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People Talk: The game of horseshoes keeps Lakeview man entertained, involved

The 2014 World Horseshoe Pitching Championship is expected to draw 1,267 participants when it touches down at Hamburg Fairgrounds next month. As first vice president of the New York State Horseshoe Pitchers Association, Frank Kwiatkowski of Lakeview had a hand in planning the tournament.

Pitching with a 30 percent accuracy rate – scoring three ringers every 10 throws – the retired steel plant worker throws flip-style, flipping his horseshoe once as it makes its way to the stake. Kwiatkowski started in horseshoes when he was 12, and he’s looking forward to competing on the clay courts that define tournament play. From July 14 to 26, he’ll pitch more than a few games as he catches up with pals from as far away as South Africa.

Kwiatkowski, 61, and his wife, Sandra, have three grown children. He is no relation to this reporter.

People Talk: Do you prepare mentally for a game?

Frank Kwiatkowski: I don’t really. I’m not the worst player out there, and I’m far from the good guys. I go out and enjoy the social activity. Some of the people you don’t get to see but once or twice a year. It’s a good day. We joke around. We pick on each other. It’s like a bowling league.

PT: Do you have a handle, a nickname?

FK: Most of the guys call me Big Frank or Cranky Frank because if you get on my last nerve I will tell you to back away. I’m not miserable by any means, but there are times – maybe once every five years – I have to rip somebody.

PT: Describe the tournament field.

FK: We’ve got kids who are 5 and 6 years old, the cadets. Unfortunately, not every state has a big group of horseshoe players. Alan Francis from Defiance Ohio is coming into the World Tournament at 90.4 ringer percentage. It’s a lot of fun watching those guys. They’re like robots. My average is 30.5. It used to be better before I hurt my back.

PT: Do horseshoe matches get exciting?

FK: Every game is exciting, even in the local bar league or backyard. I mean, we’re all friends. I’ve been sanctioned for 16 years, and I got to know a lot more people.

PT: Why don’t more players become sanctioned?

FK: Most people like playing horseshoes. They don’t want to be involved in sanctioned events. They want to play one night a week. In East Eden, most of the players are farmers. They play horseshoes, and they are done. Sanctioned tournaments are held in Erie, Pa.; Waterloo; Groton. The furthest I’ve been to play horseshoes is Utah. The NHPA is international. Last year in Utah we had people from Namibia, South Africa, Norway.

PT: Is the Buffalo area a hotbed for horseshoes?

FK: Not for sanctioned players, but there are plenty of bar leagues. On Tuesdays and Thursdays Chick’s (Bar & Lanes in Angola) has horseshoes, for those who want to go out for a night and have a good time – just like the backyard players. They don’t want the rules, the regulations. Sanctioned games are a little more serious, a little more regulations. You’ll see backyard players with open-toed shoes. You can’t do that in a sanctioned tournament.

PT: Is horseshoes a spectator sport?

FK: Sure it is. You get plenty of spectators. We have bleachers set up for them at the tournament. Everywhere I travel, I always bring out my two folding chairs. Some of the bigger venues – like Waterloo – are 24 courts. I play up in Forestville, and in the bar league at Chick’s. Every now and then I’ll go up to East Eden.

PT: Is horseshoe pitching trending?

FK: It’s sort of petering out because the kids today – you can’t get them off their computers. You can’t get them outside to enjoy a game. The cadets we do have, we do everything to encourage them and keep them coming. It’s very hard right now. The elder class – those above age 70 – comprise about one-third of participants coming to the worlds. We have a Canadian player who is 93. Larry’s from Hamilton, and he plays all the time. He averages about 50 percent.

PT: Does your wife play?

FK: No. I tried to get her interested years ago. She’s downstairs right now quilting.

PT: What has been your finest horseshoe moment?

FK: I was playing in Kitchener, Ont., in the Elmer Holt Ringer Classic tournament. He was one of Canada’s best players. My first game ever I shot 67.5 percent. I was on cloud nine. That was my highest game ever.

PT: How much does a horseshoe weigh?

FK: The lightest shoe you can get cadets is 1.8 pounds. Most adults would use anything from 2.5 to 2.10. There are so many varieties of shoes. When you check in for a tournament your shoes are weighed and measured to make sure they are legal size and not altered.

PT: Is there drug testing?

FK: No, there’s no reason for that. Most horseshoe players, I find, are very honest. Nobody’s going to cheat. It’s not like bowling, where you can win thousands of dollars. In a world tournament the top finisher in a class may win $500.