My second book (and first in English) is out. It’s a collection of my personal favorite things I wrote in 1992-2021 (LA Weekly, Los Angeles Times, New Times, San Antonio Current, Dallas Observer, etc.).
I knew my friend, countryman, electronic engineer and San Antonio resident Jorge Alcoz was into spinning tops, but you can’t imagine my surprise when, a few days ago, he called me to tell me he had won a big world championship in Japan, one of the countries with the longest and most sophisticated top tradition. This is how he did it:
On August 15, Jorge (who competes under the pseudonym Tao) beat Japanese Kazuhito Miki and Keita Watanabe in the Spintop Freestyle category of the 2015 World Yo-Yo Contest held in Tokyo on August 13-17. It was Jorge’s fourth championship, having won the South Central Regional Contest in 2006, the National Spintop Contest in 2008 and the World Spintop Contest in 2009 (he also has one national second place, a national third place and a world third place).
When I asked Jorge whether he knew any other local trompo practitioners, he told me about a guy named Russell “Rusty” Steubing, who had won the first Duncan top championship in 1963. About five years ago, a collector had given Jorge a Duncan business card with Rusty’s name and an old address on it. That’s all Jorge had as to Rusty’s whereabouts. Well, that, and this clip from the San Antonio Express (or was it the News? Rusty isn’t sure):
Fifty years after Rusty had won the tournament, Jorge called called the address on the card (which had the old format of EDison 3-0XXX) and asked to speak to “the person who won the top competition in 1963.” When Jorge finally contacted him, it took him five years to finally meet with him.
“After a while, I realized he was very low key and I didn’t want to impose,” said Jorge, who owns a collection of hundreds of tops from all over the world and whose living room is decorated with “Los Trompos,” a signed print of a painting by SA artist Joe Villarreal.
I suggested he gave it another try before I’d try myself, and in a couple of days Rusty accepted to meet for a joint interview on September 7.
“It was like a dream,” said Jorge. “I couldn’t believe it when he accepted. He’s like a hero to me.”
So here it is: Rusty and Jorge, SA’s first and latest spintop champions of San Antonio meeting for the first time. Watch the videos and read part of their conversation.
Jorge, when did your passion for spinning tops start?
(In Spanish) I used to see older players spin tops on the floor. When I was old enough to play, nobody else was playing. I still have my dad’s spinning top. But no, I never played with spinning tops as a kid. Around 1998 I started collecting magnetic spinning tops because I’m into science toys. I once found a paper saying, “How to throw a spinning top onto your hand,” and I learned that.
So you learned through manuals?
Yes, but I used to do juggling since I was 18, with balls and clubs, so I had an idea about eye-hand coordination. In 1998 there was a great yo-yo boom or revival and, as they had done in the ’60s, yo-yo companies also started making spinning tops. With the advent of the internet, some spinning top forums started appearing and I was hooked, to the point I started my own forum. I was 39… (laughs) Now I’m 54.
After you won the National Championship in Orlando [in 2008] you retired and concentrated on judging, but now you decided to play in Japan. Why?
After Orlando I felt I didn’t need to do anything else and decided to let younger people play. I was a judge until last year and decided to compete as Uruguayan in Tokyo. I only want to compete in international competitions, to support the tournament so that there are more countries represented.
Rusty, I’m so happy to be sitting in front of SA’s first and latest spinning top champion players. Thanks for coming!
Rusty: I find it funny to hear the word “player,” because I prefer the word “top spinner.” That’s the older terminology that existed in 1963 and 1964. You didn’t “play” a top: you would spin a top. So “player” is an interesting new terminology.
Jorge: My wish is that it will eventually be considered a sport. But it’s really a hobby.
But it is also an art form, isn’t it?
Rusty: I think so. It’s a skill that requires hand-eye coordination, and although juggling is different, there are a lot of similarities.
Do you think top spinning should be included in the Olympics?
Rusty: I think it is an art form. Whether or not it should be included in the Olympics, I’d have to think about that. Jorge, how do they score points nowadays? Are points assigned for style?
Jorge: In Japan, 20 percent of points this year were assigned to style. It used to be 10 percent, 15 percent… Tricks are assigned 1 to six points depending on difficulty, but it is very subjective on the part of the judges.
You were also a judge. How hard it is to score this, given the fact that things happen very rapidly in top spinning?
Jorge: Yes, it’s hard to follow routines.
Rusty: For what I’ve observed online, competitions today are so much different than they were. In 1963, that was the very first time Duncan actually had a top-spinning competition. Up until then, the company was mainly known as a yo-yo manufacturer. “If it isn’t a Duncan, it isn’t a yo-yo,” was the slogan. My father competed in the 1940s with yo-yos, but it was a simple matter of one contest at a Downtown theater. In San Antonio, it was usually at the Majestic or the Old Texas Theatre. I don’t think they even had qualifiers. Everyone would just show up. If I’m not mistaken, it was similar to what I had to do when I competed [in 1963 with spinning tops]: you had to do tricks, and if you did it on the first try you got 10 points. With tops in 1963 was basically the same thing: you had to do 10 basic tricks and, if you did it on the first try, you were awarded 10 points. In California at Disneyland there were almost 50 kids, and the first trick was just to spin the top. The second, you had to spin it within a circle and make the top stay within the circle. And so on, with increasing difficulty, all the way to the twin spin, aerial tricks, etc. So if you missed it the first time, you would basically be out, unless other competitors also missed.
So you were 11 years old when you won the first national in Disneyland in 1963. How did you get there? Did you have to win some kind of regional?
