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It's a recent Friday-night tournament, and the diminutive, bespectacled Everglades High School literature teacher skillfully controls the frenetic little soccer ball, tapping it back and forth in the trough between lines of miniature kickers, searching for a gap to exploit. He stares purposefully at the board as his opponent shimmies his goalies, trying to seal any lanes of attack.
Horowitz settles on the balls of his feet, like Dwyane Wade measuring the distance to the basket. He shifts his shoulders, ready to pounce, then freezes. Lanes open and close and open and close. Horowitz's right hand suddenly flicks the handle; then there's a sharp TWACKnoise. Usually this is followed by the even sharper PWANGof the ball hitting the back of the goal. Instead, there's a disheartening TUNK, for the goalie, Brian Uytepo, a broad, round West Palm Beach computer programmer with the reflexes of a horsefly, has stonewalled Horowitz.
Uytepo has sealed the goal tighter than vacuum-packed peanuts.
Horowitz, one of the best foosball players in Florida and a champion in one of the doubles events of the 2003 National Championships, mutters something as the ball caroms back into play. The old magic isn't working tonight.
"You better be careful what you say, with the little snide comments," snaps Uytepo, swelling with confidence. "Did you take a shot on goal? Then shut the fuck up, Adam."
This is, by a great margin, the most inflammatory thing anyone says on an otherwise civil night recently at Coby Jacks Bar & Grill in West Palm Beach. Naturally, it comes at one of the most heated moments of the tournament. Horowitz and his randomly assigned partner, a former traveling foosball pro named Jim Dumas, ran through the double-elimination bracket with no trouble -- except from Uytepo and his partner for the night, Mark Winker, a Boca Raton web developer. The pair gave Horowitz-Dumas fits in the early rounds, then beat them in the finals to even the series, bringing about this final best-two-of-three-game set.
Now it's after midnight, the match is tied, and nerves are frayed. It's easy to forget that the winners are playing for a measly $25 cash and a $15 bar tab, and the throngs of Florida sports fans must have stayed home to watch a Marlins game on TV. (There are eight or ten somewhat interested spectators milling around the table.) In short, it's the sort of offbeat contest that long ago seduced Horowitz, who compares foosball to "physical chess." The game marries dexterity and power with the psychological strategy of, say, poker. The tiniest giveaway by a goalie or forward can alert the other to the play at hand.
Sheri Eiger, Horowitz's girlfriend, says he often works until 10 at night grading essays. "This is how he blows off steam," she says.
Not that Horowitz treats it like a mere game. He comes to a tournament to win. Horowitz knows that to play the game in the upper echelons, he must practice at least an hour a day. Lately, he hasn't been. School, social life -- they take their toll. Still, he knows that at 32, his time among the elite is probably short. Reflexes don't improve after your mid-30s. "My window in trying to win something major is closing," he says, and tonight he's in a fight just to escape the local bar tournament.
Wait. Is this the Heavyweight Championship of the World we're talking about here or... foosball?
For the uninitiated, foosball is soccer shrunk to table proportions, with one or two players per side controlling a ball using plastic men shish-kebabbed on parallel rods. Germans developed the game after World War I when recuperating veterans wanted something quasi-athletic to occupy their time, says Jim Stevens, a foosball play-by-play announcer and head of insidefoos.com. The first tables manufactured stateside, in the 1960s, sparked interest that swelled by 1975 into a pro tour; at its height, the tour paid out a total of a million bucks. In 1981, someone even figured the game was popular enough to warrant a feature film called Long Shot Kids, starring Leif Garrett as a young soccer player earning money with foosball. (One reluctant fan of the movie called it "boring, badly acted, and almost unwatchable" in an online review.)
Also in 1981, the pro tour went belly-up. With kids turning their attention to Ms. Pac-Man and Galaga, arcades phased out foos, which has since been relegated mainly to college dorms, rec centers, and bars. It's a long path back for the sport: The current pro tour payout is about a quarter-million bucks across a couple of dozen events.
"[Foosball] has had some TV coverage," Stevens says. "ESPN2 did a thing on us six or seven years ago. Friends had the table on there, and that was great exposure for us."
The game is strongest in the Midwest and in Texas. In Florida, where foosball's nexus is probably a Tampa bar called Rudy's, it has become the sport of choice for 30-something adolescents and would-be tavern jocks, dismayed that foosball has not been marketed as the gladiator spectacle that it truly is.