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click to enlarge Aruna Balakrishnan, of the team "Ruth and the Ruthless," pushes teammate Ruth Wylie during a Human Curling tournament, at the West Penn Community Center. - JOHN ALTDORFER
  • John Altdorfer
  • Aruna Balakrishnan, of the team "Ruth and the Ruthless," pushes teammate Ruth Wylie during a Human Curling tournament, at the West Penn Community Center.

Here are the basic rules of Human Curling: You prop yourself in a wheeled office chair. You can kneel or sit, but once you've settled on a position, you have to stay there. Then you propel yourself forward, either by pushing yourself off a wall or with a running start. Or -- why not? -- a teammate can push you. 

What else? Oh, yes: When your chair rolls into place, you dismount and stand still on your spot. When the opposing team rolls forward, you can tag moving players (disqualifying them), or you can shove your teammates onward. 

And it's all played on a basketball court. 

If the rules of Human Curling seem arbitrary, it's because the game didn't exist until Feb. 28, when 20 local gamesters gathered on a Sunday morning at the Citiparks/West Penn Community Center in Polish Hill. The Office Chair Curling Tournament began at roughly 11 a.m., when the rules were explained by Adam Nelson, a 23-year-old financial analyst based in Bloomfield. 

Nelson is the creator of Obscure Games, an informal club for people who enjoy physical pastimes. 

"I was never good at sports," Nelson admits, "and I never liked team sports. I don't want to practice. I don't want to do any of that." 

But when Nelson worked as a camp counselor at the Massachusetts-based Exploration Summer Program, he found himself inventing games for middle-school kids. He realized how seldom adults play games -- even schoolyard favorites like hopscotch and kickball. After five years of living in Pittsburgh, Nelson realized what the city needed: recess. 

"I realized it had been about five years since I had played for no reason," he says. 

It turns out other people feel the same way: Nelson started a ragtag bunch in August, and by December he had earned a Seed Award grant from the Sprout Fund, plus sponsorship from Deeplocal, a software-development firm based in Lawrenceville. 

"I started this as a diversion," Nelson says. But now he is preparing for a late-summer "Steel City Games Fest." For the weekend of Aug. 27-29, Obscure Games will host a kind of mini-Olympics for low-commitment sports -- including some that haven't been created yet. Nelson is modeling the event on New York City's Come Out and Play Festival, a similarly low-key athletic experiment.

Human Curling set the tone for Obscure Games: At the heart of the event will be goofy, brand-new sports, whose rules are being tested even as they're played. This past Sunday, the players were mostly strangers, and mostly under the age of 30. (Some conceded they were still hung over from Saturday night.) Within minutes, four-player teams had formed and names were generated: the Kodiaks, the Penny Petters, Ruth and the Ruthless, and the Sweaty Gym Socks. One team of Carnegie Mellon students had come prepared with bicycle helmets and matching T-shirts, but most players dressed in the hip-casual wear of Urban Outfitters models. Tattoos abounded. 

"This is my first one," said Virginia Paul, a 23-year-old restaurant inspector who lives a "one-minute walk" from the rec center. "It's pretty awesome. It's like being in gym class again." Paul competes in local roller derbies, using the alias "Lavender Menace." But she seemed unperturbed when her curling team was eliminated in the first round. Having come alone, she seemed content to meet likeminded players. 

Paul's teammate, 22-year-old Stephanie Bercht, had spent more time with Obscure Sports, having played "a handful of times." Although she works as a design intern by day, Bercht hopes to expend her athletic repertoire to amateur soccer and any other games that come her way. Yes, Team Sweaty Gym Socks was quickly defeated, but Bercht occupied herself with some spare hula-hoops, rotating as many as three at a time. 

As the tournament continued, the players eased into the new sport, coaxing their wheeled chairs down the floorboards. Knee-pads and helmets were hardly necessary, but now and again the chairs tipped over, spilling their riders to the hardwood surface. (Nelson required that all participants sign waivers.)

"We're inventing as we go," Nelson says. For example, there was early debate about "pumping" -- whether players were allowed to gyrate their bodies to guide the chairs and keep them moving. Refining the game seemed more essential than winning; Nelson even had to remind the teams to keep tallies. "Keep track of your scores!" he called out after 15 minutes of play. "Or at least who wins the round!" 

Other Obscure Games include Circle Rules Football (where two opposing goalies defend the same goal by "wrestling" each other), Curbball (a cross between table-tennis and volleyball), Dog and the Bone (a kind of circular Capture the Flag), and the vintage Eck Ball, a version of dodge-ball invented by Amish farmers. 

Nelson is the lone coordinator for Obscure Games, but he describes the process as "very collaborative." The games themselves are a potluck of new ideas, where friends and newbies can streamline the amorphous rulebooks. Even the three office chairs used for Human Curling were volunteered by veteran players. 

Obscure Games also relies on Nelson's network of friends, who drummed up early interest and built the club's Web site (obscuregamespgh.com). 

"I'm really happy that everything is working out the way it is," he said. 

As Paul watched the advancing teams roll their players down the court, she shook her head. "Man, these guys are good," she said. "I'm definitely coming back next week. All I have to do is roll out of bed and walk across the street. I have no excuse not to."

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