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Bar Games, Ranked

Wait a minute, you can only watch the real, live Olympics on weirdo foreign computer TV at 3:00 in the morning? So my fellow ancients and I don't get to see our beloved curling and snowboarding, or even any of the lesser face-first sledding events, until whichever not-Costas is working finally deigns to show us the tape half a day after the fact?

I'm not a good enough person to ignore the Olympics because of the ghastly human rights conditions, and I'm far too good a person to care how comfortable the media toilets are, but if Putin can't even be bothered to run his clocks in accord with my optimal viewing convenience, then I can't be bothered to get it up for three weeks of snow jingoism.


I was really into the last Winter Olympics, when I got to watch a lot of exotic sports in real time because Canada knows what the fuck it's doing. I was hoping for a repeat this February, but it looks like I'm going to be undone by a vast conspiracy involving heartless dog-hunters, crooked politicians, and the rotation of the earth. So with the Olympics cancelled, hockey paused, basketball going through the boredom before the storm, and 98 percent of the United States frozen solid, there's only one rational outlet for our competitive urges: bar games. It's time to take sporting matters into our own hands—in the laziest way possible, of course, and I guess really only into our hand, singular, since you'll need the other one for your beer. Here's your definitive ranking of the best and less-best ways to pass time between swigs.

1. Shuffleboard

There's a new shuffleboard bar in Brooklyn—full-scale, upright cruise-ship shuffleboard, not the usual tabletop bar kind. Man, that sounds fantastic. But they're going to wreck it, aren't they? I'm going to get all excited for this shuffleboard bar and it's going to suck because everyone's going to be either too aloof or too earnest and why for once can't all the strangers be exactly as into something as I am? Most of life is like slow-pitch softball: You and I are the only ones who take it with the right-sized grain of salt. Everyone else is either way too serious and taking all the fun out of it or just totally jerking around out there and wasting our time. But that's humanity's fault, not shuffleboard's. Shuffleboard is the number-one bar sport.

2. Pop-a-Shot Basketball

This one's fun because to the naked eye it resembles a real sport, even though it's actually more akin to overhand skeeball than to regular basketball. It also disproves the Hot Hand Truthers who use their fancy charts and stats to claim that your last shot has no predictive bearing on your next shot. Tell this to anyone who's seen me burst into flames as the clock winds down at the Beacon Hill Pub.


3. Cribbage

This is the great bar game because its luck-based bones are covered by a thin layer of actual strategy and a fat crust of weird rules and terms that hide how easy it really is.


4. Pinball

Pinball is super fun, but it has a couple of crippling weaknesses. Every pinball machine is way too loud unless it's muted, which is lame and disorienting, or broken, which it probably is if the relative humidity is too high or you looked at it sideways. But the fragility and noisiness aren't the real deal-breakers. Pinball is kept off the bar sport medal podium by its compulsory two-handedness. What are you supposed to do, wear a beer helmet or stop drinking for 10 minutes or kill yourself or something?


5. Darts

People who take darts too seriously (which, remember, is everyone who takes it more seriously than you and I) are ridiculous and need to remember that regular customers trying to squeeze by to get a beer or take a leak are infinitely more important than your precious triple-16. Pool players are so ostentatiously in the way that a lot of them bend over backward to accommodate civilians, but for whatever reason most dartistes I come across think the barroom revolves around them. But even if the culture of darts can get a bit self-important, the game itself is a fine time. What's not to like about an easier-than-it-looks excuse to throw knives at the wall?


6. Buck Hunter

This is fun until you get good enough at it to ask yourself some hard questions. Maybe put the next roll of quarters toward laundry and take a break from video game blood sport? I say this not as an opponent of hunting or a proponent of clean socks, but merely as a man who's lost a few friends to the game. It is much more fun than it looks, which means it's about medium fun.


7. Ms Pac-Man/Galaga (sit-down version only)

It's easy, you don't have to endure the indignity of standing, and there's a convenient place to put your drink. But it gets boring a lot faster than you think it's going to.


8. Pool

Look, I'm not going to sit up here in my gravy tower and tell you greasers that pool's not fun. That's ridiculous. Pool's wicked fun. But it's also unwieldy and antisocial. Even when the players do their best to melt into the wall and stay out of the way, the game itself is inherently intrusive. And when you play pool, you can't help but look a little bit like an asshole. It's the giant stick, I think, and maybe the chalk. Pool is a game best played in the privacy of your rich friend's basement.


9. Trivia

Bar trivia's a good time because you get to nerd-mock all the people who know more than you and defeat all the people who don't. But trivia loses major points for its propensity to bring out the bad sides of good people. A mild-mannered friend once called me a worthless dipshit during a dispute over Indonesian geography.


10. Keno

If the 300 percent markup on your bottle of Bud's not quite enough to extinguish the cash-fire in your pocket, you might as well throw the state gambling commission a bone. But, stupidity aside, a little bit of Keno's good for the soul. Nothing wrong with pissing $10 out the window on 8-14-33-44 a few times a year; just try not to catch yourself playing twice in the same week.


11. Will This Card Go Through?

I mean if you want to be technical about it, it's been Friday since midnight and your direct deposit comes Fridays and you'd think that with all of Bank of America's rules and resources they could at least manage to follow a calendar.


12. Karaoke

Karaoke is for artsy exhibitionists who are too selfish or misshapen to just flash the bar and get it over with. (I do not have a good voice.)


13. Golden Tee

Golden Tee is probably fun, because video game golf tends to be, but its adherents make such poor ambassadors that I've never risked finding out. I'm a married middle-class white man who watches network television and has a preferred brand of wooden spoon, and even I am too hip to consort with the kind of people you see clustered around the Golden Tee machine. It's the same scene in every bar: One pinstriped guy smacking the trackball way too frigging hard while the half-dozen doppledouches waiting their turn alternate between practicing high-fives and working on their real-golf swings with exaggerated concentration and Heineken-bottle putters.


I've got nothing against sitting alone in the corner of the bar and purposefully drinking the pain away (and then back, and then away again), but the slow season for televised sports coincides with the deadly season for outdoor adventure, which makes this a good time to reacquaint yourself with some livelier bar activities. Please consider the list above, tell me about all the ways in which I have sinned against god, country, and golf, and then go find your bar-game bliss.

Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and has visited all of the other New England states, including, come to think of it, Vermont. Find him on Twitter@WillGordonAgain.


Art by Sam Woolley

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