Updated: February 1, 2006

Ok, let’s get this out of the way. Don’t Call It A Comeback. First of all, who said I retired? (Not me.) Second, why are you so surprised? Lest ye forget this old man was already a finalist in Legends, Quest, Cayman’s, Flips for Tips, and almost every other comp I’ve entered. And let’s face it, Blue Blazer was the comp invented for me. That’s my style of bartending. Not saying I’m the best at it, lol, but it’s right up my alley.

But okay, I’ll play along: how in the world does somebody as ancient as me, make the finals of FBA Pro Tour events like Blue Blazer and Best in the West in today’s age of who can juggle the most bottles or bump ten times in a row to the beat? Simple. By being smarter than your average bear. Not better, just smarter. And apparently, I manage to do it with flair that is… boring.

Yes, I’ve heard the comments for the past few years. My flair is “out-of-date.” Easy. Boring. Hey, I’m not arguing. I’m not agreeing, but I’m not arguing. To each his own. You’ll never hear me say my flair is dropping the jaws of the rest of the flair community. And you will never hear me saying “my flair is better” than so-and-so’s. Better? What is that? Different, yes. But better? Wow. And you thought Toby has a big ego.

I’m the first guy in the room to say to anybody who deserves it: your flair smokes mine. And that’s a lot of people these days. In fact, it’s most of the people I end up beating in competition. So don’t bark up that tree. My ego fits through the tiniest door, just fine. (Does yours?) My hands and the keyboard, on the other hand… different story. They have an ego of their own.

Hey, I may never make the finals of another event again. Maybe I’ve just been lucky. Or as I see it, maybe I’ve just been crafty about it. See, I would call my flair in competition smart rather than boring. Smart because when I take the stage, I focus on three things:

1. Get My Points
2. Be Clean
3. Put on a Show

That means I flair within my ability. I try not to pull off tricks that I can only hit in my garage with empties 3 out of 10 tries. I stay away from attempting moves on stage that I I made up three hours ago. And I don’t spend hours in my garage or the park, trying to be a Delpech, copying their exact moves, styles, or entire routines. Not that I could, but still… what would the point be? They already do their own stuff so well; I couldn’t possibly do it any better. Why be a bad carbon-copy of somebody else when you can just be yourself?

Nothing wrong with using a move or two from somebody else. As long as you ask them if it’s okay. Yes, I said ask them if it’s okay to use their move(s). I do. I actually ask permission to use people’s moves. (Ask Christian and Rodrigo.) Everybody ought to. Otherwise, it’s plagiarism. Theft. Plan and simple. (We used to stop and point to people in our rounds, before we did their moves, and we usually added something to the move(s). I still do this when I can. It’s just plain respect.)

I also try to spend time with tools few others think to use. And I work on my ever-evolving style that good, bad, or ugly… is mine. (Mostly, lol.) And more than anything, I work my butt off to put on a show. Mucho Show. If I can’t do it with big tricks, I’ll smash a couple glasses together in an effort to get the crowd clapping. If I can’t make a ten-foot stack of bottles balance on my forehead, I’ll pull a couple girls out of the crowd and play with them in the middle of my round. No four-bottle multiplexes to wow you with? No problem, I’ve got a Big Bad Wolf Suit waiting for me in the wings. And yes, I can flair in it and dance in it. Whatever it takes. I’m not really a big prop or costume kind of guy. (The Big Bad Wolf was an exception.) I just like to connect with the crowd. Pull them in and take them on the ride while I attempt to flip bottles and make drinks without spilling or dropping too much before my time expires. What is so wrong with that? I’m doing the best I can with my talents and abilities. I know my weaknesses as a competitor, and I do my best to minimize their damage, lol. That’s what I mean by being a smart competitor.

The result time after time is: I make the finals ahead of people whose raw flair is more difficult and in some cases (though not all), more exciting to watch. And isn’t that why a lot of us compete? To make the finals? It’s fair to say that most people who compete, want to make the finals. I know I do. So I try to make sure my flair is… smart. And I leave the rest up to the judges.

The judges. Ah, those poor bastards. There’s a thankless job in the flair world if ever there was one. Seems like competition barbacks get more respect than judges. So few people know just how incredibly qualified most of them are. I wonder what some of the rookies would say if they knew, for example, that the Commander-In-Chief Jim Allison had some of the baddest three bottle around right before he hung it up. Or that the Five-Star-General of Flair, Ken Hall could still whup some ass if he really wanted to. Or that The Speaker of the House Mike McLean understands the intricacies of complex multi-object patterns as well as anybody out there. Or that the Mayor of Las Vegas, Eric “Captain Boogie” Holbert is a World Champion. (Quest Rookie Division, 1999.)

I stopped judging quite a long time ago. I hated spending 16 hours of my life trying not to blink just so some whiney little bitch could come up and cry about their scores later. I don’t get that. Who are these people who actually think they have the right to walk up to some of the most respected, hardest-working people in our world and throw a hissy fit? Do these people begin to understand that without the contributions, hard-work, and sacrifices of the very people on stage with the clipboards and the clickers, all of whom know more about flair than the rest of the flairing world combined, there would be no competitions. You’d be flairing for your girlfriend and your dog over your couch. Period. End of discussion.

