Checking in with Nick Kahn ’14: A Skee-ball Anniversary Interview

Nick Kahn '14Almost exactly one year ago, Haverford College’s Exhibitions Program entered all 1,920 Haverford students, faculty, and staff into a single-elimination skee-ball tournament called And the Winner Is… After over a month of competitive games, Nick Kahn ’14 won the tournament and a trip to Greensboro, North Carolina, in addition to a whole slew of other prizes ranging from a meeting with a chemistry professor to blow things up to a solo violin concert courtesy of another student. Studying abroad right now in Paris, France, Nick was kind enough to share a few anniversary words with me.

Emma: So first off, if I didn’t know what skee-ball was, how would you describe it to me?

Nick: I would describe skee-ball as a carnival game. There’s really not much to it; it’s a simple game. You roll a very dense wooden ball (or plastic, but I preferred the wood ones–in the tournament I always made sure mine were wood) up a ramp, aiming for the smallest of the scoring holes that you dare. The scores possible per roll range from 10 (or technically 0 of you miss the table) to 100; my strategy was to shoot for sustainable 50s and 40s. The 100s, for me, were only for use in emergency, if I really NEEDED 100 I would have gone for it, but that never happened.

E: Had you ever played skee-ball before?

N: Only at Chuckee Cheese. And I can’t remember being particularly good.

E. Can you talk a little bit about tournament/gallery space? Had you been to the gallery prior to Winner— what did you think about its transformation into a sort of arcade?

N: I had actually seen the previous exhibit, which I didn’t really understand very well. When the “And the Winner is…” exhibition moved in I wasn’t sure really either. I think I was kind of just excited that the Campus Center had 2 game rooms now. The stated goals of the tournament gallery were very abstract and fluid, but they made more and more sense as names and numbers filled the walls; as I kept on coming back, as people–very serious adult people in most cases–were getting more and more excited about what was truly a child’s game. The way the gallery brought to the eyes and the ears a blend of the aesthetics of our really special community in one concentrated space, and then supercharged it with a “high-stakes” competition: it truly was art.

E: Can you talk a little bit about how you advanced from round 11-1? How did you know to come back? How did you know who you were playing? What if your schedules didn’t match up in terms of free time? 

N: I was lucky in that I work in the bookstore which is one floor below the Cantor-Fitzgerald Gallery; I would usually try to make match up times right before or right after work, and it also made it easy to get the odd practice in, although I wouldn’t really call it practice, it wasn’t that serious. I was never really aiming to win. I just liked to go play a couple rounds because it was there, and because it’s quite honestly a lot of fun.

E: The tournament seemed to last a long time — did you ever just want to check out? Or were you into the game the whole time?

N: The tournament did last a long time, but I never really got tired of it. It was drawn out over what, around three months so I only ever needed to think about it once a week at most, so it wasn’t overly intrusive. Up until the tournament’s aftermath, I was just another competitor, with average to pretty good scores, certainly not the best. If it had been the concentrated attention of the post-tournament all those three months then maybe it would have become a bit tiresome, but I enjoyed it the whole way through.

E: From my understanding the whole campus was involved– who was your most noteworthy competitor and why?

N: All my competitors were noteworthy; it’s remarkable to see how uniformly great Haverford students and staff are at sports. I guess if I have to pick one, I’d do so grudgingly and say it was the Assistant Vice President for College Communications, Chris Mills. I can’t remember if he said it so that others could hear or not, but when we were talking to the exhibit Co-Curator, John Muse, in front of the crowd that was gathered on the bleachers (still sounds weird to say! Bleachers at a skee-ball game…), Chris insisted that no matter the outcome of the match, that I was the one going to North Carolina, which while I thought was unbelievably cool of him, I didn’t want to take that trip to spend a day being Nick Kahn the almost-winner. If it came down to it, I was going to insist that he go. Luckily it didn’t.

E: Who did you wish you could have played?

N: This is an easy answer actually, Matt Wetherell. He was by far the most enthusiastic competitor I had seen. We had been exchanging messages about the tournament all through the process for example when and who we were playing, how they play, etc. We exchanged strategies, but mostly due to his initiation. We ended up being the last two soccer players in the bracket and when he was eliminated, he sent me a text message that expressed what was truly, heartfelt sadness. And then at the final when he was sitting in the front row, he cheered and jeered the loudest, and then after I rolled that last 40, I had barely turned around before he lifted me off the floor.

E: What did you do in Greensboro? Tell me about one of the things that you did?

N: I did a ton in Greensboro. No way I can say it all here, but one episode that sort of captures the spirit of the day was this: Lee Walton and Chad, one of his UNC art students drove me to a mall and parked right outside a massage salon (is that what they’re called?). One said “Ok Nick time for your massage!” Then the other said “Well actually we just have all this money for a massage, so we could also go on a mall shopping spree. But we were hoping you’d get a massage.” So I got my first professional massage in Greensboro, despite the fact that I badly needed new shoes.

One other quick thing that happened: they had me ambushed by a bagpipe concert when I thought we were just going to a nice game of Frisbee. I love the bagpipe.

E: Which 12 pledges did you choose? Did you submit one yourself?

N: There was never any time to take all of them, but the ones that I did take were awesome. Chemistry Professor Alex Norquist blew stuff up with me, Micah Walter gave me a 1-on-1 Celtic violin concert. In an ironic turning of the tables, my friend and roommate David Robinson was waiting on ME in the dining center, Sonia Giebel made me a home-cooked dinner, Professor Vicky Funari drew a wonderful portrait of me, and Phil Drexler made regular Facebook posts praising me for a couple weeks. The prize I offered was 4 hours of utter servitude.

E: And finally, have you played skee-ball since? 

N: Yes, once. It was under very different circumstances, last summer in Las Vegas. I still won.

For more on the skee-ball tournament and the transformation of the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery into an arcade space see a piece written by John Muse, one of the exhibition’s co-curators and Haverford’s current Postdoctoral Fellow in Visual Studies:

Watch a video recap of the whole project: 

And, see what happened to Nick in Greensboro: