Inside New York’s Least Competitive Bowling League

The noise of the onlookers rose to a crescendo of screams as the ball hurtled toward the pins: Strike! A triumphant player spun around, grinning at the crowd. She and more than 50 others had come on a recent Sunday afternoon to the Manhattan location of the Gutter, a dimly lit venue on the Lower East Side, to participate in an amateur bowling league that’s organized every two weeks through a 100-person Instagram group chat named “Bowling Is Divine.” Dressed in vintage T-shirts, tank tops, baggy cargo pants and wide-legged jeans with an early 2000s feel, the group of 20- and 30-somethings — many of whom work in art, fashion and design — sipped on beers and lounged on leather couches while taking turns at the eight lanes they’d reserved.

The dentist Tim Ho, left, another founder of the league, bowling alongside Yu.Credit…Daniel Terna

While players do occasionally trade tips about approach and spin, the environment feels refreshingly low stakes. People are here to make friends. “Bowling,” says Tim Ho, a 29-year-old dentist, “is a great equalizer.” The league got its start when he and a group of his friends — including Eddie Yu, a 29-year-old clothing store owner, and Rowan Thompson, a 29-year-old brand strategist at the design firm Yabu Pushelberg — decided they wanted to bowl at the Gutter one afternoon in October 2022. Neither Ho nor Yu had bowled since they were children and they fell in love with the game’s simplicity. “You’re throwing a ball down a lane to hit pins; it doesn’t require crazy athleticism,” Ho says. When the group met again, two other friends joined. By the third event, in late November, there were 20 people. Ho created an Instagram group chat with the opening gambit: “Humankind only needed three fingers. The other seven were just God’s insurance policy.”

The group of 58 attendees took up eight lanes at the Gutter bowling alley.Credit…Daniel Terna

The group chat soon expanded to include 100 people, among them Kozaburo Akasaka, the founder of the fashion brand Kozaburo; the artist and designer Travis Brothers; and Sarah Lim, an illustrator and production manager for the clothing brand Puppets and Puppets. Along the way, it’s evolved into a space for communicating not only about the league but also about other social events — it’s a jumble of bowling memes, jokes, fliers and restaurant recommendations that has a welcome looseness to it. “In New York, it feels like everyone capitalizes on and commodifies their passion,” says Edmond Hong, a 31-year-old chef, who’s attended 10 of the events. “It’s fun just to have a hobby.” Here’s how the recent Sunday gathering unfolded.

For most of the participants, coming to the Gutter is about forging friendships outside of the frenzied pace and professionalism of the city.Credit…Daniel Terna
The alley has 12 lanes, a bar, a kitchen and several arcade games.Credit…Daniel Terna

The hosts: Ho and Yu first met through a mutual friend at Rose Bakery, the cafe at New York’s Dover Street Market store. Now, Ho handles scheduling and reserves the lanes, while Yu organizes the post-bowling dinner, for which the group often goes to nearby Chinese restaurants like Wu’s Wonton King or Congee Village. Every two weeks, Ho asks people to “like” his message in the chat if they’re planning to attend; on average, about a few dozen friends come to each event.

Many of the league’s members don’t keep track of their scores.Credit…Daniel Terna

The rules: At this particular gathering, a group of 58 people took up eight lanes. The basics of the game: Each player gets 10 turns, in which they throw their ball twice, trying to knock down as many of the 10 pins as possible. In general, players score one point per pin but getting a strike (all 10 pins in one throw) or a spare (all 10 in two throws) will earn you more. Many of the players in this league don’t pay attention to the numbers during the rounds, though, Ho says. He does, however, keep an informal list of the highest scoring individuals. (Theo Darst, a creative producer, currently holds the record for highest score in a single game, with 178 points.) Most people finished the session with what the group’s members like to call a “chaos round,” experimenting with trick shots such as aiming in reverse between the legs or throwing a dramatic curveball.

Most people finished their game with a “chaos round,” experimenting with trick shots.Credit…Daniel Terna

The venue: Inside the Gutter, which sits on a busy stretch of Essex Street, walls feature vintage Budweiser and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer signs. There are 12 lanes; a bar; a kitchen that serves pub fare, including pizza and hamburgers; and a selection of arcade games. During the recent event, the sound of 1980s and ’90s rock mingled with cheers from the crowd.

“Nobody cares if you’re good at bowling or not,” said a league member, David Shin.Credit…Daniel Terna

The winner: David Shin, at least among those keeping track, earned the highest score during one of the rounds. Shin, who works in client relationships for the task-management company Asana, has come to the league for the past six months. He loves “the low barrier to entry,” he says.

The post-game dinner at Dim Sum Palace included Dungeness crab and fried chicken.Credit…Daniel Terna

The food: After the event, a couple dozen of the bowlers walked to the nearby Dim Sum Palace restaurant and sat down at round, banquet-style tables. Yu ordered food for the entire group: Dungeness crab, fried rice and fried wide rice noodles, cold smashed cucumber, fried chicken, spicy pork dumplings and more. When waiters carried out the crabs on large platters, the group clapped and pulled out their iPhones to snap pictures.

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