(Some of you are going to wish you could cut me off right about here. No dice, compadre. And don’t bother scrolling down for pretty pictures. There ain’t a one. This month, we’re rolling up the sleeves and pulling punches with nothing but black-and-white words. Well-deserved punches that will hopefully knock some sense back into a few people. Here goes…)

Just how brain-dead do you need to be to get your panties all twisted up in knots over judging? Surprised by the results? Hey, I’m with you. I’m always surprised when I don’t take last. Disagree with the results? I can buy that. But visibly angry on stage? Publicly vocal about your issues with judging in a way that is clearly disrespectful and shows your obvious lack of understanding of how competitions are scored? You have got to be kidding me. Grow up. Wake up. Judging is subjective. Always will be. It’s criteria-based, knowledge-influenced… opinion. How do you possibly argue with that? You don’t! Don’t like the results? Fine. But keep it to yourself. Better yet….

Don’t compete.

How hard is that? If you read the rules, and don’t like the way the event is formatted or scored, don’t compete! That’s exactly what Christian does. It’s what Dean does. It’s what I do. Take advice from the oldest guys still competing and the best guy now competing. Read the rules before you enter. And if you like them, then come compete, by all means. But don’t you dare scream and bang your fists when you don’t place where you “think you should” have placed. Do us all a favor and stay home.

That’s right… stay home.

Because the last thing our sport needs right now is another crybaby wannabe who thinks that just because he can regurgitate Christian’s 2001 Quest routine with two “new” tricks, he is G-d’s latest gift to flair. And I’m not alone in this stance. Not by a long-shot. I’m just the only one who is allowed to say it, lol. So there it is.

Quit your bitching or go find a new hobby. We don’t need you.

What we do need is some fresh blood. People with their own style. People with some excitement and positive energy. People with personality. People who spend their time practicing and performing instead of whining, crying, and backstabbing. People like James Hadhazy. What a breath of fresh air this guy is. And thank the stars Tim “Flippy” Morris came along. Vache Manoukian too, for that matter. How nice is it to see somebody on stage who is doing their own shit, for a change, and with a smile on their face. A real smile.

I’m sure these guys have their opinions and gripes, but they do a good job of keeping them to themselves. In public, they exude positiveness, professionalism, camaraderie, class. Wish I could say the same for a handful of other “top” competitors. And no, I’m not talking about Christian, Rodrigo, Nicholas St. Jean, Tom Dyer, or any other of the true champions. I’m taking about the select few competitors a rung or two down who seem to be upset at every other comp, that they just can’t close the deal. And so they start the finger-pointing and the rationalizing and the name-calling. (Hey now… that’s my job, damn it! Get your own gig.) No, but seriously….

I’m not talking about that one time you were upset and tried to find out from the judges why you scored the way you did. That is perfectly acceptable, understandable behavior. Smart, too. How else can you learn from your mistakes if you don’t find out exactly what they were? Nor am I talking about the people who have found a glaring error in the rules or the judging that can be fairly and respectfully argued. It happens and it shouldn’t be ignored. And yes, once in a blue moon, there is a result that next to nobody agrees with. It has happened. This isn’t what I’m talking about, at all.

I’m talking about the same handful of people who live all over the world, who are constantly complaining and whining about judging and scoring because their egos have been fed by G-d knows who and they think they should place ahead of anybody whose raw flair they feel they can “beat.” (Whatever that means.) What these people should be doing, and you know exactly who you are, is re-reading the rules.

Where in the rules of any major competition does it say:

1000 points will all be scored solely on difficulty, whether or not you actually hit your tricks, and regardless of fumbles, readjustments, drops, or spills. In fact, you don’t even have to do YOUR tricks. Pick anybody’s and copy their stuff, that’s fine. Bonus points for bad monotonous music that you’re obviously not listening to and a trophy for whoever shows the most blatant disregard for the audience. No penalty for crappy bartending, either. Just jerk-off on stage with your bottles and you will win.

I don’t remember seeing those rules anywhere. Yet this is clearly the mentality some people hop on stage with. And don’t second-guess me for a moment, to think I’m talking about the last month or two or any one or two people. I’ve been watching this nasty little boil on the back of flair festering for the last couple of years. And there a good dozen or so people who are guilty of the crimes I’m bringing to the table. If you’re one of these people, hear me when I tell you…

Your flair rocks and from what I hear or what I know firsthand you’re fun to hang out with, but as a competitor: you’re setting a really bad example and somebody needs to let you know, it’s not okay.

More than one person has tried to tell you: The days of contests being about who can do the most tricks and complicated moves in six minutes are, for the most part, over. You haven’t gotten the message. So I’ll load up both barrels and blow a few holes in your chest until you stop and read the writing that has been on the wall for the better part of the last twenty-four months.

Today’s flair bartending competitions, are as much of a show for the audience as anything else. Because without the audience, we lose everything we have sweated and struggled for our entire careers. We need the audience. Without them, there is no more TV. There are no endorsements. There is no Pro Tour. There are no events with $50,000 in prize money. King of the Ring, voted best new comp of 2004, was built on this premise. The Roadhouse Flair Challenge has grown from an obscure little event into a juggernaut, an institution, because of it’s relationship with the audience. Without the audience, we have nothing. And they are getting bored with 300 seconds of double-rotations to Sandstorm. More and more, at major competitions, we are seeing the backs of the audience’s heads when bartenders are on stage and that should scare the shit out of you. It scares me. Because if we don’t do something about it, and fast, we’ll be riding second-fiddle to bed-making competitions at trade shows.

