WILDWOOD, N.J. — The beach at Wildwood is so wide, from boardwalk to surf, that we could barely see the water from where we sat on one of three empty metal bleachers in the sand surrounding the 94th (mostly) annual National Marbles Tournament. A transient parade of spectators watched from the boardwalk above the event, but everyone else there was either a relative or a marbles diehard who had brought their own beach chairs, or else they just sat in the sand. While we unloaded our gear, I asked my camera guy what he would think if he learned that a friend or a coworker had been a marbles champion as a child.
When I was that age—competitors here range from 7 to 14—I rocked a Beatles-esque bowl cut and thick, metal-rimmed glasses to things things like aquarium camp and a week-long summer class about lasers. I was deeply nerdy and lacked whatever discriminating social sense keeps cool kids away from objectively innocuous activities like marbles or mathletics. So I certainly wasn’t intending to lampoon the empirically superlative talents of these kids, all of whom are better at marbles than I’ll ever be at anything. But I asked this because, after driving down from New York City the night before, sleeping in a motel that might have had bed bugs, and seeking out scrapple before sunrise, I was suddenly concerned that what we were doing was setting up a bunch of children for potential mockery by publicizing their childhood pursuits on a website that, to be honest, often trades in mockery.
This was what I thought the problem was going to be with this story, before I found out about the traditional kissing.
The National Marbles Tournament, which, except for a few years during World War II, has been been held annually since the 1920s, is now three days long. We got there on the final day, when the top two boys and top two girls faced off for the titles of king and queen. I don’t know why the sexes need to be kept separate in a sport that physically strains only the muscles in your pointer finger, and neither did anyone I asked.
The boys’ championship was underway by the time we found the right stretch of sand. An early morning fog obscured the view towards the ocean and made it feel like the tournament was taking place in the middle of a Mad Max desert. A commentator occasionally shushed the crowd in between relaying the status of the game at hand. “Three, total of five, and shooting,” he might say. Or, as the individual games—each round goes until one player wins eight games—neared completion: “This one is for all the marbles.”
The boys’ title round went down like any great sports championship. Josh jumped out to a commanding seven games to one lead, inspiring murmurs amongst the several dozen spectators that he could be the first-ever champion from Michigan. Marbles can be something of a regional sport, you see. The winners are usually from Pennsylvania, explained a woman who had been coming to the tournament every year since she won in 1973. Or sometimes they’re from Maryland.
But Eli, 14, from Allegheny County, Pa., staged an enormous comeback, winning seven straight games to take the title. I held my breath as the deciding game came down to the final marble. Fellow mibsters in the ubiquitous white t-shirts with red block lettering spelling out their hometowns flooded the concrete slabs that served as the court. A guy with a bucket hat and a handlebar mustache asked Eli to sign one of the wooden X’s used to rack up the marbles. He’d gotten the signature of every winner for several decades. Eli, shy and serious, signed the back.
All the while the final two girls had been practicing just beyond the spare courts that had held concurrent games in earlier rounds. Coaches, who themselves looked barely out of high school if that, preached focus and fun. When it was their turn to compete, Sierra, 12 years old and also from Allegheny County, cruised to an easy victory. As the final marble left the yellow playing field, her competitor burst into tears that wouldn’t be quelled through the entire trophy presentation.
At that ceremony, a tiny redhead stood out as the only seven-year-old competitor. (Later, her mother would try to convince her to talk to us on camera, but by then she was singularly focused on the amusement park that had been promised her in exchange for good behavior.) After awards were handed out to runners-up and players of certain singular achievements, Eli and Sierra were brought up on stage for their coronation. They both received trophies, watches, winner’s shirts, ill-fitting plush crowns, and $2000 scholarships. Sierra also received a kiss on the cheek from a man old enough to be her grandfather. She scrunched up her face, the crowd “aww-ed,” and someone shouted at Eli, “you’re next!”
There’s a tradition, so it seems, amongst mibsters, that the winning young man should kiss the winning young woman in front of friends and family and unaffiliated adults and strange New Yorkers with camera gear, while their feet dangle over the edges of their comically oversized thrones. I don’t know how past champions have felt about this practice but in 2017, the king and queen were notably unenthusiastic. Their mortified resistance stretched on for excruciating minutes while the crowd yelled at them to get on with it. A quick air peck in Sierra’s general direction elicited boos as did the emcee’s suggestion that Eli merely kiss her hand—“like royalty.” Eli feigned contagion, Sierra claimed the chairs were too far apart, but the excuses were laughed off or literally overcome—the assembled adults on stage helpfully pushed the “thrones” closer together.
I hated this. The crowd wasn’t really laughing anymore. It was hot and muggy and everyone just wanted to go enjoy the afternoon at the beach. But even to the extent that it was good-natured, the whole thing felt like a textbook example of how not to teach your children that they have autonomy over their own bodies. I imagined writing that sentence and immediately felt guilty for my smug, Brooklyn brand of liberalism.
The ultimate appeal to any of this—any sport or hobby—is as a shortcut to a community and a culture. Like it was Red Sox fandom or Sundays spent tailgating, the kids we spoke to said they got into marbles because someone in their family had played, had taught them to associate these tournaments with the beach and saltwater taffy and fudge. The 1973 champ told us how her mother had crocheted a marble bag for her then-infant daughter before passing away. Wildwood is Cooperstown; there’s even a museum a few blocks inland. Marbles’ legacy is long enough to predate anything resembling modern social norms, and while the continuity is a selling point, there are traditions that strike the uninitiated as archaic where the indoctrinated can’t see a problem.
Before we left, I asked Sierra how she’d felt about the kiss. She said it was especially awkward because she and Eli are friends back home in Pennsylvania. I still felt uncomfortable about the tradition, but her comments rang true—cringing more over the fear that your friends might infer a crush than at any invasion of personal space. Twelve-year-old me would have understood that.
Video creative producers: Jorge Corona and Anders Kapur