You may think of shuffleboard as a game played on cruise ships by vacationers wearing Hawaiian-print shirts, but that isn’t always the case, as a McClure Shuffleboard Table Blog entry for 20 September 2013 tells us.
“The most unique shuffleboard tournament of all time occurred somewhere you could never have imagined—underwater! No, it did not involve waterproof shuffleboard tables and scuba suits, as wild as that would be. The underwater shuffleboard tournament actually occurred aboard one of the first Polaris Submarines, the USS Theodore Roosevelt [SSBN-600].
“In the late 1950’s, …US Navy Officer and Chaplain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt contacted Sol Lipkin, the era’s most prominent salesman of shuffleboard tables. Sol’s expertise would prove to be supremely valuable in getting a shuffleboard table installed in the submarine.
“The idea behind the table was to offer the crew a chance to do something competitive in-between missions. As you might be able to imagine, long days are that much longer when they are spent entirely underwater. The crew had plenty of movies to watch, but the Chaplain wanted to provide them with a more engaging activity. With a shuffleboard table, they could scratch the gaming itch tenfold by conducting a shuffleboard tournament.
“The submarine was sent from Connecticut to South Carolina to be outfitted for naval use, so the shuffleboard installation became part of the outfitting process. The table itself was installed down the hatch, on the steel structure of the torpedo rack. In order for the table to be at the correct height for play, the legs had to be drastically shortened.
“With shuffleboard table installed and ready to go, the lucky crew was ready to begin their underwater shuffleboard tournament. Sol Lipkin personally recalls that a Captain and Lieutenant were eventually partnered against two other crew members in the final match of the tournament, although he does not remember specific names. What he does remember, and clearly, are the final shots of the tournament.
“It’s a 21-point game, and the score is 20-20. Picture the Captain [poised] and ready to strike, hammer in hand. His opponent throws a weight that only makes it past the short foul line. The Captain is grinning, for he knows that a swift victory is in his hands. He only needs one point to win the shuffleboard tournament, and it should be a piece of cake, right?
“As only a bizarre coincidence would have it, the submarine tilted at just the same moment that the Captain made what should have been a game-winning shot. As the hammer slid down the table to surpass the short weight, the tilting submarine caused it to fall into the gutter instead! (Fun fact: the Navy crew had their own name for the gutter. They called it the rough, and it must have been pretty rough on the Captain indeed.)
“As a result, the two opposing crew members won in quite a ridiculous way…without the hammer, and with only a short weight on the board! As shuffleboard tournament champions go, these winners were especially lucky.”
In his later years, Lipkin claimed that the tournament in question, which probably took place shortly after the boat was launched in 1959, lasted sixty days. He also believed that a little bird had tipped off the helmsman, who in turn tipped the sub just a little at just the right (or wrong, if you were the C.O.) moment. It seems that after that heartbreak, the captain wised up. The sternplanesman who was on watch during the final game of the 1962 World Shuffleboard Tournament remembers the control room receiving a message from the C.O. requesting a zero bubble—to keep the boat perfectly flat—while he attempted his tournament-winning shot. “I can’t recall if he won or not,” the crewman said, “but he must have because I don’t remember being called to the Captain’s quarters for an a** chewing.”