Bob Zaletel may be the most tireless shuffleboard supporter the East Valley has ever seen, but that hasn’t blinded him to the sport’s image problems in the United States.
"The game’s been here more than 70 years, and people still think you’ve got to be 95 years old with one foot in the grave in order to play it," he said.
Zaletel, 60, is more widely known by the name engraved on the brass name tag issued to him by Las Palmas Mobile Home Park — "Shuffleboard Bob."
He has starred in an instructional video — "Shuffleboard: A Sport for All Ages" — at the behest of the International Shuffleboard Association. Japanese and Portuguese versions of the video have been made as well.
He is featured on perhaps the only instructional site on the World Wide Web, on the site for shuffleboard product maker PolyGlide.
And because of him, Mesa will host the world shuffleboard championships in the spring, drawing players from as far away as Japan and Brazil, where Zaletel says people don’t assume anyone holding a shuffleboard cue is on their way to meet the Grim Reaper.
Zaletel and his wife, Mary, recently came back to Mesa for their seventh winter away from Las Vegas, where there aren’t enough winter tournaments to suit them.
The Arizona Shuffleboard Association has about 1,300 members in the East Valley, and the season kicks off in earnest Monday with the Western Shuffleboard Association’s Team Tournament, with about 350 players and hosted by Apache Junction’s Golden Vista RV Resort.
Shuffling requires a little movement, as players send yellow and black plastic discs sailing across a 52-foot-long court with a 6-foot-long cue.
It also requires a lot of strategic thinking, as the goal is to land the disc on particular spots on a distant triangle while knocking opponents’ discs out of the way.
"Honestly, it does take some energy. There’s a lot of mental energy, and you’ve got a lot of bending and moving around," Zaletel said. "I marvel at some of the people who play at 85 or 90 and I say, ‘I hope I can do that.’ "
He was president of the Arizona Shuffleboard Association in 2000 when he suggested to the international association that they bring their biggest tournament back to Mesa for the first time since 1991.
From March 14-21, 250 American, Canadian, Australian, Japanese and Brazilian players will converge on Mesa’s Las Palmas Grand for the World Championship Tournament.
Almost everyone in this tournament will have to adjust to an unfamiliar playing surface.
Arizona and California tournaments are played on a much slicker court than anywhere else in the world.
Nobody seems to know how this came about, but it’s a fact of shuffleboard life that is the subject of Zaletel’s new project.
He’s in the early stages of writing a book about playing on the slicker Western courts.
Zaletel said he first picked up the game as a 10-year-old in Lorain, Ohio, after his father painted a court on the basement floor, "as to why I’ll never know."
But it was watching the last international tournament played in Mesa that fueled the adulthood obsession. This was before he retired from teaching in Las Vegas, so he started staging mini-tournaments as a reward and a math lesson for his fourth- and fifth-grade special-education students.
"At my school, you knew that these are special kids because they got to play shuffleboard all the time," he said. "Half the school wanted to be in Mr. Z’s class."
"He’s a schoolteacher. He drives you crazy with the details," said Sam Allen, owner of Florida-based Allen R. Shuffleboard Inc., which markets Zaletel’s tape.
"I love him. I think we need lots of people like him," he said.
Allen said Zaletel’s video serves as a good, inexpensive entry-level instruction, as opposed to the more detailed tips offered in another tape by top shuffler Glenn Peltier, who has "earned more points than anyone else, and he’s only 67."
Zaletel has a competitive streak, but his wins and losses aren’t foremost in his mind. He estimated that he’d come in first in seven or eight tournaments, then goes back to count his victories up and finds twice as many.
When rating himself as a shuffler, he uses a metaphor from his preretirement life: "As a teacher, I probably wasn’t the best at English and math, and so forth, but I would put myself second to none at being a motivator."