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A Brief History of Foosball

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Foosball image via Shutterstock

Outside the U.S., the sport where two teams try to kick a ball into the other side's goal without using their hands is known as “football.” However, when it comes to the tabletop version of the game, it seems impossible to reach a consensus. In the UK, the game is “table football.” In France, it’s adorably called “baby foot.” In much of Eastern Europe, it’s “kicker,” after one of the first companies to produce game tables. And in Spain, it’s "futbolín." As usual, Americans have to be different, so we’ve borrowed the German word for “football”, “fußball”, which is pronounced “foosball.” But because the game is played all over the world, there are dozens of regional nicknames for this very popular pastime.

The origins of foosball are a bit murky.

Some sources believe that it started as a parlor game in the 1880s or 1890s, possibly in different parts of Europe simultaneously. Nobody is sure who invented it. Frenchman Lucien Rosengart, an automobile engineer for Citroen, claimed to have come up with the game to keep his grandchildren entertained in the winter. But Alexandre de Fiesterra also said he had the idea while in the hospital recovering from injuries sustained in the Spanish Civil War. The only thing we can say for sure is that Englishman Harold Searles Thornton has the earliest-known patent from 1923, which looks and operates just like the game we know today.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

To the average novice player, a foosball table is a foosball table. However, to a die-hard “fooser,” there are four distinct styles, which necessitate different styles of play.

For example, American style foosball, also known as “Texas foosball,” is generally played on a dense, solid table surface like mahogany, the ball is usually thick plastic, and the foosball men are made of harder plastic, all of which makes for a fast game where power rules. In addition, American tables have three men on the goalie bar as opposed to one goalie in other countries, enabling the player to pull the ball out of the corner without stopping gameplay.

In contrast, French foosball is played on a linoleum surface with a “tacky” feel and a cork ball, making the gameplay much more controlled, with an emphasis on passing the ball and setting up shots, just like real football.

German tables are the softest of the bunch, providing ultimate control of the ball to strategically line up shots on over-sized goals.

Finally, Italian tables are a good mix of styles, well known for using either sandblasted glass to allow for faster gameplay, or plastic laminate to slow things down for precision ball handling.

Professional Foosball Tours America

Foosball was first brought to the United States by Lawrence Patterson, an American military man who was stationed in Germany during the 1960s. While there, he fell in love with table soccer and imported coin-operated machines after he came home. As the popularity grew, Patterson helped found some of the first regional tournaments in the late-1960s. However, it was Missoula, Montana, bar-owner and foosball-enthusiast E. Lee Peppard who made foosball a national phenomenon, when he introduced his own custom brand of table, known as the Tournament Soccer table, and used high-stakes tournaments to promote his product.

His first tournament was held in 1972 with a prize purse of $1,500. By 1975, he founded the Quarter-Million Dollar Professional Foosball Tour, a traveling tournament that hit 32 cities across the country, with prizes ranging anywhere from $1,000 to $20,000. As the tournament crisscrossed the country from January until August, some of the winners traveled along, living off the purses they’d score, in the hopes they might be one of the lucky few to compete in the International Tournament Soccer Championships, a $100,000 tournament held on Labor Day Weekend in Denver.

The Championship tournament topped out at an impressive $1,000,000 in 1978, but shortly after, video games like Pac-Man took a sizable bite out of foosball revenue. Some estimates say that before video games, Tournament Soccer sold upwards of 1,000 tables every month; after video games hit, that number dropped to about 100. Unable to sustain the big money tournaments on such slim sales, Tournament Soccer filed for bankruptcy in 1981.

Smaller manufacturers were able to keep the tournament going until 2003, when the Championships moved to Europe and are now regulated by the International Table Soccer Federation. Although the game isn't as popular as it once was, there are still plenty of high-profile tournaments across the country with thousands of dollars in prize money to be had.

Check out this great slideshow featuring many moments from the heyday of professional foosball:

Foosball Vintage Slide Show from Stephan Dharma on Vimeo.

Learning from the Pros

For most people, playing foosball is a combination of spinning the little men as hard and as often as they can, while hoping that the ball somehow careens into a man in mid-spin and by some miracle, happens to land in the goal. Of course that’s not the case for the pros, who practice for years to control the ball and learn proper passing techniques in order to line up the perfect shot. If you want to become a master of foos fu, check out this helpful tutorial from the UK’s Robert Atha, one of the top-ranked foosball players in the world:

http://youtu.be/hdoH3-7NqX0

Luxury Foosball Tables

If you're in the market for a foosball table, you can pick up a good quality model starting at around $500. But if you have a little money to spare, there are more impressive examples to be found.

Teckell Krystall Series – $7,500 and up

The Teckell Collection from B.Lab features eight different models all made with crystal glass sides and playing surface. Available options include walnut accents, aluminum hardware, or even gold-plated handles, all hand-crafted for precision and beauty. A small, coffee table model starts around $7,500, while the stand-up models start at $10,000 and go up from there. How far? Far enough I couldn't find a price for most models.

Mars Made Custom Foosball Table - $13,000

Mars Made has two custom foosball tables available. The powder-coated steel side panels and solid aluminum body of the Foos I gives you more of an industrial feel, while the retro TV-inspired design of the Foos II features an aluminum case with carbon fiber playing surface.

Audi Foosball Table - ~$16,000

In 2008, Audi Design developed an aluminum foosball table. Originally produced only as a one-off promotional item, customer demand convinced the company to produce 20 of them in 2010 for high-rolling fans.

Barbie Foosball - $25,000

© Rainer Jensen/dpa/Corbis

French designer Chloe Ruchon has done the impossible – combining the machismo of sports with the pretty pretty princess pink of the infamous Barbie doll. This 2009 design, featuring 22 armless Barbie dolls, was sold exclusively at FAO Schwarz, and can count Charlie Sheen as one of the proud owners.

Lux Gold Foosball Table -~$28,000

The Lux Gold uses only the highest-quality materials, like stainless steel and unbreakable glass to create a beautiful yet durable table that will last generations. Choose between 50 different colors for the table's accents, and from 12 different styles and materials for the men, to give your game room a unique centerpiece.

The Opus - $34,500

Design company Eleven Forty has come up with a foosball table that can truly be called your own. Made with etched glass, stainless steel, and a highly polished wood casing, perhaps the most impressive feature are the figures. Eleven Forty can scan in photographs of your friends and family and cast detailed recreations onto the players. If you don't want to get that personal, you can also create a Good vs. Evil table, featuring famous, unlikely players like Jack the Ripper, Gandhi, President Obama, Idi Amin, and more.

The Beautiful Game - ~$68,000

Inspired by modern football stadiums, The Beautiful Game, from 11, a design house in the Netherlands, is the crème de la crème of foosball tables. The table features chromed metal players, lights embedded in the playing field to display the current score and goal areas, and requires 12 weeks to build by hand. The Beautiful Game table will definitely make an impression – even if your foosball skills won't.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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May 23, 2017
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