Meeting the Beer-Swilling Competitors at the World Marbles Championship
The event was held in a bar parking lot in England and attended by teams from all over the world.
Some sporting rivalries are carved in stone. AFC Wimbledon and MK Dons in soccer, the Yankees and the Red Sox in Baseball, the Cleveland Browns and the Pittsburgh Steelers in football, England and Germany in the world of competitive marbles.
This year's British and World Marbles Championship was a case in point, with Germany's Mermel Club Erzgebirge—which had won three of the previous five tournaments—pitching up at The Greyhound pub in Tinsley Green, West Sussex to face English teams with names like The Handcross 49ers, the Yorkshire Meds, and the Black Dog Boozers.
It's not a sport that gets a lot of media coverage, marbles—presumably because most events seem to take place in bar parking lots, or because not many banks want to sponsor teams of middle-aged men who drink Old Speckled Hen while competing. So to get a handle on what a marbles championship consists of I headed to The Greyhound on Good Friday to watch the competition and meet some of the teams.
The ale was already flowing when I arrived, and it was pretty easy to distinguish the teams who'd signed up for a good time (one team's members were all dressed as Waldo, of Where's Waldo? fame) and those out to win.
The Tinsley Green tournament apparently dates back to 1588, when two local men who were into the same milk maiden decided that the best way to her heart was via a marbles competition. However, operating in its current form at The Greyhound since 1932, the British and World Marbles Championship now consists of two teams containing six players, each vying to knock as many "target marbles" out of a six-foot-wide sandy ring as possible using a larger marble, or "tolley." Whoever knocks the most out wins.
In total, 16 teams tried their luck, but the ruthless efficiency of Erzgebirge proved too much: the English were swept aside with multiple flicks of the thumb. The Germans cruised to victory and yet another title.
After Erzgebirge had been crowned victors I had a chat with some of the competitors.
"I won the championship four times in the late-1970s and early-80s—that was with the Handcross Rebels. But we disbanded; we got too old, some passed away, some have moved on. I started practicing in the winter of 1951. I've been playing ever since. This is the 63rd time I've been here.
"My grandfather was a big player down here. He was a real character—he was known as Jim 'Atomic Thumb' Longhurst. His forte was to shoot marbles from three feet away—in, say, a pub—against a beer glass, either a pint jug or a dimpled one, and he would smash it."
The PIMPS (The Plough Inn Marbles Society)
"We played the reigning champions, the Germans, in the first round, and they were excellent. We've never played before, but we had fun. We still managed to score. Our pub, The Plough Inn in Ifield, has been represented for the last five or six years, but the lads who normally play are away on a skiing trip, so we're stand-ins. Time for an early bath."
The Rolling Drunks
"We've been here the last seven or eight years. We've never got past the first round apart from this year. It's monumental. We've never found out what makes a good marbles player."
John Roberts of the Turners Hill Tolleymen (front row, second from left)
"I founded the team back in 1981, I think it was. I've been coming here from when I was a kid. I've always followed it and thought it would be good to get a team together some day. We've been getting worse ever since.
"We built two marbles rings like the one here out the back of our local pub, The Red Lion. We did make the semi-final four years running, but we're in the process of rebuilding—it's a work in progress.
"It's a social game, isn't it? You can see there's a lot of beer involved. The spirit is to turn up and play. There are only a few games or sports where the taking part is the main thing."
Phil Schaifer of the Mermel Club Erzgebirge, Germany (third from left)
"We have come all the way from East Germany to play in this tournament. We trained three or four times before we arrived."
"I've played marbles in France, Belgium, Holland... it's a dedication. It helps if you like a tipple. I've been in the game more than 40 years. I would like to see more youngsters involved."
"I've been playing marbles for 40 years. It takes a lot of practice, like every other sport, but now I'm getting old I don't practice so much—it's hard getting up and down now; my legs ache. I've won the team event 16 times. That's not too bad, is it?"
Two members of the winning team, Mermel Club Erzebirge
"Wir sprechen kein Englisch!" ("We don't speak English!")
See more photos from the event below: