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Roundly beating British at their own game; Local marble shooters win world title


Maybe it wasn't brazen enough that a gaggle of Maryland teens flew to England and challenged the British in a sport -- marbles -- that has been played there since 1620.

The kids went and won.

Handily. Scores like 32-3 and 45-1 were typical as the USA Marble Team trounced the English and Germans yesterday to win the British World Marbles Championship held outside London.

Julia McCarthy-Fox of the British Marbles Board of Control, which organized the tournament, said the Americans went undefeated over six games.

"This is embarrassing, actually," McCarthy-Fox said as she recounted the scores. She insisted that the British and German players' tendency to snag beers from the pub during play had nothing to do with the lopsided results.

"There wasn't anyone too drunk to play marbles," she said. "Which is quite unusual."

The Americans -- nine teens and a bakery-truck driver, most of them are from the Frederick and Cumberland areas -- have been practicing for a year. They also practiced for four hours in driving rain Thursday (one teammember missed last night's celebration because he caught a cold). They arrived at the tournament hours early yesterday to practice until their knuckles bled.

Winning, said coach Jeff Kimmell, was that important.

"When we left, I wanted them to say we were truly the dream team of marbles, like I've been saying for weeks," Kimmell said, speaking by phone last night from a team dinner at a T. G. I. Friday's restaurant near London. "We didn't just beat them. We played unbelievable marbles."

A venerable tradition

The tournament is held annually at the Greyhound Pub in the crumb-sized hamlet of Tinsley Green, which, tradition has it, became Britain's perennial hub of marble-playing during the reign of Elizabeth I. Over a game of marbles, two men decided who would win the favors of a certain woman.

Yesterday, the U.S. team defeated some British players in their 50s who have been playing at Tinsley Green since they were tots. McCarthy-Fox said Americans take the sport more seriously than the British -- who rarely need to tend to bleeding knuckles.

"British teams don't practice," she said. They also don't wear uniforms -- in contrast to the Americans, who spent yesterday and the entire week touring London in patriotic jackets with "USA Marble Team" emblazoned across their backs.

Raucous spectators -- some loudly singing John Denver songs to distract the U.S. team -- watched yesterday's rout. The sport, which traces its roots to ancient Egypt, has variations. At Tinsley Green, each game is played on a sand-covered ring with 49 marbles. Players, taking turns, flick a "shooter" marble at other marbles on the ring to knock them out. To win, a team must hit the most marbles out of the ring.

Individual players continue until they fail to hit out a marble. Against the Germans, American Robbie Nicholson, 15, of Reynoldsville, W.Va., hit out 41 marbles consecutively to finish off a game the U.S. team won, 45-1.

Kimmell, a former U.S. national marbles champion, has been teaching marbles through a program he founded 11 years ago, the Frederick Knucklers. A computer network engineer, Kimmell was a member of an American team that lost at Tinsley Green in 1992, and he vowed then to go back. The team he organized this year has seven players from Western Maryland, two from Pennsylvania and one from West Virginia. An entourage of 40 parents and players made the trip at a cost of $80,000, a small portion of which was subsidized by donations.

Kimmell said the victory might help in his effort to make marbles a demonstration sport at the 2004 Summer Olympics.

15 minutes of fame?

The team, many of whom had never left the United States and had jitters about the long flight to England, have been contacted by "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" to schedule an appearance next week.

The team last night sounded, well, happy.

"This is great. This is awesome," said captain Andrew Bunch, 16, of Frederick. "Going to England and everything is awesome enough, but winning the tournament is a large bonus with all this greatness going on."

Screaming was heard as Bunch spoke.

"We're stuffing ourselves," he said.

The USA Marble Team won no money. Team members were given a large silver trophy -- but only for several hours. The trophy -- in deference to British tradition -- remains at the Greyhound Pub.

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