While all sports have their unique histories, few, if any have been as intricately woven into the political and international events of world history as shuffleboard. The history of shuffleboard is a scholarly tale dating back to 15th Century England that includes literary figures, wealthy estate owners, high profile tournaments, Hollywood royalty and dedicated associations, but it's also a personal story of a love of the game.
Shuffleboard's British Beginnings
Shuffleboard had many names in its earliest form, originating in 15th Century England. It was initially called shove groat or slide groat, since people would slide a "groat" (a large British coin worth approximately 4 pence) down the length of a table. Later on, when a silver penny would be used instead, the game was known as shove-penny or shovel-penny. It was a game of skill and chance that became a beloved pastime in the wealthy country estates of England, gaining popularity in the Wiltshire, Staffordshire and Winchester regions.†
The Arrival of Shuffleboard in The New World
The game of shuffleboard made its way across the Atlantic Ocean along with the British soldiers around the time of this country's founding. Early shuffleboard tournaments were staged throughout the fledgling colonies, and were popular also among the soldiers. In playwright Arthur Miller's 1953 masterwork, The Crucible, a partially fictionalized account of the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts, he wrote, "In 1692, there was a good supply of ne'er-do-wells who dallied at the shuffleboard in Bridget Bishop's Tavern." This serves to confirm the presence of shuffleboard in the New World. †
A Court Weigh In - Shuffleboard is a Game of Skill
As shuffleboard became more well-known and widely played, it was not without its scandals, which only served to increase public awareness of the game. In 1848, a court in New Hanover, Pennsylvania, argued the case of "The State vs. John Bishop," asking whether shuffleboard was a game of chance or a game of skill. The judge's final ruling went as follows:
"Though the defendant kept a public gaming table, as charged, and though diverse persons played thereat and bet spirituous liquors on the game, the game was not a game of chance, but was altogether a game of skill."
From humble beginnings to an honored place as a distinguished pastime, shuffleboard came into its own through a combination of events. There were high-quality tables with inlaid woodwork crafted by leading American cabinetmakers such as Duncan Phyfe and Hepplewhite. These distinctive tables became commanding centerpieces in wealthy New York City homes. By the late 1800s, table shuffleboard competitions were being reported on in New York metropolitan newspapers as often as baseball games and prizefighting matches. There were high-profile tournaments in Manhattan and in New Jersey cities like Hoboken, Newark, Paterson, Bloomfield and Jersey City. The players were colorful and exciting characters such as George Lavender, "Big Ed" Morris, Alex Scott, Ed Gardland and Dave Wiley, and their legions of fans included well-known figures in business, politics and the theatre.
The West Coast Discovers Shuffleboard
The first shuffleboard in the Western U.S. may have arrived in 1904, when avid shuffleboard enthusiast Gentleman Jim Corbett convinced a tavern owner to install a table in his Alameda, California pub. The owner's son, "Doc" Cross, claims this table as the first appearance of shuffleboard on the West Coast.
Prohibition - A Period of Decline, then Resurrection
During the time of Prohibition, shuffleboard went through a brief period of decline, as the speakeasies had no need of games to ensure the success of their businesses. After Prohibition was repealed, shuffleboard began to reappear, primarily on the East Coast. In the backrooms of taverns during Prohibition, there were often small restaurants. With the onset of the Great Depression, people could no longer afford to eat at restaurants, so some of these areas were converted to game rooms with shuffleboards.
The Father of Modern Shuffleboard, Sol Lipkin
Sol Lipkin, widely considered the father of modern shuffleboard, was already active in the game at that time. In addition to playing and promoting shuffleboard, he manufactured shuffleboard tables at the American Shuffleboard Co. in Union City, N.J. In 1989, in an interview with industry magazine Tavern Sports, he spoke of selling shuffleboards for $149 and setting up matches (at times played up to 75 points) to help bring people back into the taverns after Prohibition ended. These organized games caught on to such a degree that leagues began to form, propelling shuffleboard back into popularity with the general public. Lipkin would continue, throughout his life, to actively promote and further the reach of this game that he loved, introducing table shuffleboard to new players and helping guide its growth and development into an organized, highly respected sport and favorite pastime for all ages.
Shuffleboard Reaches its Peak in the '40s and '50s
Shuffleboard continued to ride the waves of American history, influencing and being influenced by the nation's events and moods. World War II helped bring the primarily East Coast game of shuffleboard cross country. Men from across the U.S. traveled through the Northeastern and New York City en route to Europe. After the war, soldiers brought the love of shuffleboard back home with them to their respective states.
