3:33 Sports Short #44 // Geoffrey Crayon’s Reflections on the Puritanical Pleasures of Candlepin Bowling by E. Thomas Finan

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Today we bring you two posts about a little-known variation on bowling… candlepin bowling! It's much more difficult to excel at than it's more popular cousin, with the highest recorded score being 245 out of a possible 300. E. Thomas Finan touches on this and more in his piece below, and Neil Serven waxes poetic on the maddening "physics" of the sport here. Enjoy!

The imposing outlines of Puritan divines can be seen in the oiled lanes of candlepin bowling—a sport of human frailty and the austere wonder of difficulty.  Candlepin began in Worcester, Massachusetts in the 1880s, and New England has served as a citadel for the sport ever since. 

Candlepin is like attenuated ten-pin, the standard mode of bowling in much of the United States.  Ten-pin balls are like giant planets with three holes bored into their cloudy atmospheres, and the pins stand like plump and snooty waiters, waiting for the juggernaut of the ball to knock them down.  The balls for candlepin fit in the palm of your hand, and they whiz toward the pins, which look like, well, candlesticks with a red ribbon around the center.

The differences between the two games go far beyond the aesthetic.  A smaller ball and narrower pins make it much harder to knock down pins in candlepin than in ten-pin.  As a concession to this difficulty, candlepin keeps the downed pins (the “wood”) on the lane after the first toss; bowlers can use these pins to knock down other ones.  Candlepin also allows for three balls in a frame rather than two.

If your hope for candlepin is perfection, you are sure to be disappointed.  In order to achieve a perfect score (300) in bowling, all you need is twelve strikes in a row.  That’s it: twelve perfect tosses, each one leveling all the pins with an Olympian burst.  In ten-pin, perfection is daunting but doable.  However, in all the countless games of candlepin, no one has ever made those twelve perfect tosses in unbroken succession.  The highest score ever achieved in a sanctioned candlepin game is 245; the remaining 55 points reach like an insurmountable wall, rebuking the aim of perfection.

Is candlepin, then, a sport of fruitless and frustrating failure?  Hardly.  That difficulty opens up opportunities for instants of surprising beauty.  Candlepin is about improvisation—endurance—the coping with imperfection.  One plays candlepin not simply to rack up points but instead to marvel at the countless permutations birthed by skill, effort, luck, and grace.

Every toss of the ball invites to an unexpected ballet.  Sometimes, the candle-like pins seem filled with dynamite rather than wax—how wildly they explode!  They turn somersaults through the air.  They leap in all directions with a thunderclap.  A well-aimed ball dings a fallen pin and sends it whirling like a propeller to cut down a standing host.   

For many years, New England girls intentionally included mistakes, such as a missing letter, in their embroidery samplers.  These mistakes emphasized human fallibility to the young girls, and that sampler would stand as a perpetual reminder of error.  Like those New England samplers, candlepin reminds us that we fall short of perfection and demonstrates that great beauty can be found within the bounds of our limitations.

E. Thomas Finan teaches at Boston University.  He is the author of The Other Side, and his work has been featured in, or is forthcoming from, a variety of publications, including Philosophy & Rhetoric, The Atlantic, and The Millions.