter and his Open Doubles partner Erik Hueltner in three straight. Then they take on Bruce Nardoci and his partner Rick Macias. By this time, Nardoci has already won the Senior Doubles tournament and is in the finals for Senior Singles, but Jones and Merritt dispatch the Bonzini master and his partner in three straight.
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On Sunday the last day of the NC State Foosball Championship, the crowd has thinned out a bit as competitors get back to their regular lives. Goodbyes are said in the parking lot next to packed cars bound for the highway. Inside, the finalists make their plays for victory.
Spredeman takes out Dakota Diaz in three straight for the Open Singles quarterfinals. Jones loses to Buczkowski, who then loses to Spredeman in three straight.
On Table 2, Paul Smith takes out Bryan Jones 3-1, and then faces Daniel Colter, who beat Diaz 3-1.
Smith and Colter, friends from the circuit, face off on Table 1 for the quarterfinal.
In the first game Colter quickly takes the lead 2-0, and Smith ties it up, then pulls ahead for the 5-4 win. He takes the second game by the same score as Colton is unable to block his wrist rocket. Colter takes the third game 5-4. But Smith wins the third and goes on to face Buczkowski, his doubles partner.
Buczkowski wins the first game on a score from his goalie, but Smith wins the next two games 5-2, then caps off the fourth game with a monster shot from his 2-bar to make it to the final against Spredeman.
Nardoci and Macias, meanwhile, have climbed up the Loser’s Bracket to square off against the Carpenter brothers and then move against Jones and Merritt. The semi-final match lasts four games, with Nardoci’s web-like defense and Macias’ slow, methodical pull shot winning the day 3-1.
Now Spredeman has just two matches left: Open Singles against Smith and Open Doubles against Nardoci and Macias.
Smith is up first, and he hangs in on the first game only to lose 5-4. He drops the second quickly, 5-1. And in the last game Spredeman is masterful, scoring a quick hit off a 5-bar pass, a rebound goal and another pin shot from the 2-bar backcourt. His last goal comes from a 3-bar pin shot to win 5-2.
He and Bone face more seasoned foes in the Open Doubles finals. In the first game, Nardoci blocks three of Spredeman’s seven pin shots on goal, but a rebound shot and a long 2-bar bank shot by Bone give it to them 5-4. Nardoci blocks two of six in Game 2, but another score by Bone and a fast 5-bar shot by Spredeman make the score 5-3. The killing blow is anticlimactic, a slop goal off a fumble. Spredeman and Bone win that one 5-2.
In all, Tony Spredeman leaves with almost $2,000 for three days of work. Then he’s off to another tournament in Tunica, Miss. And then he’ll be headed to France for the World Cup.
Bruce Nardoci will be there, as well, as a member of the senior squad. He’s taking home a few hundred bucks for winning Senior Singles and Senior Doubles as well as earning Second Place in Open Doubles. Bryan Jones takes home a more modest $700 or so, winning Second Place in the Pro-Am Doubles, second in Goalie Wars, third in Open Doubles an fifth in Open Singles. He also wins the Sportsmanship Award for the eastern region of the state. His wife, Ami, won the Women’s Doubles with Thomas Merritt’s wife Jennifer. Tonight they’ll drive back to Beulaville, where their 2-year-old son Braden waits at home.
If Jones is disappointed, he doesn’t show it. He collects his prize money gathers his wife and talks about his son.
“He’s already playing foosball,” he says.
“He likes to tic-tac.”
Watch tournament play and the World Cup on insidefoos.com Find out more about the international game at table-soccer.org Play in the Triad weekly tournament at Club Orion on Tuesday nights. Call Charles Mackintosh at 336.210.1194 for more information.