Due to increasing demand, more than 100 shuffleboard manufacturing companies came into being over the course of a few years. Original shuffleboard tables were 32 feet long, and were then reduced to 28 and eventually 22 feet long so they could be shipped nationally. Shuffleboard speed powder, originally made from sand, changed to cornmeal and silicone wax. Weights constructed from heavy brass evolved into streamlined stainless steel.
During World War II and the "Swinging Forties," shuffleboard games provided a much-needed release during those difficult years. The game appealed to young and old, strong and disabled, on different levels. It offered a heady combination of competitiveness, fun, skill and chance, and gave people of different backgrounds and sensibilities the opportunity to come together in a shared interest.
There were many regional tournaments across the country. The first national shuffleboard tournament, with 574 taverns taking part, each with a 10-man team, was held in Springfield, Illinois in 1948. The 1950s saw shuffleboard tables in college fraternity houses, youth clubs, senior citizen and rehabilitation centers, taverns and on military bases. In those early days, inconsistent rules and amateur events led to disagreements and in-fighting among manufacturers and leaders. It wasn't until national rules and organized professional tournaments were organized, many of them sponsored by the larger shuffleboard table manufacturers, that shuffleboard truly flourished.
Along with common folks and professional players, Hollywood joined the shuffleboard bandwagon in a big way. What started as smart publicity and a popular "fad" grew into something deeper and more long-lasting, as bandleaders, pin-up girls and actors began enjoying the game and bringing shuffleboard tables into their homes. Legendary stars such as Merv Griffin, Betty Grable, Alan Ladd and Harry James were all shuffleboard enthusiasts who had their own shuffleboard tables.
Competition and Strife Overcome by Grassroots Support
In the 1960s and 1970s, internal strife and competition among the major shuffleboard manufacturers and suppliers, along with the absence of standardized rules, regulations and sponsorship, led to the game's demise. It took the time and effort of longtime players, along with new players, new shuffleboard leagues and grassroots support to bring about shuffleboard's revival in the mid-1980s, continuing into the 1990s.
The 1980s and 1990s saw standardized rules and sanctions, increased media coverage, committed sponsors and professional players who worked together on a policy board. As of 1989, more than a million shuffleboards were in use. Organization, communication and cooperation were key elements that energized the sport and provided a continuing lifeline. It became the duty of established players to help promising novices develop their skills and encourage them to take part in leagues and tournaments.
The National Shuffleboard Hall of Fame
In 1995, a longtime dream was finally realized through the efforts of shufflers, shuffleboard associations and fans, and the National Shuffleboard Hall of Fame was established. Early inductees included players Mickey Mickens of New Jersey, PeeWee Ramos of California and Earl Kelly of Texas. Sol Lipkin of the American Shuffleboard Company was the first person inducted into the Hall of Fame as a promoter of the game. The mission as stated by the NSHF is to recognize excellence in the world of shuffleboard and to preserve the history of shuffleboard for future generations.
In the present day, shuffleboard news and Hall of Fame inductee announcements can be found at the Table Shuffleboard Association. Their website includes upcoming table shuffleboard events, historical photo albums and video clips of award presentations and interviews with legendary players. They provide a valuable resource for shuffleboard enthusiasts around the world. Some of the important moments in shuffleboard history that are preserved in their video vault include Sol Lipkin's induction into the TSA Hall of Fame in May 1996 and interviews with Glen Davidson, Gale Gaunce, Bill Melton and David Williams, Bill English and Pee Wee Ramos.
eShuffleboard.com is a repository of shuffleboard tournament schedules, results and venues, state by state. This is also the home of The Board Talk archives, which was a monthly newsletter focused exclusively on the World of Shuffleboard.†
Bowers' Corner in another online gathering place for shuffleboard players and fans. They bring enthusiasts the latest table shuffleboard news and official player ratings for U.S. and Canada shuffleboard players.
It is thanks to these dedicated grassroots efforts and the many tournaments, smaller matches and private games among family and friends that the spirit of the shuffleboard community and the love of the game continues to thrive.
This history of table shuffleboard is compiled from an article published in Tavern Sports, June/July 1989 and from information provided by the American Shuffleboard Company, the Phil-American Shuffleboard Company and The Board Talk.