You just try to detach from the tension of the event. There’s a lot of anxiety; you just kind of try to smoke in another dimension. Once you get it lit, just puff it nice and easy. Otherwise it’ll burn right out. –Paul Board, a competitor in the ninth annual Chicago Pipe Smoking Contest, talking about his strategy

On this particular Sunday afternoon, two of the rooms at O’Brien’s Sirloin Inn in Old Town are hazy with smoke and abuzz with conversation. Mounds of butts and ashes have piled up in ashtrays, and smells drift through the air in waves: first bitter, then musty, then sweet. Pipes are propped at various angles between teeth, stogies between fingers. Drugstore-brand cigarettes are smoked furtively and furiously between cups of coffee and Bloody Marys.

The occasion is the ninth annual Chicago Pipe Smoking Contest, and the people generating all the smoke are its 52 contestants, nine judges, and various timekeepers, runners, friends, and wives. The fumes are fierce, but the crowd is polite–the kind of folks who in a different place would ask permission before lighting up. Many of them are reminiscing about last year’s contest; others are eyeing the prize tables and talking strategy.

Along three walls of the front room, long tables draped in white hold pipes, cigars, ashtrays, tobacco, and fancy pouches and jars. The value of this stuff, all donated by merchants, falls between $8,000 and $12,000. Every prize is a set of something: cigar and ashtray, pipe and tobacco and pouch, multiple pipes. The biggest pipe is a meerschaum about 13 inches long that has a bowl the size of a baseball. There are also two tall trophies with little statuettes of Indians at the top; one lists this year’s judges, the other past winners.

In the back room, nine round tables have been set up. Each table is numbered, and each place is set with an ashtray, matches, pipe cleaners, and a water glass. In this room, more than an hour before the contest starts, men are already sitting at places not assigned to them, smoking and gossiping.

The event is the handiwork of Diana Gits, who owns the Up Down Tobacco Shop down the street. It’s run by the rules of the International Association of Pipe Smoking Contests (IAPSC), and the winner is whoever can keep his or her pipe lit the longest. Among the pipe smokers are newspapermen, lawyers, government employees, and two men of the cloth. Anyone over 18 is eligible to compete, but the youngest entrants are maybe in their late 20s or early 30s; the oldest is a week away from his 80th birthday. They wear everything from suits and ties to sweatshirts and jeans.

Two contestants are women. One of them, Charlene Cream Lewis, started smoking a pipe about two years ago because she liked the smell. “I got me a real little pipe, about five or six inches long, and I started smoking it, and it smelled good,” she says. “It makes the house feel all homey.”

Also here is Steve Babiar, last year’s runner-up. Last year Babiar, a dwarf, wore a T-shirt that said “Smoking Stunts Your Growth.” This year, he couldn’t find the shirt. “I’m just here to have a good time,” he says. “If I do good, that will just make it that much better a good time.”

You pack a pipe “with a child’s hand at the bottom, a woman’s hand in the middle, and a man’s hand at the top.” That’s the old saying. –Rick Wilcox, Up Down Tobacco Shop employee

Every pipe smoker has a strategy, even if he’s not sure it’ll work. “It’s how they pack their pipe, and how well they keep their pipe stem cleaned out, their bowl clean,” says Barbara Becker, a hair-stylist and judge at table six.

“I have a theory that the drafts in the room or the supply of oxygen or whatever has a lot to do with this,” says Patrick Butler, “because I’ve seen tables where everyone has gone out within, let’s say 20 minutes of one another. That has more to do with the overall atmosphere conditions than any kind of skill. Most of this is a matter of luck anyway.”

“There’s different strategies for different pipes,” explains Charlene Lewis. “It depends on the size, it depends on how hollow it is, how deep it is. You can have the smallest pipe and it’ll burn longer than the big ones.”

The typical approach is to pack the tobacco lighter on the bottom of the bowl and firmer near the top. As the tobacco burns, tamping firms up the stuff at the bottom anyway, and if it’s too solid it won’t burn properly. “If you pack it too loose it won’t burn either,” says Dan Westel, an Up Down employee. The weed doesn’t burn naturally, but rather as a result of the smoker’s regular drawing of oxygen over it.

“Maybe I shouldn’t be telling you my secrets,” says Babiar, “but last year I just packed it semihard and then poked a nice hole down the center.”

