The fourth round of the Baltic Times Open marked the halfway point. Four rounds and seven months later the game felt more like an annual holiday get-together than a competition. Old alley neighbors chatted over sushi and wine while new team members were introduced to tournament veterans. Connections had long been made.
"All of the chambers of commerce and embassies are coming together," said Solveiga Abolina, who works as a consultant at the German-Baltic Chamber of Commerce. "We're no longer speaking on the phone to strangers. Now we know what their faces look like, and we have something to talk about."
What little traces of formality remained at the tournament soon dissipated into a buzz of beer socializing, shushi popping and pin striking familiarity. If there was a sense of intense competition, it was surely not felt by most.
"The Swedes, especially, have been a catapult in letting everyone know that you can both be yourself and set an example for others," said Ron Smith, contractor at the U.S. Embassy. "They've made the evening really fun."
Indeed, there was no lack of amusement from the Swedish alley. However, the star players didn't end round four in the usual Swedish fashion. That is, they didn't win.
"We're in deep shit, I don't think even our coach can help us now," Swedish team member Anders Lindgren said during the last minutes of the game.
Coming into the tournament in first place overall and having scored 424 points in the last game, the Swedes missed qualifying for the round-four finals by 21 points, walking away empty handed for the first time in sixth place. However, Sweden still qualifies for the master finals.
Despite a few too many missed pins, the team kept their humor rolling to the end.
"The Russians gave us some weird vodka. We lost because of that," team member Fredrik Haggstrom dryly joked. "We really did."
The Swedish Embassy wasn't the only team whose humor beat its score. In addition to being a Scandinavian fan, first time player Leen Gottsdrall mirrored the Swede's bowling humor on the Dutch side of the alley.
"You know why I didn't score? Because these bloody balls are made in the U.S.A.," Gottsdrall, who was playing for the Dutch Chamber of Commerce, said with a laugh. "You know what balls are much better? Nordic balls."
The chamber came in eighth overall. Gutter ball or strike, Gottsdrall, who hasn't bowled since his "young days," clearly had a good time. Stepping in for the first time, the bowling repatriate hopes to play a second round in November.
The NCLL was one of many teams that have switched players several times over the tournament. As the diplomatic life makes keeping a steady team nearly impossible, bowling shoe-sizes have changed in almost every round. Yet most participants agree that this is a positive thing.
"The players always change from game to game, even the Danish team changes every time," said Lars Simonsen, chairman of the Danish Chamber of Commerce. "This is actually quite good because you meet new people all the time."
This fluidity may be the reason why the round's final results came as a surprise to most. The Danish Chamber of Commerce took first place with 491 points, while Parex Bank placed second with 425 points, and the U.S. Embassy third with 423 points.