hungry_hippos.jpgThe Florida Times-Union

JACKSONVILLE (AP) _ In the entire history of pick-up lines, Bill Thompson has come up with one that's quite possibly never been used before.

“Want to play a game of Hungry Hippos?''

Thompson, 44, is an Iraq War veteran who's become a regular at PlayDate, a monthly social event in downtown Jacksonville featuring old-school games for youngish professionals.

Connect Four is big at PlayDate. So are Scrabble, Jenga and Pictionary. Then there's Operation, Monopoly, Yahtzee and Taboo, chess boards and plenty of packs of playing cards. Oh, and of course Hungry Hippos.

There's a Twister game, too. Twister's always a good icebreaker, though some of the twistees who play may need ice on sore muscles in the morning. Think of PlayDate as a low-tech night for a high-tech world (the only concessions to modernity are a couple of Nintendo Wii systems in the corner).

It's been a hit: Organizers said the last event, held at the Omni Hotel, attracted more than 500 people.

After all, it does present opportunities for singles and couples that you won't find in loud, dark nightclubs. The cost is $10.

“Tonight I'm going to crush everyone in Pick Up Sticks,'' said Irvin Pedro Cohen, 39, as a large banquet room at the Omni began to fill.

He's a PlayDate regular who moderates Hula-Hoop and dance contests. He explained the appeal: “You get a chance to return to your youth. You don't have to worry about your job, the economy. For a few hours a month you get to go back to that time when you were innocent.''

Shaunta Williams had just beaten her friend Nichole Mobley in four straight games at an oversize Connect Four game. She admits that not too long ago, she wouldn't have been caught dead playing Connect Four on a Friday night.

But here she was.

“Who would have thought? And I paid to come play,'' she said.

And despite her string of defeats, Mobley was still laughing, even though she's not a games person. “Honestly? No. I don't even play games. I don't do solitaire on the computer. But I thought, you know what? I'll step out of my environment.''

A few tables away, Mitzi Jackson was eying a pile of Jenga blocks that were this far from tipping over.

The last time she played Jenga? “Years. Years,'' she said. “But it's good clean fun. Jacksonville needs more of this. I'm too old for nightclubs.''

For the record, she's 38, and this was her birthday weekend. “You've got to stay young at heart _ you should never be too old to have fun.''

Rudy Jamison, one of the organizers of PlayDate, said that so far almost all the attendees have been African-American, though he's eager to attract any and all young professionals.

He's helped put on five PlayDates, which have been held in alternating venues downtown. Early on, several decisions were made. Games would be mostly old-school. Lights wouldn't get too dim. The DJ music wouldn't get too loud.

It's all designed to be an alternative to nightclubs. It seems to have worked: The 500 people at the January PlayDate was an average-size crowd.

“I think we're on to something,'' said Damien Dempsey, a partner with Jamison. “I guarantee there's not too many times you can be this free-hearted. There's actually socializing going on.''


Information from: The Florida Times-Union,