Why is candlepin bowling mostly played in New England?

“You can pick up 2 pounds, 5 ounces and roll it, you can bowl.”

Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff, File

On a cold winter weekend, an indoor activity might be more appealing to some than braving the elements to go skiing or skating. Fortunately, there’s another sport to be played, and in much warmer conditions — bowling.

Traditional bowling, commonly referred to as tenpin bowling, is played from coast to coast, although you may know it as “big ball” bowling if you’re from New England. However, if you’re going bowling in the region (or maybe parts of Canada), there’s a good chance you might be heading out to play candlepin bowling instead.


Candlepin bowling is native to Massachusetts, born in Worcester in 1880, according to the International Candlepin Bowling Association, or ICBA, website. The game was invented by Justin White, says ICBA’s executive director, Maria Angelotti, after buying a combined billiard hall and bowling alley.

“He found, in a closet, a bunch of broomstick-type of things, and he thought ‘Hmm.’ So he cut them up and created the first candlepins. They had small bocce balls, and that’s what they used to play the game,” Angoletti said.

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Similarly to tenpin, candlepin bowling consists of 10 pins to be knocked down each frame, with a maximum score of 300 points. However, there are also stark differences. Both the balls and pins are smaller in candlepin than tenpin, a player can roll three times per frame as opposed to two, and pins aren’t cleared between rolls.

The decreased size of the ball in particular, however, can make playing the game more accessible since it requires less strength, says Jay Covitz, owner of Ron’s Ice Cream & Bowling, making the game fun and easy to play for customers of all ages, from three to 90.

“The appeal is anybody can do it, literally,” he said. “You can pick up 2 pounds, 5 ounces and roll it, you can bowl.”


Why is candlepin bowling only in New England and parts of Canada, however? Angelotti says it’s due to the fact that candlepin bowling is harder to play than tenpin — nobody has ever bowled a perfect score of 300, she says. This difficulty is why she thinks the game likely stayed in New England and nearby parts of Canada.

“I firmly believe, and I’ll stand by it, that Americans want to win,” she said. “Bowling the perfect game, as I said in tenpin, is a dime a dozen now.”

In the United States, the only bowling alley offering candlepin outside of New England is Apex Entertainment in Albany, New York. The entertainment chain has four locations, one of which is in Massachusetts and offers candlepin as well; the other two locations in Syracuse, New York, and Virginia Beach do not.

Some bowling alleys offering candlepin are struggling, in part because adult leagues are getting smaller and the age of the average bowler is increasing.

“As the leagues have gone down, as well as the age of the league bowler on the rise,” Covitz said. “People in their 20s, 30s don’t bowl as much as they used to.”


Additionally, Covitz discussed how for many customers, bowling is no longer something they do regularly, and instead is often a last-minute decision akin to going to the movies. Because of this, he says, many bowling alleys have made the decision to move toward other offerings and activities, adding restaurants and other forms of entertainment.

Another issue facing candlepin bowling is that the machines to clear the pins from the lane are no longer in production. Finding someone capable of maintaining them can also be difficult, as many people capable of restoring them are “aging out,” says Angelotti. 

“We do have a couple of guys that will take old machines and restore them and make them like brand new, but you know, these people are aging out now, they’re getting older,” she said.

Despite these struggles, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel for candlepin bowling, particularly with leagues. Although adult leagues may be getting smaller, Angelotti says she’s noticed kids’ candlepin bowling leagues are growing. She attributes this to both people wanting to be out of the house following 2020 stay-at-home orders and a shift away from technology. She noted that her granddaughter plays in a kids’ league with about 100 participants.

“Once the pandemic hit and everyone was stuck inside, all of a sudden everybody wanted to be back outside again,” Angelotti said. “Netflix and all those channels and all those video games were kind of played out and people are going back out the door again, and they’re taking their kids with them.”


In addition to children’s leagues, Angelotti also identified podcasts about candlepin bowling as a source of the sport’s recent growth in popularity.

The most important way to ensure that the sport has the room and opportunity to grow, says Angelotti, is by supporting your local bowling alleys, regardless of if they offer candlepin bowling or only tenpin.

“It’s as American as apple pie, and everybody needs to get out there and support,” she said.


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