A hole lot of fun with Skee-Ball

The rowdy crowd is ready to roll as Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades” cranks at Elixir Bar & Grill.

It’s mostly dudes in various combinations of beards and ball caps gathered on this recent Tuesday night, a gregarious group fueled by beer, camaraderie and an imminent competition that produces plenty of smack talk. The scene might otherwise look like an arm wrestling match or a pool tournament. But the game of choice is one known to anyone who has stepped inside a Chuck E. Cheese.

Skee-Ball, the bowling-like amusement game that’s a hallmark of miniature golf arcades and family-fun centers everywhere, has expanded its demographic, taking off with many in the 21-and-older crowd. And whether you’re in the midst of an 8th-birthday party or a night out with your wingmen, the Skee-Ball goal is the same: Roll a wooden ball up a ramp so that it launches into holes that award various points.

But this crowd isn’t playing for prize tickets to be redeemed for Pixie Stix or plastic toys. Sacramento Skee Ball League – or Sac Skee, for short – meets for drinks and arcade-style debauchery on Tuesdays and Thursdays at Elixir. Serious bragging rights are at stake here, along with the potential to earn a $100 Elixir gift card for the season’s winning team.

“I’m very passionate about this,” said Nick Vellanoweth, 30, co-owner of Sac Skee and a nationally recognized Skee-Ball competitor. “It brings you back to those days on the boardwalk. It’s a special sport. It brings people together.”

Eight teams, with three players per side, compete in the league play, taking on such cheeky names as “Monica LewinSkee” and “Skeefer Sutherland.”

A Sac Skee session goes down like this: Each player rolls nine balls in a single frame, and a match encompasses 10 frames per player for each team. The team with the top score wins and a match lasts about an hour.

Sac Skee seasons run eight weeks. The teams’ cumulative scores are tallied and various awards are handed out with boozy enthusiasm. But those eager to try their hand at some Sac Skee need to slow their roll; the current teams are already accounted for, but a new season starts in April. (Check Sac Skee’s Facebook page for registration information, and prepare to plunk down $120 per team to sign up.)

Given its combination of time-honored fun and midweek high jinks, this Skee-Ball has connected quickly with Sacramentans in their 20s and 30s. That’s to say, the game may quickly replace adult kickball for those who want to re-create a favorite childhood game with a taste of adult beverages.

“We started last year and the demand was huge,” said Patrick Harbison, a co-owner of Sac Skee. “We had 20 teams that wanted to play. There’s actually a waiting list.”

Invented 105 years ago

Skee-Ball’s been a fixture of American amusement since it was invented in 1909 by J. Dickinson Estes of Philadelphia.

The original games were monstrous, played on 36-foot lanes, nearly three times the size of most current Skee-Ball machines. The rights to Skee-Ball have been passed to various companies over the decades, but they’ve been overseen since 1977 by Skeeball Inc. from Chalfont, Pa. The company ships its Skee-Ball machines around the world, and has partnered with such businesses as the Six Flags Corp. and Dave and Buster’s to bring the official game to the masses.

Frank Seninsky, former president of the Amusement and Music Operators Association and industry consultant, said Skee-Ball remains a top draw in arcades and game rooms. While a handful of quarters might only provide a few seconds of play on some arcade games, a single round of Skee-Ball averages around 40 seconds, making it one of the better values. Add to that the thrill of head-to-head competition and satisfyingly tactile game play, and it’s easy to see why Skee-Ball has achieved cross-generational appeal.

“We call it the workhorse of games, said Seninsky, who also distributes amusement games through New Jersey’s Alpha-Omega Amusements. “Even 2-year-olds can get into Skee-Ball. Great-Grandma and Great-Grandpa will do it. It’s the only game where (the age appeal) really runs from 2 to 100. Skee-Ball is a steady earner and everyone wants to play.”