The focus from difficulty and raw bottle-flipping needs to shift to balance out with smoothness and showmanship. Funny thing is, the organizers and judges already took care of this in the scoring, judging criteria, definitions, and rules. The problem is that some competitors just aren’t paying attention! Instead of trying to hit a bunch of complex moves (that, by the way, look all the same to the average spectator), we need to focus on putting on tight, clean, polished and most all… entertaining shows that draw crowds and keep them coming back for more. In a nutshell, we need to return to the Argentinean mantra of Mucho Show. We need competitions and competitors that resemble Carnaval Court on Friday night, and less like a yard-day at the park on Sunday afternoon.

Don’t put words in my mouth and say Toby said all we have to do is jump around on stage in a costume. Or that spilling is ok in the name of entertainment. Not at all. We are still flair bartenders who should be pushing the envelope of what is possible with professional flair bartending. But on stage, we should be focusing on performing a balanced show within our ability levels that makes flair bartending look good. Not what makes you personally look like a bad-ass to other knowledgeable bottle-flippers. As Christian Delpech puts it:

It’s not just about difficulty. Some people just go for hard move after hard move. Others just go for showmanship, showmanship, showmanship. The person who finds the best balance in all the categories, is the one who does the best.

The consensus amongst the “minds” of flair, is that the one area that is most out of balance, is showmanship.

By the way, showmanship doesn’t mean holding a tin up to your ear whenever you’ve bored the crowd so badly, they aren’t making any noise. Nor is it screaming at them to cheer you on. Don’t take my word for it, listen to Ken Hall:

This is the category that most competitors are missing the boat on. The days of just coaching the crowd as to when to cheer for you are not going to win you competitions anymore.

This is the category that Mr. Hall feels separates the champions from the runners-up. More on showmanship in a minute. Let’s tackle all the other categories first.

Let’s talk about VARIETY for a second. Don’t be fooled by the misguided opinions of some people. Variety is a lot more than than doing one bottle then bottle-tin, then two-bottle, then two-tin-one-bottle, then three-bottle and ending with that tired 4-bottle pattern that last for about 10 seconds. But yes, doing sequences with varying types and numbers of objects is one way variety is scored. But not if you are just doing your bottle-tin with two bottles or your three bottle with two tins and a bottle. Which a lot of people are. And if you have to repeat the same bottle-tin patterns ten times in 90 seconds just to attempt those four tricks you want to hit, you’re going to get killed in variety.

Have you ever actually studied one of Ken’s rounds in competition? If he repeats two individual moves throughout a five-minute round, give me a call and tell me about it. Christian and Rodrigo rapid-fire so many different moves in a row, you need a clicker to count them. That, my bottle-flipping fanatical friends, is a second type of variety that a lot of competitors glaze right over. Actually demonstrating different styles in your round is another way to get variety points. Watch Christian carefully next time. Notice the slow, smooth, steady bottle-tin. Now notice the fast, aggressive bottle-tin he throws into his round a little later on. That, is variety. John Fiore was one of the best at this in his day… he constantly mixed speeds in his flair. He was one of the first to combine rotations with flats that I can remember as well. Christian throws a tin around so many different ways: flats, helicopters, doubles, singles, shadow passes, left-side, right-side, under-the-arm, behind-the-back, forwards, backwards. Tom Alley has this kind of variety mastered. A lot of competitors can only throw certain objects around their body a couple of different ways. Just because you use different objects to perform the same two or three moves, doesn’t mean you’re going to clean up in variety.

So how else is an old fart like me thumping some of the young guns in the variety category? By flairing more stuff. I try to flair bartending tools that most people don’t even touch. Like tongs, zesters, knives, and lemon presses (sorry Juanito, but that is my move, and you know it, lol.)

In fact, I try to flair nearly every object I touch. I don’t mean one simple, boring flip of a scoop or a muddler. I really try to unlock the “flairability” of different tools and do something new with them. I’m not alone. But there aren’t a lot of us. You’ve seen Ken, Christian, Rodrigo, and Tom Alley doing this their entire competitive careers. You’ll see a lot more of this in the soon-to-be-released Blue Blazer 2 DVD.

I know I’m not I the only one who finds it painful to watch bartender after bartender sloppily rush through icing their glassware, pouring the liquor, and making their drinks just to throw up bottles for five minutes. Variety are some of the easiest points to get. Just flair everything, mix it up a little more and pay attention to your bartending!

ORIGINALITY? Touchy subject but, ok, let’s go there. If you think you’re going to get originality points because you spin around in the middle of a juggling pattern, think again. In fact, it doesn’t matter how many new tricks you throw into a juggling pattern, because the truth is, next to none of them are new. Juggling is not new. And there aren’t five juggling tricks I’ve seen in the last year that are actually new. And four of them belong to Rodrigo.

You just haven’t seen anybody do them because you’ve only been flairing for two years. Or you haven’t seen enough competitions. Alan Mays was doing three and four bottles back before most of today’s competitors were barely old enough to wait tables, let alone bartend. He was doing showers, cascades, columns, chops, back-crosses, and everything else… ten years ago. He was the guy who first put the bottle on his head and stalled it there while juggling. He was the guy who threw thumb-rolls and other little touches into his juggling patterns.

Christian has been leading the way with bottle-juggling ever since Alan hung it up and even he has taken three bottle to new levels, seamlessly mixing Ken Hall‘s multiplexing style with complex and exciting juggling patterns and tricks.

