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 TWACK noise. Usually this is followed by the even sharper PWANG of 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.
South Florida foos players are veritable Bedouins, going from bar to bar between Coral Gables and Boca Raton and back in search of a home for a regular tournament. A few play on Wednesdays at Gaby's, a lounge and package store in Pembroke Pines, on one table stuck between the dart board and the pool tables. The Friday night tournaments for rookies and pros at Coby Jacks began this spring.
Horowitz is regarded as the man to beat in the Coby tournament and, indeed, in the region. His first foos encounter was at a Seattle Jewish community center, where he had to pull up a chair to stand at the table. When he was 17, a cousin bought him a starter table that Horowitz wedged into his bedroom. He eventually found his way to a tournament at an arcade in Pompano Beach.
"I was thinking I was somebody at this game," he recalls. "Put up my money. Prepared to kick their ass. I had no clue. No clue. I was just defenseless, couldn't even see the ball."
One player stuck around afterward to show the greenhorn different shots and passes. "He basically gave me a big dose of theory that day," Horowitz says, "and I was totally hooked. I thought, 'I'm going to get one of these tables, and I'm going to get good enough to beat these guys. '"
While at the University of Miami, Horowitz's obsession found a home. Guys would loiter around the student-center table for six hours at a stretch, lining the table with quarters to hold their spots, ditching classes to play. But interest dwindled. Horowitz founded a foos club just to get people to come out. Since then, it's been a struggle to find a bar to devote space to a couple of foosball tables. "For a number of years," he laments, "the only local foosball was at my house."
In his college days, he introduced the game to Jeff Kobal, a computer programmer whose intonation resembles actor Matthew Broderick's. A few years after graduation, Kobal moved to Austin, Texas, and won three foosball tables in tech company tournaments. He and Horowitz still play together in tournaments; the pair finished fourth in the state last year in open doubles and fourth in pro doubles at the 2002 nationals.
"He loves the game," Kobal says of his friend. "And I think you have to have a real love for the game. Not just a love but a passion for it."
He's holding the passion under control tonight as Uytepo goes volcanic, and Winker, who's playing forward to Uytepo's goalie, is sweating like a cold beer on a hot day. In the final game, with Horowitz-Dumas leading 4-1, Winker slips one past Dumas. Then Uytepo blasts one the length of the table, bringing the score to within a point.
Horowitz has no problem collecting the ball -- the strongest part of his game is snaring a ball in play. And he sets up that little tick-tock action, aligning the ball just so before blasting it at the goal. But his rib-shiv shot is off, as Uytepo blocks him, over and over, six times in a row. ("I'm the best fucking goalie in South Florida," Uytepo crows later.) A rebound rolls to Winker, who puts it past Dumas to tie.
"Hang in there," Horowitz tells Dumas. A second earlier, the match -- and the tournament -- looked like a lock. Now it's game point for both sides.
Horowitz puts the ball back into play. He manages to dink it forward, through a line of opposing forwards to his three-man forward rod. Then, instead of lining up for that deadly finishing shot that Uytepo has been snuffing so adroitly, Horowitz slides his forwards away from him and hits a light liner through a seam between Uytepo's goalie men. After a three-hour tournament in which 30-mile-per-hour slapshots constituted most of the offense, the match ends with a dribbler. Remarkable. What do you say, ESPN?