For a measure of the frustrations of a professional table soccer player, one had to search no farther than the sports section of The Denver Post on the Tuesday following Labor Day. A few miles from the newspaper office, in the purple-carpeted ballroom of the Denver Regency Inn, a couple of fellows named Dan Kaiser and Ken Rivera had just won the table soccer open doubles national championship. After six days of intense competition their share of a $113,000 pot was $20,000, but the Post, and almost every other journal in the world, failed to chronicle the feat. If Kaiser and Rivera were searching for national recognition, they might as well have played in the back room of Major Goolsby's bar in Milwaukee, which is the sort of place most people expect to find the game. That is, if they have ever heard of it at all.
"Table soccer? Oh, yeah. I understand they're going to have a Hall of Foam."
"The pros put out a disabled list the other day and everybody on it had cirrhosis of the liver."
"I met one of those guys. His best shot was an ounce of rye with water on the side."
The table soccer people have learned to live with the bad jokes, if not the anonymity. There is, for instance, Billy Sumption, a chunky 27-year-old redhead out of Minneapolis, who, with Karin von Otterstedt, won this year's mixed-doubles championship. Sumption used to be a bank examiner, but he gave it up to become part owner of a table soccer distributorship, though he has found that he pours more profits into the promotion of the sport than he takes home.
"When you first look at the game you think it's some kind of a toy," Sumption says. "The first time I saw it I thought it was funny—little plastic men on a rod kicking a ball around. Then in college I met this German girl who had been playing the game since she was eight, and she killed me. It bent my mind. I took another look."
What Sumption saw was a table, 2'2½" by 3'10¼", with the markings of a soccer field and 11 five-inch plastic figures on each side. Each player (or doubles team, doubles being more popular) has a row of five men, fixed on a long rod, in the middle, plus a rod with a forward line of three men, one with a defensive line of two men and a goalie. The object is simple enough: to kick a solid plastic sphere the size of a Ping-Pong ball into the opposite goal. The first side to score five times wins. In professional tournaments, which are all double elimination, it takes three games out of five.
Simple? Yes, but first you had better learn the Louisiana shuffle defense, which really came from Texas and was designed to stop the Texas pull shot, wherein the middle man of the three forwards passes to himself and slams the ball at the goal only slightly slower than the speed of light. This last has driven more than one goalie to, well, drink, and there are also the push, the kick, the slice and the pin shot. Not to mention a recently devised goalie bank shot, which has added yet another dimension to a sufficiently complicated sport.
"To me the game is as real as blood," says Sumption, whose competitiveness made him a legend in South Dakota high school football circles. As a 148-pound linebacker, he suffered three brain concussions. When one doctor would fail him in a football physical, Sumption would find another. He became so infamous that when he was called up for the draft they made him 4-F without even giving him a physical. "Table soccer gives me the same excitement as knocking down those big runners," he says.
This is something the Germans have known for a long time. The game is said to have been developed in France 150 years ago, but it did not become popular in Europe until after World War I, when the Germans used it to rehabilitate wounded veterans. Nor was it immediately popular in the U.S. Eddie Zorinsky, now the mayor of Omaha, used to own a string of amusement arcades with his father Hymie, and 17 years ago they brought the game to this country.
"For some reason it never took off, except in Portland, Ore.," says Lee Peppard, now the major stockholder in Seattle-based Mountain West, Inc., the largest manufacturer-distributor of table soccer in the country. Peppard first saw the game in Missoula, Mont., where he was going to college, running a large tavern, supplying equipment to coin-machine operators and, as if that were not enough, serving as a smoke jumper for the Forest Service.
With a tavern and a coin-machine business, Peppard was in a position to recognize table soccer as a highly promotable product, and soon he was distributing Deutscher Meister, a German table, throughout Montana. The orders came in faster than the Germans could fill them, so he decided to have his own tables made in Taiwan.
There are now four types of table, which manages to further complicate the game. The German model has a smooth, fast-playing field with a 7¼" goal. Entirely different is the Texas table, with a slow crosscut glass field that gave birth to a crawling, controlled-ball game and a wide 8½" to 9" goal mouth. Then there is a French model just slightly faster than the Texas version, and an Italian table, fastest of all.
For his table Peppard used the slick, smooth German playing field for speed, and added solid, instead of tubular, rods for power. Then in 1972, to promote the sport, he held the first national championships. The total prize money was $1,500. The following year he raised the purse to $5,000, and in 1974 jumped it to $50,000. On his tables, of course. And that's how the fighting started.
In came the players from the Northwest, from the table-soccer strongholds of Oregon and Washington. They played a fast game, never stopping the ball. They wouldn't talk to the Minnesotans, who played a slower, ball-control version. The Texans, who played the slowest game of all and were tearing everyone up with their pull shot, wouldn't talk even to Peppard.
"At that time it was a nice simple game," says Peppard who, at 33, claims he is the worst table-soccer player in the world. "We had about 10 rules. But it was chaos. Some of the Texans, with their ball control, stopped the ball before every shot and were taking three hours to play one match. We began adding rules. And a one-hour time limit. And more rules. If this is going to be a first-class professional sport, then it has to be run like a first-class professional sport."
Now suddenly everyone is getting along. Shoot, the Texans are even talking to the people from Oregon. For one thing, the players know that to achieve respectability they must act like professionals. And despite the tavern image of the game, which is beginning to fade, most have rubbed elbows with higher education, if only as residents of college towns, where the game flourishes.
"I would say that most of your better players," says Jimmy Gilbert, who is one of your better players, "have a high level of intelligence. I don't know if they always use it, they just have it."
After his $50,000 national championships last year, Lee Peppard decided to go all out. He put together a $250,000 tour, with 33 tournaments in 28 states over a nine-month period. In all, it cost $492,000, with about $160,000 of that coming back in entry fees and the quarters the players pour into the tables' push chutes by the carload. It is not philanthropy, Peppard admits. For instance, some 4,000 tables are sold each month by 16 U.S. companies. Before the $50,000 tournament last year, Mountain West's share of the market was 200 tables. Now it is 1,300 a month and climbing. "A player has a lot of problems if he tries to practice on one kind of table and then comes in to compete as a pro on ours. It's a big disadvantage," Peppard says happily.
To make the tour, and his table, even more attractive, Peppard is planning on upping the total purse to $350,000, although he would like to spread it out over fewer, say only six, tournaments. And within four years he envisions a $1 million tour.
"Which won't be too hard to take," said Karin von Otterstedt, a 24-year-old Oregon State graduate with an animal science degree who now lives in Grapevine, Texas. A goalie, Karin was the national's only double winner: in both women's doubles, with 18-year-old Lori Schranz, and mixed doubles, with Sumption.
Eighteen-year-old Steven Simon won the singles championship, but in table soccer—or, God forbid, foozball, as it is sometimes called—the glamour event is the open doubles. Seventeen-year-old Brent Bednar and 18-year-old Mike Belz, who polished their games in a Minnesota high school league, finished behind Kaiser and Rivera in the open doubles. Granted, none of the four got his name in that next day's edition of The Denver Post, as did one Dale Glenn for winning a pro bowling tournament in Michigan. Glenn took home $6,000 for his first in bowling. Bednar and Belz' second-place money in the table soccer contest came to $11,000.