Duckpin Bowling

I’d be more surprised if you’ve ever heard of this sport! What most people know as bowling is tenpins–the large ball with 3 holes and tall pins that seem to like to fall down all at once for a strike. You get to throw 2 balls per frame there. Duckpins is similar, but the balls and pins are much smaller and we get to throw 3 balls per frame because this game is harder. While averages in tenpins can run in the 200s, a high average in duckpins is in the 120s.  

I’ve been bowling duckpins since I was 4 years old. A couple of my aunts were looking for something for my older cousins to do and  as soon as I was old enough (acutally, a few months too young, but they let me slide) I was dragged along, too. My cousins all quit a few years later, but my dad kept me and my brother in the youth league. My vividest memories from childhood were made at the bowling alley.

When I started bowling, there were 5 duckpin alleys with youth leagues that participated in the NDYA (National Duckpin Youth Association) in Virginia: Kegler’s Lanes in Charlottesville, Plaza Bowl in Richmond, Victory Lanes in Portsmouth, and Fairlanes and Bowlarama in Norfolk (I started at Bowlarama). Fairlanes closed a couple years after I started (well, it became AMF Norfolk). Then Kegler’s (also now an AMF). Plaza pretty much fell apart before finally closing their doors a couple years ago. Bowlarama got bought by a family who were hoping to make money by turning half the lanes into tenpins. It didn’t work and their doors closed for good in 2008. Walmart desperately wanted the land, but there’s a ministorage there now.

I was actually very glad when they finally tore the building down because it sat empty for a few years and it was just sad looking. My one regret is not stealing my favorite pair of house shoes. Anyway.

So. That leaves Victory Lanes in Portsmouth as the last duckpin alley in Virginia with a sanctioned youth league. Technically there’s 2 sanctioned youth leagues there: Victory’s and Bowlarama’s (the commute isn’t that much greater). This way the kids can still participate in NDYA  tournaments. There are 6 other houses (the technical name for a bowling alley) in the state which have up to 10 lanes of duckpins, usually next to tenpin ones. There are a couple of professional tours traveling the state and the country helping smaller alleys stay afloat.

This weekend starts the 85th Annual National Duckpin Bowling Congress Tournament. It’s being held at Victory and the tournament director, who is like the godfather of duckpin bowling in VA, made a point to say that this will probably be the last time the tournament will come to Virginia. No one is surprised by this assessment. Duckpin alleys tend to be a bit on the run-down side, especially the further south you travel. Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Maryland are where it’s surviving best, though they’re not really thriving.

The biggest problem with getting people to bowl duckpins is that the game is HARD. You can walk into any tenpin alley during league night and probably see someone throw a 300. In a duckpin alley, you can watch bowlers with 135 averages throw a flat 94. Strikes are pretty, but hard to come by. It doesn’t help that the lanes tend to be as old as the house with nooks and crannies and rotten boards that send your ball careening into the gutter when you hit them wrong. You know it’s started raining because a person with a 110 average who just threw a 130 game follows it with a 90. Recently, I watched a new bowler do the opposite when it started to rain–he wondered why he was doing so well and I said it was raining; he looked outside and was flabbergasted.

Tenpins, Duckpins, and Candlestick

People today just don’t like hard games. Heck! Victory doesn’t have electronic scorekeeping nor automatic pin setters, so in order to keep your score accurately, you have to be able to add while remembering to step on the pedal to sweep the lane and push the button to reset it as necessary. Throw in the fact that sometimes the equipment malfunctions, so you have to wiggle just right to get the buttons to work. 

One thing about duckpin bowlers that few will understand–once you’ve bowled for 5 years or so, you’ll say at least one time a league-night “I hate this game” (I personally threaten to retire often after my 20 years experience). Nothing sucks more than filling a mark with a 2 (because it is very possible to chop straight through the pins).

Haha! Okay–I have a great story for you. There’s this game, “Scotch Doubles” where a team of 2 bowls one ball each: A, B, A, B, A, B, etc for the whole game. Since duckpins gets 3 balls per frame, the teammates switch who starts off each frame. Anyway, I was bowling Scotch Doubles one time and I chopped 2. My teammate bowled next and threw his ball through that hole. Then I bowled and my ball went through the hole again. Dozens of years of experience between the two of us and we did that. But, that’s duckpins for you!

And that’s the slight insanity that makes duckpin bowlers stick with it. Because there are some nights when nothing goes right. And then there are those magical games when it doesn’t matter where you lay down the ball, something gorgeous is going to happen. One of the guys on our league threw a 195 last night. He has like a 125 average. There’s another guy who I’ve always been intimidated by because he’s big and quiet and always seemed to show no emotion (he’s the dad of one of my youth league teammates). Since bowling with him on an adult league, I’ve learned he does have a nice sense of humor, but it was when he bowled a 200+ game that I heard him actually shout when he made a mark. Most bowlers will give a little “woo hoo” or stamp their foot depending, but not him. 

Anyway, let me end this little PSA with a request that ya’ll try to spread the word about duckpins. And if you can get to where there’s an alley still in existence, I hope you decide to try it out. It’s wishful thinking that some billionaire will decide to open alleys across the country an revamp the sport, but who knows. 6 degrees of separation states that if enough people spread the word, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates will hear about it.

Just remember, “Duckpin bowlers have 3 balls”.

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