Last weekend, I hit the road to Turtle Lake, Wisconsin. I watched the sun rise as I made my way northeast through North St. Paul and Stillwater, through the farms and valleys dotting the land between New Richmond and Clear Lake, finally through Clayton and on to Turtle Lake. The farmers’ fields were dotted with snow-frosted hay bales in the distance, looking for all the world like giant cinnamon rolls plopped around the landscape.
After my qualifying finish the weekend before, it was hard to not be optimistic. I met Big Tim upon arrival–he had driven south from Gordon, Wisconsin–and we pulled into the parking lot one after the other. The casino wasn’t much to look at; a stark exterior painted the same drab color as the color-scrubbed winter sky, all windowless right angles and suggesting nothing about what you might find within. We strolled inside for our second ACC-sanctioned event.
Inside was a different story, similar to most Midwest casinos you might find: wooden rafters above chirping slot machines in every direction with casino kiosks and food/drink stations peppering the halls like mini oases amid a sea of gamblers. We oriented ourselves and entered the St. Croix Lodge.
We checked in and were given official tournament swag; a Turtle Lake Player’s Card, score-sheet, and directions to the bathrooms. In the interest of acquiring Cribbageland artifacts, I also swiped some Turtle Lake matchbooks–“Freedom Lights the Way,” they said–and made sure to sample the coffee. We sat down at our respective tables and waited for the tournament to start. Hundreds of crib-slingers shuffled in and made their way to their seats; there were 10 tables of at least 22 people per, some with more. Some played practice games before we started; others meandered around, saying hi to friends and arming themselves with coffee, juice, or soda (I’d say pop but we were in Wisconsin).
I was surprised to see a few more people in my demographic–the under-40 demographic–than I anticipated. As we neared 8:30, most of the room took their seats. The tournament director was clad in Packers regalia and proud to say so. He activated his mic, welcomed everyone and went over the rules of the day (22 games against 11 opponents, etc), and encouraged us all to have a good time. Then he invited an arch-enemy Viking fan to say a few words about the rivalry–I distinctly remember hearing “penis,” “dumbass,” and “next year” used in various contexts–and then the Viking led us in the national anthem. I doffed my Twins cap and raised my voice in chorus with the other Cribbageland citizens, an unexpected and welcome way to start the tournament. All we needed were fireworks and a jet plane flyover.
From then on, the day went fast. My first games were against a man named Jerome Tork, “The Torkster.” We played on boards embossed with the names of former Turtle Lake champions, and he had two to his credit in the room.
Time flies when you’re having fun, right? It also flies when you’re getting smoked. I wore the lucky curling hoodie and Twins hat, but I must have exhausted their magic the week before. I couldn’t make runs. I couldn’t make 15s. I was told I talk too much and count too slow. As pone, I always cut the cards I threw. Long before we reached the 11-game halfway mark, I knew my day was over. The weekend before, I had scored 19 points in 14 games. This time I scored 16 points in 22 games with a big negative pip count. I even played Marv again, and I was Marvinated a second time. The cards didn’t swing well for Big Tim either. The silver lining is that this tournament awards $25 for every hand of 24, and I left $50 richer. It was fun raising my hands and yelling “24!” to the wandering judges, who verified hands and awarded vouchers for the money, cashed upon exit. You could always count on a few disgruntled glares from those next to you when you were dealt such a hand.
That’s how it goes on the Tournament Trail. Part of the delight in playing ACC tournaments is the way they’re portrayed; it really is called the Tournament Trail. It’s an adventure. You’ll meet new friends and see old ones, beating them and getting beat in equal measure. You’ll be treated to new locales–it’s Reno or bust for me–and have the opportunity to play some cards, talk some trash, and walk away with some swag, or at least some blurry photos of a colorful rendition of the anthem. Turtle Lake was a great time, and the tournament is held quarterly, so I may be back again this spring. I’d recommend the pulled pork sandwich on sourdough for lunch, and to avoid playing Marv at all costs. He’s unconscious!
What was your last tournament experience like?