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The ball is smaller, about the size of a melon, and is rolled down the lane with the speed and delivery of a fast-pitch softball game. The bowler shoots the ball at long, tapered pins at the end of the lane, and gets three tries to knock down all ten pins. The pins that topple and fall are left on the lane, and a skilled bowler can hit those “dead wood” pins, causing a ricochet effect to clear other standing pins and increase scoring opportunities. But watch out. That shot you think is going straight into the “sweet spot” can also smack the head pin straight on, having it take out the 5-pin behind it and nothing else — leaving a spread-eagle 2-3-4-6-7-8-9-10 split. Yikes.
This is the sport of candlepin bowling, a uniquely New England variation of traditional tenpin bowling. Created in Worcester, Mass., in 1879, today candlepin bowling centers exist throughout the Northeast. The game has been promoted with weekly regional television shows, where top bowlers from Maine to Massachusetts compete for hundreds of dollars in cash and prizes.
“Candlepins are a more fun game than tenpins,” says Ralph Semb, a professional candlepin bowler who also owns French King Bowling Center in Erving, Mass., an hour north of Springfield. “You may have a 5-pin standing, with a piece of dead wood in front of it, and everyone in the place is going to shout at you, ‘Sucker Shot,’ or ‘You’ll miss this!’ A person coming into a candlepin bowling center for the first time is going to say, ‘How come there’s no holes in the ball, how come you don’t clear away the fallen pins, why do you take three shots instead of two,’ and on and on. Candlepin bowling is easy to learn, but difficult to master — and it’s a game that can be so much fun.”
X rarely marks the spot
Semb should know about the difficulty of the game. While 300 games are recorded in tenpin bowling on an almost daily basis, no one has ever bowled a 300 — twelve strikes — in candlepins. In fact, Semb currently holds the record for a single-game high, when he bowled a 245 as part of a professional bowling tour in March 1984 — today’s top bowlers maintain an average of about 140.
“After I bowled that game,” says Semb, “I was asked by a television station to come to their studio and bowl some strikes. I couldn’t hit a single strike that time. That’s how tough candlepin bowling can be.”
Today, organizations like the Massachusetts Bowling Association and the International Candlepin Bowling Association continue to maintain the rules and sanctioning of the sport throughout the Northeast, and each organization encourages its bowling proprietors to bring in new fans to the sport, by having tournaments and after-hours “glow bowling” events.
“Candlepin bowling isn’t about how fast you bowl,” said Semb. “It’s about accuracy. The pins are still 2.5 inches in diameter at the bottom, and are spread apart on a 36-inch triangle. The ball’s only 4.5 inches wide, so it’s very easy to roll the ball and punch one pin out and have plenty of room for the ball to drive right through and not hit anything on the second and third shots. It’s easy to get a spread-eagle or to take out the 2 and the 8 and leave the rest of the pins standing. And without a spot in the ball for your fingers, you don’t always throw the ball the same way, and it doesn’t always roll off your fingers the same way every time.”
Tenpin bowling centers do exist in New England, and several bowling establishments offer both tenpin and candlepin lanes. But tenpin bowlers who try to bowl a candlepin ball with an idea of “hooking” the ball into the pocket often discover that their ball will hit the runout groove before it hits any pins. “When tenpin bowlers go to throw the ball,” says Semb, “they’re going to try to put a hook or a curve on it. They get up there and spin the ball, and it goes right in the gutter. The ball has to roll off the end of their fingers and it has to go all the way down the lane. It takes them a good ten frames before they get used to the fact that it’s not the same game.”