Speaking of a Delpech, despite what you may think, almost nothing you do in a bottle juggling pattern, has not already been done, by Christian or Rodrigo, in competition. So ok, you misdirect one of your bottles with your left hand and Rodrigo does it with his right. Big deal. You’re not getting points for originality because you switched hands for a trick! Give me a break. Hats off to the Europeans for taking a style of flair they collectively once hated, and for making it something new again, different. Non-juggling multiple-bottle flair. Brilliant!

Let’s talk about bumps and misdirections for a second. Not new. The guy credited with “inventing” the misdirection or “tapping” is in his thirties now. He hails from my hometown of Rochester, NY and his name is Mike “Bumby” Bombard. He was doing what they used to call “Bumbys” more than ten years ago. What some people are doing today with bumps and misdirections these days does qualify as creative and original. (Enter Rodrigo Delpech who has redefined this trick, er… style. He brought it back from the dead.) Still, it’s time some of the younger competitors realize that just because you haven’t seen a move in your short career, doesn’t mean it’s brand new. And most of the judges know this. Give them the credit and the respect they deserve for knowing more about flair than you think you do. Please.

As good as the flair you are doing know may be, if 50% of it or more consists of moves and tricks invented (or perfected/owned) by Christian, Rodrigo, Nicholas, Francesco, Tom, or Dario; you’re going to get killed in this department. So how do you get originality points? Um… can I get a collective “Duh!” Thank you. Make up your own shit! Doesn’t have to be difficult. Or smooth. Just original. Bounce a martini glass off your ass. Helicopter an entire juggling pattern. Do an entire routine with Piazza Store N’ Pours. That’s original. That’s creative. Need role models? Try Behnam. Bill Long. Ken Hall. Dario Doimo. Graham Warner. Flippy. Vache. Tom Alley. Tom Dyer. Fabio Milani. Nicholas St. Jean. Yos Malelak. Ian Bartos.

My final thought on the subject of originality, is to get more competitors to realize originality isn’t just about who made up a move. It’s about an original way to do a move or series of moves. It’s getting so good at a style or type of trick, you become associated with that trick, even if you didn’t invent it.

Neither Nicholas St. Jean or I get credit for knife and fruit flair. Nicholas owns it in most people’s eyes, and I’ll happily settle for second-fiddle on this one, since I’ve been doing it in competition for the last eight years. But it was actually a TGI Friday’s bartender in the eighties, who first was catching a lemon on the end of a knife in competition. Still, I would imagine both Nicholas and myself, earn some originality points for knife & fruit flair. And rightfully so. We have made it are own. Taken it to new levels not previously seen. I’ve been working hard to own tongs lately, too. Fabio Milani was flairing fruit and tongs eight years ago. Doesn’t mean I won’t get originality points for what I am doing. You don’t have to invent the wheel, you just have to reinvent it, lol. Take a lesson from this and “own” certain styles, tricks, or moves. Like Rob “Tin Man” Ford. Nobody flairs tins the way Rob does. Or Vache’s body rolls. Rodrigo’s misdirections and bumps.

Originality is also about an original or creative routine even if none of the moves are new. It can even be the way you build your whole show. Like starting with four bottles, and ending with one bottle. Or making both drinks at the same time, instead of one after the other. It’s being the red M&M in a bowl full of the brown ones. Be different. Take the road less traveled.

Let’s not forget the most overemphasized category in the sport: DIFFICULTY. What a double-edges sword this is. Without a focus on difficulty, our sport would stagnate and turn into talent shows behind the bar. Difficulty is the engine that drives the train. But it is not the entire train, my friends. Example: Mig’s ridiculously difficult four-foot stack of bottles he can balance on his head and walk around the bar with. I’ve never asked him how long it took him to perfect that.

James Hadhazy does it and he told me once that he spent more than a year on it. Oscar Perez is a virtuoso at the head-stall tricks and I know from a photo he mailed me seven years ago that he’s been working on it for at least that long. Flippy told me it took him a month just to get the first two bottles down and another 4-5 months to get a stack he was proud of and could take to the bar.

With all that in mind… can you imagine a round where Mig did nothing but put a record-breaking stack on his head for five minutes? Difficulty? Huge. Originality? For Mig? Yes. Creativity? Certainly. Smoothness? Doesn’t really apply, unless he perfects a way to do it that looks easy and effortless. Variety? Not so much. Showmanship? Have you ever been in the room when he does this? Brings the house down. But an entire round based on one difficult move? I just can’t see it winning on its own. So why then, do so many people put all their eggs into the difficulty basket?

Maybe it’s because the point spread has changed so much in the last five years and some people haven’t noticed. Difficulty you will recall, if you have been around long enough, used to represent roughly half the points in big comps. These days, it’s usually about one quarter of the points. Times change. Change with them, my brethren. Innovate or stagnate, as they say.

But I have a sneaking suspicion, there is just some semi-healthy, inner-competitiveness at work here. Some personal challenge people feel to come up with the bigger, badder move. Everybody wants to be the guy (or girl!) to invent the next big thing. Seems every flair bartender wants Rodrigo, Tom Dyer, Mig, Nicholas or Christian to look at their flair, even if just one trick and say Holy Shit! Humans have an undeniable thirst for achievement and recognition. I don’t fault this, one iota. What an iota actually is, I have no idea. But I do have an idea or two about difficulty that hopefully won’t fall on deaf ears.

