If you were inclined to wager on the first Nintendo Wii bowling tournament at the NewSeasons Assisted Living Community in Washington Township, the smart money was on the challengers.

Fifth graders vs. old folks on video games? No contest, even if the seniors can play all day, every day.

"I would put my bet on the students," Hurffville Elementary principal Joanne Robertson said confidently before Friday's showdown.

"They're wired differently. It's like they're born with different fingers that make things work faster."

Not that the tournament was about winning. After a year of corresponding with NewSeasons seniors, the students were eager to meet the surrogate teachers who had shared their lives through letters.

"My residents lived through World War II," explained NewSeasons general manager Nicole Bodnar. "I've had a concentration-camp survivor. I have people here who stormed the beach at Normandy.

"Kids are the best medicine for our residents. And our residents offer great lessons for the kids. They're living history."

Battle for the ages

Two school buses dropped off thirty-nine 10- and 11-year-olds at 10 a.m. By then, the activity room was filled with white-haired players and fans.

The first match pitted Jack Kaplan, a 75-year-old who gets around on a royal-blue Jazzy Select scooter, against Natalie Niessner, an energetic 11-year-old who said she played Wii twice a week, "whenever my little brother's not on it."

"I've done it three times," Kaplan said. "My best score was 165."

He said playing Wii reminded him of his late wife: "She was a better bowler than me."

Kaplan went first. He threw a slow, steady ball straight up the middle, knocking down seven pins.

"Would you like me to show you a trick?" Natalie asked, giving Kaplan advice on how to move left and right, when to toss a curve ball.

"Come on, spare," he chanted.

Naturally, he nailed it.

"Let's hear it for the elderly!"

A few frames later, teacher Erica Brand leaned in for an update.

"I got a strike and two spares," Natalie reported, "and he's doing really good!"

So good that by the end of 10 frames, the score was 112 to 105.

Round 1 to the aged. This was getting interesting.

Playing and reminiscing

To be fair, the fifth graders are not allowed to practice at school.

"Unfortunately," Robertson said, "Wii is not in our budget."

NewSeasons bought the game system a month ago, springing for bowling, baseball, golf and tennis.

Mastering the timing of bowling proved difficult, yet bowling was also forgiving in that the elderly can play sitting down.

Activities director Jenifer Castagna hadn't anticipated how Wii would coax residents out of their shells.

"It's amazing," she said, "the stories that come out just from playing this video game."

Yolanda Fisher, 95, teared up talking about her late husband, a professional bowler. When Frank Duras, 85, said he used to work in a wire factory, Natalie Niessner's eyes widened: "We're learning about electricity!"

Paul Lange, 93, opted not to compete against his pen pal, Shannon Shadrick, 11. Instead, he told her more war stories.

"We learned about it," Shannon marveled, "and

he

was in it."

In front of the big-screen TV, Bob Turner, 64, shook hands with little Katie McLaughlin, 10, whom he had just out-bowled, 179 to 142.

"I'm very competitive," he said.

An hour into the tournament, the old were besting the young, 3-zip.

For the final game, all eyes were on Cathryn McCarry, 11. Surely she'd trounce Rosemary Bowen, who's 82 and so new to Wii that she needed two pigtailed coaches by her side.

The players seemed evenly matched, until Bowen rolled a strike in the seventh frame, prompting the children to cheer.

In the eighth frame, Bowen picked up a spare. More applause.

Cathryn managed to hold on to the lead, despite a 10th-frame-spare scare from Bowen.

Final score: 155 to 142.

"She stayed with me," the young winner said. "She didn't lose by much."

Bowen, meanwhile, was beaming. Rarely is losing this much fun.

Contact Monica Yant Kinney at myant@phillynews.com or 215-854-4670. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/yantkinney