Had to be there: On a roll with Washington's skeeball set at Iron Horse Tap Room

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 14, 2010; C01

This is the first in an occasional series in which Post writers take you on a tour of original places and happenings around the region.

The skeeball zips up the 10-foot alley, pops up the lip and plunks in a hole. The score flashes red as a blue siren twirls and some chick who has had two Bud Lights too many raises her left arm in the air, clenches her fist, bends her knees slightly, leans back like she may engage a limbo pole that isn't there, and screams "Woooh!" The pattern repeats itself, over and over again -- quick motions, instant scoring, unbridled enthusiasm.

Zip, pop, plunk, woooh!

Zip, pop, plunk, woooh!

"Raaaaaape, muuurder: It's just a shot away, it's just a shot away," belts Merry Clayton, barely heard over the speakers in the basement of the Iron Horse Tap Room in Penn Quarter. Upstairs, outside, is Monday's mild evening, with its luxurious royal-blue sky. Beneath the ground, hundreds of 20-, 30- and 40-somethings play "adult skeeball," the archetypal Jersey Shore arcade game, in an odorless bar/rec room whose interior design could furnish a Broadway stage if the TV show "Taxi" were adapted into a musical. Motorcycles perch on beams near the ceiling. Oil drums are stacked in one corner. Racks of old tires are suspended in the stairwell. Signs for Shell, Firestone and 76 plaster the walls. It's petrolicious, in a tidy, nontoxic way.

Zip, pop, plunk, woooh!

The Empire waists and polo shirts cascade down the stairs. It's opening day for United Skeeball at Iron Horse, which has turned into something like a Chuck E. Cheese for adults. No one is unamused down here. If you're not skeeballing, you're gabbing. If you're not gabbing, you're drinking. If you're not drinking, you're watching the flat-screen televisions. An "NCIS" rerun airs, or a recurring commercial for the History Channel's new miniseries "America: The Story of Us," flashing shots of a derrick spewing crude and the Statue of Liberty under construction.

"This is hot," says a guy in a white polo, holding an IPA, commenting on a woman's skeeball accuracy but looking at the small of her back, where a tattoo is playing peekaboo from between her jeans and shirt as she bends into a windup.

Zip, pop, plunk, woooh!

"Damn, it feels good to be a gangster, feedin' the poor and helpin' out with their bills," sing the Geto Boys, vaguely, under the high-pitched chatter.

"Nice, girl!"

"Feel the rhythm!"

"Take your time, Pat!"

Zip, pop, plunk, woooh!

"I have no idea what I'm doing here -- I'm a follower," says a big guy in horn-rimmed glasses as he approaches the check-in table, where United Skeeball founder Robert Albrecht, 26, keeps score and emcees this first night of weekly matchups. Teams of 12 go head-to-head at the two skeeball machines, each member rolling nine balls. If players don't like their scores, they can go again. Mulligans abound. People hang over the stairwell railing with their pints of golden beer, watching women roll while trying to keep their handbags shouldered. When the men roll, cuffs of dress shirts slide in and out of sleeves of navy blazers.

Everyone's caught in a hailstorm of high-fives. The teams cycle through -- Eskeemo Kisses, Great Balls of Fire, the Holy Rollers, That's What Skee Said, cheeky pun upon cheeky pun -- and Department of Laborers and Capitol Hillers exchange firm handshakes and introduce themselves before their matchup, in the style of "Family Feud."

"I'm Mike."

"I'm Rachel."

Zip, pop, plunk, woooh!

Repeat nine times.

Rachel beats Mike.

"Great job, Mike," Rachel says, punching him in the biceps.

"The first person to tell me what year skeeball was invented gets a free drink," Albrecht says over the loudspeakers. "So get out those smartphones. I recommend Wikipedia." (Internet answer: 1909.)

Across the way, in the corner of the big room, two guys slaughter scrambling buffaloes on a Big Buck Hunter video game.

Albrecht, an Alexandria native, left the National Guard last year and committed full time to his skeeball LLC after it took off over the winter, rocketing from a small group of friends to 187 players in the first season to 800 in four locations this season. He's "working with that market of people who really just need to know what they're doing -- 'I can put it in my schedule here,' " says Daniel Williams, general manager of Iron Horse, who's behind the bar. "They need to go out and have fun and they have to do it in an organized fashion."

Seen and heard: peals of laughter, wedges of lime slipping from the rims of glasses, foil carcasses from takeout meals, the elusive 100-point shot (big risk, big reward) and the skeeball's boardwalky jingle, which sounds like the smell of funnel cake. And game jackasses. You know them from the kickball field, or trivia night, or whatever activity-plus-beer you choose to fill your happy hour. They are competitive, intense, mercurial, vocal, tipsy. It's not just a game, it's a proving ground.

"C'mon, Jen," says one woman, clutching a scorecard behind her skeeballing teammate. "You can do it, Jen. Let's go, Jen. Nice, Jen. Go ahead, Jen. Are you done yet? Niiice, Jen. C'mon, Jen."

United Skeeball Association

hosts leagues Sundays through Thursdays at Iron Horse Tap Room, H Street Country Club, Continental and Old Dominion Brewhouse. Visit http://www.unitedskeeball.com for details.

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