First, there is a misconception amongst some bartenders that if a move or trick is really difficult for you to learn and master, it is difficult. Um, no. It has to be something that is more universally understood to be difficult. And so yes, this creates a bit of a quagmire. No, not the pervert from Family Guy. I’m talking about the messy situation it creates whereby you might have some super-original, incredibly difficult flair… that nobody else can do or can even understand. And so you’re not going to get your difficulty points… until enough people copy you, learn that flair, and let the world know just how hard it is. It’s called Ken-in-itis also known in medical circles as Delpech-a-tosis.

Ken takes a hit every time he competes because so few people have a clue how difficult his original three-bottle flair actually is. He taught me three multiplex moves about four years ago. That shit ain’t easy folks. Ask Christian. Basic three bottle juggling is a lot easier, I think, than most of the stuff Ken was (and still is) doing with three-bottles seven years ago. But that’s just my opinion. I’m sure some people disagree… people that can’t multiplex, that is. Christian and Rodrigo have gaggles of moves and tricks that 90% of us don’t begin to appreciate the difficulty of. And those two make so much of their difficult flair look so easy, you have to wonder if that doesn’t hurt them in difficulty scoring. Luckily, I have total faith in today’s judging and scoring system at FBA and High Spirits events.

Sidebar: These two organizers have earned my trust, and obviously most competitors as well. Judging isn’t perfect, it never will be. And we’re a good five years or more away from having enough experienced “retired” flair bartenders who become trained to become qualified judges to be where we all want this sport to be. But so what? Nothing is perfect and we’ve come one hell of a long way in ten years. If you think there is any problems whatsoever with judging and scoring now, you should have been around before the FBA was formed. You have no idea what crappy judging and scoring is really all about. We are so lucky to have so many passionate, experienced, knowledgeable, smart, levelheaded people in charge of the big events now. If you only knew what we used to put up with. Back on task: difficulty.

There is no direct correlation between the number of objects you are manipulating and the degree of difficulty it will score. Yes, a lot of times, more objects means higher difficulty but this is not an ironclad law. Most people know this, everybody says they know this, but some people still insist on focusing on the race for 3, 4, and 5 bottles. And that’s fine…. if you’re actually in the race.

That means you’re somebody who is innovating in this arena. And nobody, but nobody innovates here like Rodrigo Delpech. He’s in a league of his own. Makes me wonder if the word Delpech is Argentinean for “Breed Apart.” Adrianno Marcellino and Dario Doimo come to mind immediately as well. Adrianno has some just wicked multiple-bottle flair. Ditto Doimo. Christian is an innovator in this category. And there’s a few others. Very few. Nothing wrong with joining the race. Nobody, not even cynical, bitter, hypercritical me is going to fault you for trying. As long as you don’t bitch about taking 19th place when you burned three of your five minutes awkwardly fumbling through a lukewarm, three bottle routine. Remember: you absolutely must smoothly hit your difficult tricks for them to be viewed and scored as difficult. It’s easy to throw twelve bottles in the air. Catching them all is the hard part. (Ask Sam DeBolle.)

Ah, SMOOTHNESS. The other Christian category. You’d think, like originality, this is pretty self-explanatory. But is it? I thought so, but from all the whining that’s been going on as of late, I guess not. Just because you hit every move, doesn’t make you smooth. Conversely, just because your style is flowing and smooth, if you drop enough or miss enough tricks, you don’t get points for smoothness. Smoothness, a lot of times, is defined by your ability to make a series of difficult tricks, moves, or patterns look easy as you flow them all together. Nobody can do this like Christian. Nobody. That’s why he destroys you and me in this category. FBA UK Rep. and Roadhouse Frontman Tug Van Den Bergh brings up a noteworthy outlook on smoothness.

Smoothness is all about being able to improvise and carrying on without breaking a sweat.

Well said. It’s not just how smoothly each little section of your round is, nor how smooth you look if you happen to be in the zone and hit almost all your routine. It’s how you handle the drops, spills, fumbles, mishaps and brain farts. According to Ken Hall, Christian has become the master at this. Word. Christian’s mistake cover-ups are smoother than most of my best tricks, lol.

So how does this affect smoothness scores? Well, do you make the whole show seem smooth and flowing, no matter what goes wrong or are you like a blender set to pulse… smooth, STOP, smooth, STOP, smooth, STOP. Smoothness begins when Chico or JD says “GO” and stops when you take your final bow. Mike McLean summarizes it perfectly:

It comes down to the subtle differences between a competitor who is “on” or “just off.”

I wish more competitors, especially the very-talented rising stars would listen to this point. Some of the young guns are delightfully smooth, overall, as flair bartenders. What some of them are missing, is Mike’s point… you have to be “on” when it counts. You can’t be “partially smooth” or “sort of smooth” and rack up your points in this category. And there is no ethos that follows you on stage, unless your last name is Delpech, Hall, St. Jean, Morris, Dyer, or Gradeckas. You can have a reputation as Mr. Silky-Silk behind the bar or in your last ten comps, but all that matters for tonight, is those five minutes right now. If you’re “just off” you know it and so do the judges. In fact, that goes for everybody, no matter what your last name is.

Lastly, let’s not forget the redheaded stepchild of competition categories: SHOWMANSHIP. Funny how many bartenders ache at the thought of having to be a performer… as they stand there on a stage! Showmanship goes so far beyond fake smiles, holding tins up to your ear, and screaming “Make Some Noise.” There’s absolutely nothing wrong with using these devices, not a thing. I do. But it’s how and how often you use them that makes all the difference in the world. It’s about timing. Every judge I have spoken with recently, wholeheartedly shares this viewpoint. In fact, a lot of that stuff, improperly used, can actually hurt your showmanship. You can’t beg the audience to be interested in your show. And you can’t get mad at them for not appreciating moves you think are great. Bottom line is you have to be genuinely having fun with yourself and the audience to get your showmanship points.

