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3:33 Sports Short #45 // The Physics of Fools by Neil Serven

It’s a sufferer’s game, designed for Protestants and folks who get buried by snowstorms, and I come back to it week after week.

I thread a beautiful ball into the 1-3 pocket and instead of exploding the rack like it should, the ball slices the head pin high, causing it to helicopter around the left side and ricochet off the sidewall taking out only the corner 7. Now I’m looking at the left diamond, 2-4-5-8, a common leave that, since the pins are in a cluster, should be an easily convertible spare, but which I will not convert because to do so I need to spray the 2-4-5 triangle just so while keeping the ball on line to take out the 8 pin in the back.

The game is candlepin bowling. It is what we play in New England because we like to torture our souls for fun.

It is not the same as tenpin bowling. The differences, in a nutshell: a candlepin ball has no finger holes and fits in the palm of your hand. The pins are tall and skinny, like candlesticks—hence the name. You roll up to three balls in each box (not a frame), and felled pins remain on the deck as deadwood. The deadwood can help you convert a spare, or—more frequently than any rational environment should allow—it can create a roadblock, deflecting the ball away from your target in a way that you could never see coming because, even after decades of leagues and disappointments, you still accept the basic laws of geometry and physics.

Try to be clever and you will only outsmart yourself. The pins are ten skinny trolls, each taunting you from sixty feet away.

This was the game I played every Saturday morning of my teen years, cleaning up awards in kids’ leagues for high average, high single, high triple. Once I outgrew them I switched to a night league, where instead of trophies I won money, and after which I could go out for drinks with my older teammates, even though I couldn’t order anything stronger than a Dr. Pepper.

It’s an insular sport. You face away from your friends when you bowl, and there is no element of defense. Candlepin bowling, in particular, comes with a sense of geographic isolation, the border between candlepin country and tenpin country running roughly parallel with the Connecticut River.

I still bowl in a league, even though my best years are a puff of smoke long dispersed. Now I have no idea where the ball is going when I release it, the physics still don’t make any sense, and my knees are on fire by the end of the night. I pay twenty dollars a week for this privilege.


Neil grew up north of Boston. He lives in western Massachusetts with his wife and three cats. During the day he works full-time as a lexicographer. He is also a game-show enthusiast and a competitive candlepin bowler.

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