Rusty: There were local, regional and statewide competitions. In 1962, Duncan was going nationwide with these campaigns for the yo-yo, because in ’62 was the first national yo-yo championship. In ’63 they sponsored not only yo-yos but tops. There was a demonstration in San Antonio done by Don Winters.
Jorge: Oh, really? He’s the one on the booklet showing all the tricks.
Rusty: Right! He was in San Antonio for probably three or four weeks maximum. His responsibility was not only conducting the contest but coordinating local appearances on TV shows and local toy stores and grocery stores comparable to the Family Dollar nowadays. I won San Antonio on one Saturday morning with 40 or 50 kids competing. There was a grocery store called Handy Andy where they sold tops. Then they had what was billed as the “Southwest Regional Championship,” which technically was just Texas. They had kids from Houston, Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth… Maybe Waco.
What did you win in the Regional/State tournament?
Rusty: The price for the local was a bicycle and qualification to the State championship, and the prize for that was a trip for you and your parent or guardian to compete in California. This contest was in February 1963 in SA, and the National Championship was not until three or four months away. As it turned out, we didn’t fly out: My father decided to cash in the airline tickets and take the entire family on a trip out there. My recollection of that trip, frankly, is very similar to the Chevy Chase movie National Lampoon’s Vacation. (laughs) We were in a station wagon, very much like that one, we had trouble with it pretty much the entire way, but it made for a big adventure. I was the eldest child. I was 11, my sister had 9, a brother who was 7, and a brother who was 3.
Did you think you had a chance to win it?
Rusty: Well, I did, because of the influence my father had. I would not have gotten involved in this had it not been for my father. He saw the top ads on TV and told me, “OK, let’s learn how to do this.” I didn’t watch too much TV. In 1963 we spent our time outside playing. There were no computers, so we were either inside reading or outside playing. He was pretty good with the yo-yo and taught himself how to spin. He would take me to see the demonstrator and then we would go home and practice. There were horrible printed instructions, so the only way to really learn was to watch someone. We would practice for hours everyday. Sundays, everything was closed, even malls and grocery stores, but Monday through Saturday we would compete, sometimes twice a day.
OK, so you finally arrived in Disneyland. What happened there?
Rusty: They had a meet-and-greet and I just started doing tricks.
Jorge: And there were kids that were older than you, right?
Rusty: Yeah, most of them were 13 or 14. Then I started doing tricks with the twin spin, where you throw it and pull back and do the boomerang, and then catch one top in each hand. Most kids didn’t know that. On the very first day it became apparent to me I was one of the best there. Everyone was invited to a Dodgers baseball game, but we didn’t go. My father said, “That game is going to last late. We should stay here and relax… and practice!”
That did it! Your father was smart!
Rusty: I also wanted to see the Dodgers, I was a big fan, but it was a long drive (we were in Anaheim) and the game wouldn’t start until 7, so we decided to concentrate on the contest. My whole family was in the same room, you couldn’t even walk around in the room… (laughs) The next morning, everyone was asleep and we went to have breakfast at a coffee shop, and my dad says, “Son, you know, if it hadn’t been for you winning [in Texas], you mother would have never come to California. So this has been great. Don’t worry if you don’t win this thing.” And I said, “Dad, don’t worry! I’m going to win this thing!” So I went out there, did 10 tricks, and at the end three of us had a perfect score. So instead of going to advanced tricks, as was planned, they put the slinky out, which I had practiced a lot [instead of drawing a circle on the floor and make the top spin within it, players were supposed to place the top inside the slinky from above, which is more difficult]. So I thought, “This is a piece of cake!” One of the kids missed on the first try, so it was down to the two of us, and I won.
Jorge: I can’t imagine what the trip back was like…
Rusty: Well… We had to delay our return, because Duncan wanted to put the yo-yo champion and myself together. The yo-yo champion was four years older than me and he was from San Antonio as well! Jimmy Lukacs! I had beaten him in San Antonio in the top competition in 1963 and then he went to California to compete in yo-yos and he won [according to Jorge, Lukacs went to California in 1962 and came in second in the yo-yo national competition]. He was well-known by Duncan. Last I heard he was in Austin, and I think he owns a bar there.
What did you win? What was the main prize?
Rusty: A big trophy and a check for $5,000.
Jorge: I did the conversion, and it is $38,000 of today. For an 11-year-old!
Rusty: Their advertising said the winner would get “a $5,000 scholarship”and, to our surprise, they presented us with a check! I never had to use that money for my education, I was a good student and earned another scholarship, but after winning the contest, I don’t know if it was myself or my father, but somebody made a comment in front of Duncan’s management and advertisers. “Well… 11 years old, the limit is 14, we can win four more scholarships!” That was said in front of the wrong people, because the next year I was informed by Duncan I couldn’t compete. I don’t know if they thought I would win again or what, but I was denied the opportunity to compete again. I never competed again, I was a little discouraged. I did many exhibitions and appeared on TV, including I’ve Got a Secret in New York with Groucho Marx as the main guest, but that was it, no competitions. I felt somewhat slighted by them for not being asked to come back [Rusty’s segment starts at 14:45].
How did you two meet?
Jorge: The way I found him was incredible. A collector gave me a photocopy of a business card from Duncan with his name on it. It had the address of his parents’ house. Fifty years after that [card was made], I look in the White pages and I see his last name still listed there. I called the number listed, I talked to his parents and say, “I’m looking for the winner of the 1963 top championship…” (they both laugh) So the father gave the phone to the mother.
Rusty: My father had a hearing loss, he couldn’t hear much of anything…
Jorge: I couldn’t believe Rusty was still in San Antonio.
Do you guys think tops will make a big comeback and become mainstream again?
Rusty: I hope so.
Jorge: I’m absolutely convinced of that. It’s only a matter of time.