People can tell when you’re genuinely having fun on stage. There is absolutely no way to fake this. Rob Corujo, Dean, Flippy, Ati, Duane Viloria, René Garcia, Juan Llorente, Christian Oldan, Stephan Notteboom: these guys look like kids in the candy store on stage. Great role models for having fun on stage. One of the top competitors in the world recently told me “if competing isn’t fun for you, move on.” Spoken like a true Gato. Flair is supposed to be fun. How you define fun, is up to you. Fun doesn’t have to be goofy, crazy, silly for example. But it’s got to be genuine, honest pleasure. Flair should be pleasurable to perform and watch. Exciting is fun in a different way than funny is fun.

While each bartender’s personal interpretation of what flair means to them may differ, as may our styles… the common denominators, I hope, are fun and passion. Flair, underneath it all, is if nothing else, an expression of your passion for bartending whereby you are saying to the world…

I’m having fun at my job. I love this. I can’t believe I am getting paid to play! I have the greatest job in the world!

Maybe, just maybe, this is where the true understanding of showmanship begins. With the realization that part of your job on stage is to share your passion for flair bartending with the crowd and the judges so we all have fun during those five or six minutes.

But surely there is more to showmanship than just having fun up there, right? Definitely. Showmanship, to me, is broken down into five different areas.

1. Stage Presence
2. Entertainment Value
3. Honesty
4. Interaction
5. Reaction

Some people naturally have stage presence. Others learn it. It is a confidence you exude on stage. It deals with your posture, your mannerisms, your movements, your aura, if you will. It is a comfortableness with being under the spotlight. And it comes from being prepared. You can’t look relaxed unless you are relaxed. You can fake it to a degree, but only a little. It also comes from building up your confidence through showcases at work, shows on the road, and of course, competitions. The only way to be relaxed and confident on stage, is to keep getting up there. Want to know what confidence sounds like. Christian said in a TV interview once “When I am up on stage, that is my bar, I own the stage.” Bam. The master also said to me recently:

I throw the first glass into the air and that’s it. It’s on.

That my friends, is the confidence of a champion. And it may surprise you to know that it doesn’t mean Christian isn’t human. He still gets nervous, just like you and me, right before he goes on stage. So did Alan Mays. So do most champions. But champions know how to turn that nervous energy into excitement. They can collect themselves when they take the stage, and radiate confidence. That is stage presence.

Entertainment Value is an easy one, I think. Look at Shawn Oana. You always know he’s going to entertain us. From riding in on tricycles, to sporting a mullet, to duping the entire FBA community with a made-up personna (Spencer Deleeuw)… Shawn is an entertainer. He’s fun to watch. But I don’t think taking the shirt-off is working as well, now that’s he’s so much more fit. I kind of miss the belly, I have to say. Can I get an Amen? Dean Serneels always has something fun going on. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Dean just hop up on stage in jeans and a T-shirt and flip bottles. The best way to figure this one out is to ask yourself one question:

What in the world is he going to do this time?!

If the answer is always yes, you are an entertainer. You get it. If we can call your whole show before it even starts, you’re not just missing the boat, you haven’t even found the harbour. If you make people smile with anticipation of what you are going to do on stage, if you keep them guessing… you have the Fetter Factor. Chris Fetter is another perfect example of somebody who always brings entertainment value to his competition routines. There’s very little that’s routine about his routines. Chris puts on shows. Do you?

Honesty. The crowd can often tell when you’re just faking it, to get a reaction. The key to pulling the crowd in, is to be honest with yourself and your show… and share your reactions with them, honestly, as they happen. When Flippy drops, his reactions are honest. That’s what makes them funny to me. He shares his surprise or his “oops” feeling with us. It’s funny.

Last year at Quest (2004), Paul Trzcianko had one move like this. He lost control of a tin or a bottle (sorry, can’t recall the exact details) and it careened off the ledge of the stage behind him but he ended up catching it to end a big move. You could see in his face that whole experience unfolding. You could see the “Oh Shit, I’m gonna drop this” followed by the “Wait a minute, I can save it” finished with the surprise and joy of “Yes! I landed it. Save! ” The crowd went nuts. We love that honesty from competitors. Seeing them nearly fail, but recover and ultimately succeed. That is a big part of the drama of sport.

John Foster had a round at one of Chico’s events like this. He was awesome to watch. His mistakes were probably the best parts of his round and he could tell. He was having so much fun back there, the crowd absolutely fell in love with him for five minutes or so. That’s what you want: to allow the crowd to fall in love with you, the flair bartender, not necessarily your flair. John was sharing the experience of being a competitor with us, including the awkwardness of dropping and spilling. But he didn’t make us feel uncomfortable about it. Quite the opposite. He had fun with his mistakes, and so did we. It didn’t feel planned, contrived, or canned. It was live. Real. That is what honesty on stage is about. Going with the flow. Riding the wave. Rolling with the punches.

