On the Table: The seductive power of foosball

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Heart of Glass

Suburban game rooms of the ’80s had many things in common: The stink of dirty clothes and stale cigarettes, beer stashed in a corner, a black-light poster or four and — if you were lucky — a foosball table. Its pricetag landing between the dart board and the pool table, foosball still had enough appeal to transform a basement into a destination. Foosball tables were the above-ground pools of the game room. Not exactly the high life, but good enough.

The game of foosball — at least when played by teens, possibly tipsy on peach schnapps — is a loud and baffling sport. The ball clattering around the table only to disappear into the hole. Like sex, this happened somewhat mysteriously, and way too fast. Is that all? Are we done already? I can remember trying to reconcile the pins’ movement with the ball’s trajectory, and in absence of any real conclusions, I just spun those bars like my life depended on it.

"Slow down," a guy told me once. Let’s say his name was Dale. "Take your time."

Dale moved to my side of the table and positioned himself behind me. I could smell the Speed Stick balled up in his armpits.

This from a guy in a Def Leppard muscle shirt? Taking my time wasn’t easy, as I was a girl who embodied all the cliches my feminist friends would later rally against: I flinched when you threw a ball my way, I became woozy at the sight of blood, I shrieked at loud noises. Something was ricocheting violently around this table, and I was supposed to slow down?

I threw up my hands. "I can’t do this." I was thirteen; this was my version of flirting.

Dale moved to my side of the table and positioned himself behind me. I could smell the Speed Stick balled up in his armpits. He was eighteen, my cousin Becky’s friend, and we were in the musty basement of his parents’ suburban Michigan home. I wasn’t really interested in him, but as he moved behind me and guided my hands along the rotating bars, I could sense he might be interested in me. At thirteen — well, maybe at any age — that can be enough.

"It’s a game of control," he whispered into my ear, tapping the ball with the pin so that it always returned to him. "You wait for an opening." With his left hand, he pumped the opposing side back and forth, back and forth. "And then you shoot!" There was a popping sound and then a thunk. He shoots, he scores. "Another game?"

I shrugged. "I’m kind of tired," I said.

"That’s cool. Let’s go lay down on my parents’ waterbed."

Foosball is a quick and dirty sport. This cannot be underestimated, especially for anyone who has endured a pool game that lasted longer than Monopoly. Later, in college, I would trade foosball for billiards. I would wiggle my rear into whichever boyfriend decided I required a strategy lesson. I would learn to line up my shots. I would discover a terrific feel for bank shots. But all of this, even the vocabulary, was too complicated for a thirteen-year-old. Foosball was more my speed. I didn’t want a geometry lesson. I wanted to spin the dealies and bang the what’s-it with the thingamabobs.

"You suck at that game," Dale told me, as the waterbed jiggled beneath our weight.

I beamed. "Yeah, I know."

I wish I had been the kind of girl who played pick-up football with the guys on the front lawn, who tugged on her cap and joined the coed softball game. My older cousin was like this — a sexy tomboy, a seductive bruiser. But as long as I can remember, I have avoided running in front of the opposite sex. In front of anyone, really. Even as I grew more mature, and bolder, bar games were more my speed. Well, any game wherein you could dangle a cigarette from your lips was more my speed. And the nice thing is that erotic tension can’t help but develop, especially when a pitcher of beer is handy. Consider the things you learn about a partner while playing foosball: Hand strength, coordination, graciousness, patience, endurance. As we know, these things matter.

So on a recent Tuesday night, I visit Down the Hatch, an underground West Village bar crammed with Christmas lights and classic rock. It’s the weekly meeting of the New York City Foosball League. Yes, it exists.

"Foosball as seduction?" asks Joe, a twentysomething who’s played with NYC Foosball League for about six months. He’s a cutie, this Joe, but I can tell he’s trying to let the journalist down easy. "I just never thought of it like that. This is like my guy’s night, like my bowling league."

A couple girls play in the NYC Foosball League — and they’re cute! — but Joe has a girlfriend. And she doesn’t play foosball. "Not if I can help it," she says, rolling her eyes. She treats it the way some girlfriends treat addiction to PlayStation or role-playing games. With love, and humor, and confusion. "He plays in his sleep," she tells me.

"That happened once," he says, returning to the conversation. "You told her that?"

Talking to the New York Foosball League about hook-up games is a bit like talking to ComicCon attendees about Batman’s tights.

One of the men behind the New York City Foosball League is John Bank, a fortysomething tournament champion from Long Island who’s played in anywhere from 50 to 100 tournaments. Gets blurry after a while. "One of the coolest things about this game is that men and women can play equally," he says, wiping his brow from a heated bout with his wife. They didn’t meet over foosball, but he knows couples who have. John’s wife is named Andrea, and she’s a foosball master in her own right. I try out my foosball-as-foreplay theory on Andrea. She kind of buys it. After all, that’s why she started playing in the first place. She fell in love with John.

"And another great thing about foosball," I continue, "is that it’s a quick learning curve."

Blank stare. Incredibly polite tone. "Well, it’s easy to play, but hard to master."

Hmm. Talking to the New York Foosball League about hook-up games is a bit like talking to ComicCon attendees about Batman’s tights. I mean, they’re the torchbearers; it’s not like people play foosball anymore. In fact, when I first set out to do this story, I cold-called a dozen sports bars in New York looking for a table before stumbling onto NYCfoosball.com. They list about a dozen, one of which (Fat Cat’s Billiards) is currently closed for renovation.

If anyone knows the reason for this, it’s John Bank.

"What happened to foosball?" I ask.

He sighs. "The million-dollar tourney folded in the late ’70s. And then what killed it was video games."

That’s what I recall, as Galaga and Ms. Pac-Man edged out foosball in the corner of basements and game rooms, as tables were sold off at garage sales and abandoned on street corners. That’s where John Bank found his first foosball table, in fact; it was 1986, and someone had just left it on the curb. But as anyone who has owned a pair of platforms knows, style is a fluctuating term.

"I just helped install another table recently," says Bank. "I’ll tell you what. Foosball is coming back."