Skee-Ball leagues have sprung up around the country over the past decade, including SkeeNation with its affiliates in Atlanta, Chicago and 10 other cities. One of the leading Skee-Ball organizations, “Brew-Skee Ball,” was founded in 2005, with chapters in New York City and San Francisco as well as in Austin, Texas, and Wilmington, N.C. Brew-Skee Ball’s home base is Brooklyn’s Full Circle Bar, which takes its name from a Skee-Ball score of 360 (a frame where a player hits 40 points on all nine rolls).

This seemingly innocuous sport has also generated some controversy. Skee-Ball Inc. filed a 2012 lawsuit in federal court against Full Circle Bar (where Brew-Skee Ball has its Hall of Fame) for trademark infringement. Brew-Skee Ball isn’t extending its affiliations to more cities until the lawsuit is sorted out.

Vellanoweth knows the Full Circle Bar well. A four-time champion in San Francisco’s Brew-Skee Ball league, he was inducted last year into its Hall of Fame.

“Their Cooperstown is in Brooklyn,” Vellanoweth said. “It’s about the accomplishments you’ve received across your career: Victories, championships, division titles. It was an honor, but I didn’t expect it at all.”

Vellanoweth has spent years working on his game. He was introduced to Skee-Ball’s competitive side by a college roommate who was a two-time national Skee-Ball champion. “I got sick and tired of being a spectator,” he said about why he decided to compete.

Vellanoweth later invested in his own Skee-Ball machine, which cost about $5,000 new, and hosted Skee-Ball parties at his Sacramento home. He also squeezes in a little practice during downtime at his job. Vellanoweth works in production and marketing at Two Rivers Cider Co., which has a Skee-Ball machine. His boss, company founder Vincent Sterne, also competes in Sac Skee.

Vellanoweth now owns five Skee-Ball machines with the other owners of Sac Skee: Harbison, John Silva and Gregg Van Meter. The games weigh 400 pounds each, and two of them are kept at Elixir for both league play and for those who just want to take some rolls for $1 per game. Skee-Ball lanes can also be found at other local drinking establishments, including Republic Bar & Grill. In addition, a Skee-Ball tournament was held at OneSpeed during the 2012 edition of Sacramento Beer Week.

Curt Pow, Elixir’s owner, says Skee-Ball’s been a good fit for his bar. The Sac Skee matches bring crowds during the midweek, and Elixir pockets some extra revenue as well. Monies dropped into the machines are split 50-50 between Elixir and the Sac Skee folks.

“I didn’t know Skee Ball was such a big thing,” Pow said. “It’s a good revenue-generator and it contributes to the atmosphere. Every now and then it sounds like Circus Circus in here. All we need is Whac-A-Mole and we’d be Chuck E. Cheese.”

40-point hole targeted

“Feel the ball, and be the ball.”

Elliot White shares this advice with Wes Kerbs, a fellow member of Team Turducken, as the night’s first match winds down.

The highest possible score in a single Skee-Ball frame is 900 points, meaning all nine balls landed in the 100-point holes, situated in in the uppermost corners of the scoring area. Vellanoweth’s personal best score is 810 in one frame. He aimed for 100 on each roll – and nearly sunk them all.

“Normally I don’t do that,” said Vellanoweth, with a Zen-like calm. “I just wanted to have fun.”

Most players aim for the 40-point hole, located near the center and easier to hit. Tossing technique usually includes leaning one’s body as closely as possible to the scoring area for the best accuracy.

Economy of arm movement helps ensure a steady scoring groove.

Vellanoweth prefers to place his feet in front of one another, like he was riding a single water ski or settling into a yoga-style “balancing stick pose.” He presses his front shin firmly against the machine for stability.

“You want a bruise at the end of the day,” Vellanoweth said.

Not everyone takes such a hard-core approach. For many Sac Skee players, game night simply makes for a perfect excuse to hang with the buddies and unwind from work.

Chris Hester, who by day works as a project manager with a Roseville land development company, takes Tuesday nights as an opportunity to play Skee-Ball with Team Turducken. Hester said he was slightly surprised that his wife gives him such an easy hall pass to play Skee-Ball.

“In a weird way, it’s OK,” said Hester. “ Skee-Ball seems harmless to her. All of the wives (on Team Turducken) know each other, and Skee-Ball is our night.”