Derek Jones had a round at the Legends qualifiers (Legends I or II) in the Rio Samba room. He slipped into the zone and everybody could just feel it. It was amazing to watch, to share with him. He was golden and he was enjoying every, perfect, smooth minute of it. So were we. Nathan Taylor fell into the zone and stayed there for his Legends I Championship round. Ken Hall was in the zone during his three-bottle, non-juggling “Ken and Barbie” specialty round at Quest an eon ago. Watching people realize that they are on fire, sharing in their joy for being on fire, is a rush, isn’t it?

Interaction. Two kinds of interaction here. The obvious and easy one (and a personal favorite) is to physically involve person or persons from the crowd in your routines. It shows you are there to entertain and that you want to involve the crowd. Doesn’t have to be long, elaborate, or earthshaking. Nearly ten years ago, I made up a move where by I “high-fived” somebody in the middle of a bottle-tin trick. I grabbed somebody’s hand, put it into the right position, palm open, hand up high and then looked at the crowd, and pulled off the trick. It wasn’t a hard trick, but it was a crowd favorite. It can be that easy.

The second kind of interaction is more subtle, and more powerful. Eye contact. Not random, looking over the tops of their heads, faking-it eye contact. I mean, direct, “Yes, I’m looking at you” eye contact. Especially right after you hit a cool trick. Nothing makes people feel more special than when a stage performer pays tribute to just them, in a sea of 1000 people. Try it. Powerful stuff. 1998 TGI Friday’s World Champion, Joe “the Rocket” Pereira was genius at this in his day.

Reaction. Getting strong reactions from the crowd is an art-form and a science. There are a lot of tricks to it. For some people it comes natural. For others, it takes practice. Holding your stalls longer than you think you need to, is one trick. Changing up your facial expressions right after you hit tricks is another. Showing emotion will get reactions. Watch Bill Long right after he hits his two bottle, two tin move. Or his double-over-the-shoulder. (Yes, Bill Long. He hit this move in the nineties.) Bill went ballistic when he hit a big move. You cheered just because you could tell how psyched he was to have landed it. Which brings me to another trick of the trade.

Sometimes, the key to getting a big reaction for a move, is to make a big deal of the move. Set it up. Make it look hard and make it look like you’re really preparing for a big move. Some people do amazingly cool or difficult tricks so smoothly, with no setup, the crowd glazes right over them, thinking it was easy. Ever notice when you try a move, miss it, miss it again, then take a deep breath, setup… and then hit the move, the room erupts? Same principle at work here. Just be aware you might sacrifice some smoothness points for difficulty and showmanship. This trick is best for shows.

From what I have observed over the years, the most honest and sure way to get reactions during your round, is to build up credibility. And of course, the king of this, is Christian Delpech. He doesn’t hit one cool stall and then ask for the crowd to go nuts. I don’t remember seeing Christian ever “beg” the audience for reaction. There are a lot of people in that room each time he takes the stage who have been told all night that “this is the guy to watch.” He knows it, they know it. He doesn’t take that for granted, he proves why that is his reputation, his ethos. He gets up there and keeps nailing move after move, to the beat, until he’s got everybody’s eyes on him. He builds and builds and then SHA-ZAM! He hits us all over the head with a show-stopper. And then he looks for his reaction, albeit briefly. Then he slips right back into the flow (well, he never really stops it) and does it again. And again. And again.

The best way I can describe the competitors like Christian, Rodrigo and Nicholas who know exactly how to build credibility during their shows so that they get the best reactions, is this:

The room goes unmistakably quiet when they start flipping or early into their routine. And then it erupts when they hit a power move. Then it goes quiet again, erupts again. This is the telltale sign of someone who has mastered showmanship, with technical flair alone. I watched Tom Alley just a couple weeks ago achieve this. I saw Steve “Nitro” Smith do this at Roadhouse about six years ago. I’ve seen Alan Mays, Ken Hall, and Bill Long do this in their primes. Joe Pereira could create this dynamic. Justin Keane and Josh Nemerow are knocking on the door with this effect.

There is tension, drama, and anticipation that you can almost taste the whole time they are performing. There are climaxes and payoffs. It’s a show. It’s a ride. These people take you up, up, up, up the roller coaster and then plunge you over the edge at 100 miles per hour so that the whole room belts out a collective Holy Shit. Is there a more real, more flattering reaction you can get from flairing than that? It’s a very hard place to get to, but taking the entire room on a ride that you are steering is one of the biggest rushes you’ll ever feel in flair. I was there twice in my life, a long time ago. Maybe that’s why I still compete. I want to hear the room go quiet with anticipation and then erupt with excitement again. Knowing how to do it is one thing. Being able to do is is a whole other ballgame, especially in this day and age. I wish I could have been there to see Levi Donaldson do it at the 2005 Quest.

So how do you get there? First, you keep in mind that you have to build your credibility and create that tension, that anticipation. You can’t force people to be blown away by your flair just by hitting a stall and going “Oh Yea!!” Not an educated crowd that you will find at most major competitions. Second, you have to flair long enough without dropping or fumbling to command everyone’s attention and warrant their respect. And third, you need to hit them over the head, once you have that credibility with some big tricks. I struggle with this as much as anybody. In fact, I don’t know if I even have any big tricks. Yet.

