After skipping a generation, marble-shooting is back


Before we delve into the historical significance of the lowly marble, the types and colors and the generations it has brought to their knees, some sound advice from the Cub Scout Sports handbook:

"Remember, the game of marbles is like any other sport," it states. "In order to become a champion, you need to practice. And this doesn't mean just shooting the marbles -- it means practicing your backspin, working on snoogers, getting your aim . . ."

Wait a second. Snoogers?

Snoogers. That's when an opponent's marble is 10 inches or less from the edge of the ring in which you are playing marbles. If you can knock out the snooger while keeping your shooter marble among those in the center of the ring, well, consider yourself among the ranks of the nation's marble freaks.

And those ranks are swelling like never before.

With the help of the film "King of the Hill" (which opened in Baltimore earlier this month) and marble contests held all over the country, kids who have logged half their lives on Nintendo games are returning to the roots of gaming: heading outside, drawing circles in the dirt and getting down on their knees to loft their hoodles for fair and for keeps.

That's just what they do in the Yorba Linda, Calif., backyard of Kyle Ellison, 10, who last summer won a marble contest held with the release of "King of the Hill," a Steven Soderbergh film set in 1933, when marbles were a national mania.

"The reason I play is that marbles don't take much practice," Kyle says. "You can go for a while without playing, then take them out and do great."

He disappears to his room and returns with a plastic brown bag, crudely stitched with thick white thread and stuffed with marbles. He made the bag in Cub Scout Pack 897 and this year earned his marble belt loop, a square, silver plate with three marbles in a triangle.

Just a few weeks ago, Kyle and his friend, Jonathan Faber, also 10, went to see "King of the Hill" and entered the pre-screening marble contest. After competing with 30 other players, Kyle came in first place, Jonathan in third.

"I was surprised that we won," says Jonathan. "I didn't think I was really any good at marbles. It made me a little more interested in them."

As he spoke, Kyle dug through his bag, seeking his most precious marbles.

"I like the designs of all of them," he says, still hunting. "I mean, it would be boring if they were all the same."

And then, there they are: Two black-and-white speckled beauties. Camouflage eggs, Kyle calls them.

"I don't even use them," he says. "I keep them in here."

That's just how some people feel about marbles.

"There has definitely been a resurgence in the game in the past three or four years," says National Marble Club President Jim Ridpath, whose Drexel Hill, Pa., basement has served as the unofficial trainingground for a slew of marble champions.

"Marbles is new to these kids," Mr. Ridpath says. "I remember one year when one of my boys was the national runner-up and I overheard the reporter ask him, 'Why do you like marbles?'

"The kid says, 'It's new.' I just laughed and laughed. I guess I taught him how to play marbles but not the history."

And for a little globe of glass worth about 3 cents, there is a rich and mysterious history.

The ancient Romans played marble games 2,000 years ago. Marbles made of baked clay have been found in prehistoric caves.

And Mr. Ridpath, writing a tell-all book called "The Wonderful World of Marbles," has traced the things to 5900 B.C.

"It's definitely the oldest game in the world," he says.

So why the new interest?

Back at the Marble King plant in Paden City, W. Va., where they make a million marbles a day, owner Beri Fox can only speculate.

"I think it's a sport that, like Nintendo, kids can perfect on their own," she says. "With a lot of other games, you need someone who can throw to you or catch from you.

"And with so many kids home alone because both their parents are working, marbles is a nice way to pass the time."

This wave of new players reflects a complete generational jump, Ms. Fox says. These days, kids are learning the game from their grandparents because their parents -- born near the dawn of television -- didn't really play marbles.

Stanley Block of Trumbull, Conn., is president of the Marble Collectors Society of America. He says his collection is "limited" to 25,000 marbles, most of them antique.

His favorite is a Lutz marble handmade in Germany and containing flecks of gold powder.

While Mr. Block is convinced that the collecting end of marbles is the place to be, he said competition is what draws new enthusiasts.

The largest marble contest is called the National Marbles Tournament and has been held since the 1920s in Wildwood, N.J. Teams from all over the country play the traditional game of Ringer for scholarships and prizes.

And if that isn't enough to keep the marble community on a roll, the U.S. Marble Team is the current international title holder.

"Most of the team members are in their late 20s and early 30s," says marble-maker Ms. Fox, who helps to organize the competition.

As the sport grows, so it seems do marbles. Ms. Fox's marble factory -- which spits out marbles 365 days a year, because it takes days for the glass to heat up -- is now making bigger marbles.

Where they were once an inch in diameter, your average target marble is now 1 1/4 inches in diameter.

Marbles also come in a wider variety of colors, including lavender, an opal pink and teal, Ms. Fox says.

Pair those with a steady hand-eye coordination and good sportsmanship and there is no limit to what a kid can do with marbles, Ms. Fox says.

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