You feel dizzy. You feel woozy. First you’re afraid you’re gonna die at the table, and then you’re afraid you’re not. –Patrick Taylor, competing for the sixth year

When all the contestants settle into their assigned seats, patterns begin to emerge. One table–table six–is filled entirely with employees from the Up Down Tobacco Shop, and Gits introduces them with a warning: “You better watch out. We’ve been practicing.” The smokers at table three are all members of the Sons of Briar (or SOB) pipe-smoking society, and three of them are past winners, including Greg Kowalczyk, who holds the Chicago record: one hour, 25 minutes, and three seconds.

Practically all of the tables, in fact, appear to have been arranged according to age, dress, and personality type. But the pattern must be coincidence, because everyone is shaking hands and introducing themselves.

The contest rules and procedures are the same every year, but emcee Sam “Skip” Melnick goes over them anyway, while table six whoops and cheers. Pipes must be clean and empty of tobacco, and the judges must check them. No smokers may leave their seats while competing. When a pipe goes out, the judge at that table will blow his or her whistle and then call out the smoker’s number, and the timekeeper will record the time and place.

Each competitor is issued one wax-paper packet filled with 3.3 grams–or about one pipeful–of cube-cut burley tobacco, the official IAPSC tobacco. The weed is coarse, chunky, designed to burn slow. Because it contains none of the artificial flavorings of most tobaccos, it’s also notorious for its bad taste. “This is dirty rags, last week’s dirty socks, ground up,” says Melnick. It smells like cigars, and it makes everyone a little dizzy.

The smokers are allowed as much time as they want to pack their pipes, but only one minute to light up. Contest regular Bernie Sahlins prepares to give the cue. “It may help all of you to keep in mind this image of the current mayoral contest,” he says: “Lots of smoke, very little fire.” Then he pauses, and everyone is suddenly silent. “Ladies and gentlemen, light your pipes.”

At each table, flames waver, pipes bob down and then up, and puffs of smoke float into the air. Some smokers look for the rise of the flame as the signal that their pipe is lit. Others cover the bowl with the palm of their hand and watch for the red glow. Within a few seconds, the room is foggy with smoke.

“You can light a pipe and think it’s lit and it’s not,” says Lewis. This time, though, everybody fires up within the minute, and the contest clock starts ticking.

The first pipe goes out at two minutes and 23 seconds, and a slightly embarrassed William Ferrell explains that he practiced with drier tobacco. After that, nothing much happens for a while. “Twenty, 25 minutes into the contest you’ll hear the whistles really start to blow,” Melnick says. “It seems to run in peaks.”

Except for the rowdy bunch at table six, the competitors don’t talk much. Instead they concentrate on their pipes, from time to time cleaning the stems with pipe cleaners or tamping down the tobacco. “Most people don’t like to talk while they’re in the contest, because it deprives them of–what? every five seconds?–a puff,” says Frank Burla, a pipe collector and the judge at table four. “It depends on how seriously they take it.”

The judges, meanwhile, do their own thing. Howard Alan, the architect who designed the Up Down shop, has removed the gas mask he wears every year; it’s only for the light-up period, he explains. Frank Burla is trying to psyche up his table. “Let’s keep it going, guys.”

Sure enough, as Melnick had predicted, just before the half-hour mark the whistles start going off about once a minute. Thirty contestants drop from the contest between minutes 27 and 49. Embarrassingly enough for the Up Down Tobacco Shop, the boys at table six are all out before the 34-minute mark.

As the number of dropouts increases, it becomes difficult to tell who’s still in the contest, because the dropouts immediately start smoking again. The whistles are blowing, everyone’s still smoking, and runners are bustling back and forth with time cards. And the smokers still in the contest are feeling the pressure, says Tom Kelly, a Consolidated Cigar salesman and the judge at table three. “When you get this far, each puff means a hell of a lot.”

By 1:02:27, only Steve Babiar is still in the contest. He sits silently, staring straight ahead, holding his pipe with one hand. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, puff. Somebody next to him says something, and he looks over. “Two hours is the world record? Whoa! I ain’t beatin’ that,” he says, and smiles.

A few minutes later, he calmly announces that his pipe is out. At 1:07:31, he has done better than he did last year (1:01:49) but not quite as well as last year’s winner (1:10:15). He picks the 13-inch meerschaum as his prize.

Babiar is happy with his victory, but he can’t explain it. “I don’t know what to say. I don’t really think there is a reason.”

Lewis, though, has a different opinion. “He’s got a nice small pipe,” she says. “I told you.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.