But it’s the reality of it all. The smoothest, most original, cleanest flair in the world, won’t bring down the house unless you have some Big Ass Moves to throw in there. If you don’t have those moves, I would suggest focusing on performing simple moves to the music and finishing with a variation to those moves to a big beat. Three arm bumps to a stall, to the music. It’s not original, but it has the effect. Anything like that. Capture, Capture, Capture, Misdirection, Capture. Big moves that make people say Holy Shit! either are just mind-blowing on face value (the hardest kind to learn and master) or they have a rhythm, a cadence. I understand that cadence as “Boom, boom, boom, BAM, BOOM.” Christian seems to see it as “Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom-Boom, BAM, Boom-Boom, BAM, BAM, KA-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM.” Hopefully you followed me there. You need three or four crisp tricks in a row, that are somehow tied together, followed by at least one surprise, and then a big finish. If you can do it to the music, you’re golden. The moves can be simple, but the cadence has to be on. This is the easier way, I think, to create the Holy Shit factor. Give it a crack and let me know how it works for you.

Another way to get those reactions is to practice your showmanship. Probably the single most important tool for this is a video camera. Tape yourself practicing and when you can, at shows and competitions. Watch yourself, Study yourself. Like an actor, you should be polishing your facial reactions, expressions, emotions, etc. Unless of course it all comes natural to you. Take Flippy. A born entertainer, right? He’s definitely a natural, but like most smart performers and athletes, he still puts in the work. In fact, he told me “I smile more at my wall in the garage than I do my guests at the bar.” Flippy admitted with what sounded almost like embarrassment that he videotapes himself when preparing for a competition and that he thinks he probably looks like a freak in his garage high-fiving the wall, pointing at nobody, and working the empty room.

Don’t worry, Flippy… you’re not alone. Most of us are freaks. And videotaping yourself is the only way I know of to erase those goofy flair-faces many of us make and the second-best way to dramatically improve how polished of a performer you can be. The best way, is of course, to get up there on that stage! And I’m with you Timmy: my garage gets a lot of shout-outs from me, too.

If you need role models in the Showmanship department, I’ve got plenty for you besides the “Puppet Master” aka Tim “Flippy” Morris of Harrah’s Carnaval Court. In fact, the grand-master is hands down Dean Serneels. Mr. Show. Up there too are Juanito, Erin Connelly, Ati Tedesco, Vache, Ian Bartos, Steve “Nitro” Smith, and blast from the past, Rob Corujo. Flippy and Pacheco together are off the chain. As are Juan and Christian Oldan. And who can forget Mac and Mamat? James Hadhazy is on my list. So is Neil Lowrey. Yos Malelak too. Mig for sure. René Garcia is one of the best. (Too bad we can’t get him to compete more!) And yes, no doubt, so are Christian and Rodrigo… but again, they are dangerous examples.

Those two, along with Nicholas St. Jean and Mindaugas “Mig” Gradeckas, can bring a room to its feet strictly with their raw flair. Most of us cannot say the same. We need music, crowd interaction, props, costumes, and whatever else we can muster to do this. These few are in a different class. Let’s talk about mere mortals, shall we? Like me.

I’m no Flippy, no Dean Serneels, no René Garcia… but I can work a room. And that’s all you need to do. You don’t have to be the best at it, just better than most. And considering the utter lack of attention this one scoring category is getting these days, it’s not that hard to do. While everybody else is trying to cram two dozen misdirections into their five minutes, you make sure the crowd is having fun and watch how much better you score.

So don’t worry what the haters think or say behind your back and stop wasting your practice time trying to be a Delpechbe you. And have fun with it. And I’ll see you up on stage, hopefully. (Fingers crossed, lol.) Maybe not next month. Maybe not even next year. You just never know. Because this kid competes… when he wants to, just for fun. I hope you do the same. And please, please, please… don’t call it a comeback. I never left and I’m still not all that great, lol. But I’m learning. I’m just reading the rules, doing my thing, and letting the chips fall where they may without harassing the judges. Maybe we all would be wise to do the same.

My name is Toby “El Gato” Ellis and when I’m not giving you an earful online or trying like hell to entertain the crowd with my “boring” flair, lol…. I’m in the crowd watching you. Show me something new, please. Anything. And for fuck’s sake… notice me and the rest of the crowd with something more than a tin stuck to your ear or a fake smile. Lastly, no matter what you do, please stop whining to the judges and pouting in public. If you don’t do as well as you hoped, that’s your fault, not theirs. Be a good sport, a class act while you’re on stage. Then get back into the garage, learn from your mistakes, and put in the work, if you want the results. Because competing is supposed to be fun. If it’s not, something’s wrong. Or, as one of today’s greats says “If you’re not having fun at competitions, move on.”

p.s. If you’re fresh out of ideas on how to improve any one area of your game, it’s ok to look elsewhere for inspiration. Especially for showmanship and creativity. So dig out those old VHS tapes of the old Quest and the first Legends and watch Boogie on Roller Skates or Kip with the straws in his mouth or Chico and his Chambord-Glove-Contraption and his freshly-shaven head, Bushur doing the Humpty Dance, T-Bone from Michigan doing Rocky Horror Picture Show, Flipper from Ohio and those damn fish gloves, Schultzy swing-dancing with Katie Allison in the middle of his round, Connell and the Coffin, Storm and the Disco Ball, or Fernando Alvarado with the Dove. Check out King of the Ring and Roadhouse. Try to get your hands on John Woo’s “Invisible Round” or Jason Serikaku’s “Jedi Round.” Don’t copy what you see… just get some ideas. See what it is that makes a round magic. And that create some of your own. It takes more than columns and shadow passes, my friends. It takes time, practice, patience, thick skin, imagination, and possibly a little bit of brain damage to make… Mucho Show! See You at Legends.



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