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An innovation in pin racking angers some pro bowlers



The sound of a bowling ball crashing into 10 pins - well, if you're lucky - is one thing that could change with the rise of new technology at the bowling alley. A shift is underway in how bowling pins are reset, using strings instead of the big, mechanical arms. Alley owners say that the new system saves money, but pro bowlers like Bryanna Cote say the pins interact differently and can make it a little harder to score a strike.

BRYANNA COTE: It kind of leaves some weird, like, Tetris designs, I would say, you know, just because of how they fall and how the pins interact with each other.

SUMMERS: In addition to those Tetris-like pin configurations, she says the new pins also change the sound of the game, like the melodious racket of a perfect strike.

COTE: I can compare it to a basketball going through the net. You know, it's like nothing but net - just like music to basketball players' ears. It can be that way for a bowler, too. But, you know, I'm not too picky in how I strike. If it sounds perfect or not, I'm going to take a strike, so...

SUMMERS: Reporter Ben Kesling wrote about this bowling tech overhaul in The Wall Street Journal. Hey, Ben.

BEN KESLING: Hey. How are you?

SUMMERS: I am well. All right. So for those of us who are not aficionados in the world of bowling alley technology, what's so different about this new system?

KESLING: Well, everybody knows what the traditional bowling pin setter is, right? Like, the pins there stand on their own. You knock them down. The big arm sweeps them. They set them down. And that's the way we all grew up with bowling. Well, there's a new technology where there's cords that come out of the top of some bowling pins. And when the pins get knocked down, instead of getting swept up and then reset, they just get picked up like marionettes and then lowered carefully back onto their spots. But the thing is those strings are always attached to the pins. So when they get knocked down, those strings have a little bit of play in the way that those pins interact with each other.

SUMMERS: Could that interfere if somebody's bowling, say, another frame if they don't knock down all those 10 pins?

KESLING: Well, it could, and it does, according to the United States Bowling Congress. So they've done mechanical testing with their robotic bowling arm, known as EARL. And EARL found that there are fewer strikes, there's odder splits that come out of that and that bowling is perceivably changed with the advent of these string pin setters. Now, proprietors of bowling alleys say, look; this new technology is more affordable. It's easier to maintain. And, you know, frankly, there aren't a lot of bowling alley mechanics out there. They're getting older, and not a lot of young people are coming into the business. So these new ones are coming in as a cost-savings measure and a way to keep bowling alleys alive. But league bowlers and professionals say, look; having those pins being able to fall down, watching the magic of those things spin and maybe topple, maybe not topple - who knows what's going to happen? - that's all part of the heart of the game.

SUMMERS: Do you have a sense of how widely string pins have been rolled out so far? Like, if I go to my local bowling alley, is there a chance that might be how the game is played there?

KESLING: Yeah, there is a good chance of that. There are thousands of these units that have been fielded, you know, not across just America but across the world. You know, when you go to your local alley, like maybe the one from your hometown if you're from a small hometown or something, odds are they're still going to have the traditional pin setters because the cost of switching them out is so expensive. But if you go to some of these bigger, newer bowling alleys, especially ones that are just built, you might find these string pins. And you might not find them to be the bowling experience that you're looking for.

SUMMERS: You know, I will - just to be completely transparent here, I have not bowled in a while. I am also not a good bowler. But I have all these memories of growing up in Kansas City when my mom would take me to the bowling alley not far from her house, and I would bowl badly, often with bumpers. And I remember those sounds you're talking about and the clatter of the pins. And the way that the game is remembered, the way that new generations of bowlers grow up into it, that might look and sound different now, yeah?

KESLING: Yeah. And interestingly enough, I spoke to a scholar of nostalgia for this story. And this person said, hey; when you go to the bowling alley, you're, in a way, stepping back in time, whether you know it or not. You lace up your shoes. You get your ball, and you're transported back to memories of the past. Whether it was when you were a kid bowling or the black-and-white photos that you see on bowling alley walls, you're able to suspend your time in the here and now and go back to something else. And that's something that is as much part of going bowling as the act of bowling itself.

SUMMERS: That's Ben Kesling, reporter at The Wall Street Journal. Thank you so much.

KESLING: Thank you.


BOB DYLAN: (Vocalizing). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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