I love hanging out with spin-top people. It’s always a ton of fun, and at MadFest this year we had a ridiculously good time.

Eric Wolff with his 11″ diameter top. The largest he’s ever made… so far.

For the average person, the phrase “spin-top people” is not one that is heard very often. Of all the very small social groups I belong to, the top-spinners are one of the smallest; I think only “paddleballers” are fewer in number. At the MadFest Juggling Convention this year we had a really good showing of spin-top people… and that means that there were 7 of us. Eric and Noah Wolff, Alan and Robert Gray, Chris Mulhall, Steve Brown and me.

The normal progression of events when top-spinners get together is:

  1. Show off new tops. This rarely takes very long since there are virtually no mass-produced tops, so it’s really a question of who had the time to make some themselves.
  2. Show off new tricks. This also rarely takes long since there are very few new tricks developed each year.
  3. Play Battle Top.
  4. Continue playing Battle Top until it degenerates into a different game that is way more fun.

Battle Top is a game where someone puts down a target/arena like a Frisbee or a plate, and then everyone stands in a circle around the arena and tries to throw a top into it one at a time. If you miss the arena you are out, the top that spins longest inside the arena is the winner. The one exception: if you throw your top and the tip lands on the crown of another top that’s already spinning in the arena, you win instantly. When played exactly by the rules Battle Top is fun for a little while, but what usually makes it really fun is that it doesn’t take long for us to start modifying the way we play.

A few years ago one of the guys, either Alan Gray or Eric Wolff, brought an oversized Battle Top top he made that had massive spikes coming out of the sides. No one could beat it, but it was hilarious to see our little tops get instantly banged out of the ring.

At MadFest this time the Battle Top game degraded in three stages. First, Alan, Eric and I got out our mid-size tops. Commercial tops are usually about 3″ tall with a diameter just over 2″. Our mid-size tops are all in the 4-5″ diameter range and made of wood. This version of the game was really fun because the big tops couldn’t all fit in the ring at once, and we decided it would be funnier if we all threw at the same time. With each throw, the three tops would usually meet in the air above the Frisbee with a big CLOP and it was pretty random as to whether any of them would land in the Frisbee at all.

The next level of degeneration happened when more top-spinners showed up. We were playing Battle Top with the standard rules, and I decided that it was a good time to practice the overhand throw. The standard throw nowadays is a forehand horizontal motion like you would use when playing tennis. The throw I decided to work on is more like the motion that you would use to swing a hatchet, and is the throw that is used when the goal is to split the other guy’s top in two.

I had heard about this throw ever since I started spinning tops, but I could never find anyone who could actually do it. Any time I would do a show for an audience that included men from Mexico or South America they would come up afterward to tell me about how they used to split their friends’ tops when they were kids. I could never get anyone to show me the throw because 1) I didn’t want them to break my top, 2) my top was different than what they used as a kid, 3) they couldn’t remember how to do it, or in some cases 4) they didn’t actually know how to do it in the first place. Lucky for me I know Jon Gates. Jon is a natural with tops, and he figured out the overhand throw and showed me how to do it.

Since I had never really had the chance to practice the overhand throw, my aim was terrible, which was good for my friends because the few times I did hit their tops I did some real damage. There was little risk of me splitting anyone’s top since we were all using modern plastic ones, but mine had a metal tip and delivered some mean gouges and battle scars. It was really fun to be able to work on this throw; I never get to practice it because it is so brutal. Even just dropping a spinning top on a wood floor from waist height will leave a noticeable dent, so intentionally throwing one really hard into the floor is out of the question. We were standing on a thick plastic floor-protector that was keeping the basketball court under us safe, so I had nothing to worry about. I dinged up my buddies’ tops and nearly put a hole in the Frisbee, and just as some other people were learning the overhand throw the game degenerated once more.

As if no one would notice, Eric went over to his bag and took out one of his big tops. It wasn’t the largest one he brought with him, but it was at least eight or nine inches in diameter. When he spun it, all the little tops were instantly knocked away. It was a large wood top with an opening about 4 inches across… just big enough to land a little top inside. I don’t know who started it, but the game instantly became to see how many little tops we could land inside the giant top before it stopped spinning.

It was SO fun! Who would’ve known? Sometimes the little top would keep spinning inside the big top which allowed plenty of time to try to get more in there, and sometimes (like when my lefty-spinning top made it inside) the little top would just get pinned to the side of the big top and the off-center weight made it impossible to add more tops. Our goal became to get three little tops in the big top before it stopped spinning, and after about an hour and a half we did it. The big top had a bunch of really vicious gashes in it from the little tops that had metal tips, but it just meant that Eric has a trophy to go along with the story.