By ANNE PYBURN CRAIG
Jobe Publishing, Inc.
The kids’ tournament has wrapped up, and the men of the Monroe County Marble Club Superdome are getting things rolling for the adult competition. County Fair bragging rights are at stake here, and the atmosphere is at once laid back and serious. The youngest competitor here today is four, the oldest ones are well into their eighties. About three dozen people have come out to play and watch this Saturday.
“These are the best marble players in the world right here,” says tournament organizer Paul Davis. “Larry Denton has won the nationals three times. Jack Tinsley has finished second many times and competed in England.” That was in 1992, when Monroe County’s marble masters traveled overseas, mastered the different style of marbles being played there, and took home the British Marbles Championship, 10-0. The Courier-Journal hailed them as “simply marbleous.”
The game that traces its roots exclusively to the one-room schoolhouse yards of Monroe and Clay Counties is complex and challenging, merging elements of chess, pool and croquet, played only with hand-turned flint marbles. Davis is the main marble maker for the crew. “Everybody’s got to find just the right size that fits the contours of their hand perfectly,” he says. “You flick it with the center of your thumb, and if you do it just right there’s a lot of precision and power.”
When the marble shed at Standing Stone was built, Davis says, Tennessee dominated for a couple of years; in the early 80s, when Monroe County built the Superdome, Kentucky took the lead again for a while “and these days it goes back and forth.” The game has attracted a lot of media attention as both a fascinating art and as a unique local folkway, been written up in Sports Illustrated and Grit and, just last month, covered in the Courier-Journal yet again. “They liked it so much they came back and did a video,” says Davis.
The Monroe County Marble Club gathers here at the Superdome at the end of Armory Road every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and most Saturdays too; they’re glad to see the game taking hold with a new generation who’ve never attended a one-room school, but are learning to love the satisfying flick of a well-placed flint, the feel of sifted dust on their palms. It is, Davis says, this dry county’s version of a sports bar.
“I think it would be a no-lose for the area if we upgraded to a better building,” says master marble player Jack Head, gesturing to the extremely basic Superdome. Old box fans are keeping the air moving; a barrel woodstove provides heat in the winter. “Something with running water, bathrooms, and central heat and air, stuff like that. We could put Tompkinsville on the map as the marble capital.”
Besides hosting the International Marbles Festival and National Rolley Hole Championship each year, Standing Stone State Park hosted its first-ever Marble Camp for kids in 2017. Spaces in the camp were sold out; campers included the five youngest Monroe County players who’ve taken part in their first-ever Super Dome event today. “We need to make it nicer for the kids — once they get to playing, they love it just like we do,” says Head.
“Who’s playing next round?” asks a five-year-old girl. “Watch these guys,” says her mom. “You’ll learn a lot. They play mean.”