Editor’s note: This article is by Nancy Price Graff, a Montpelier freelance writer and editor. In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places.
Beating Aunt Emma seems like poor sport, but in the refined game of six-wicket American croquet, it’s sometimes the best strategy. “Aunt Emma” is the nom de mallet of any croquet player whose plan for the game is simply to be a spoiler, someone who wreaks havoc with unpredictable shots so that opponents have a hard time advancing toward the stake. At these times, the only way to get rid of dear old Emma is to best her.
John Riches, one of the world’s master competitive croquet players, devotes a full page of his 80-page “Finer Technique” online primer to describing how to counterattack Aunt Emma’s game and move on. These finer techniques are explained in an appendix to Riches’ original 17 pages of basic techniques, which include descriptions of such elementary but essential shots as the roquet, the three-quarter roll, the stop-shot, and the pass roll.
Welcome to the world of modern competitive croquet. Forget the long skirts and natty hats at the end of the 19th century, when croquet was a fashionable activity for men and women of a certain class. Forget the years during the world wars and the Depression, when a few members of the glitterati in Hollywood almost singlehandedly kept it alive. Forget the nine-wicket backyard games of the 1950s and 1960s, when inexpensive department store croquet sets let players fire off epic “sends” that became legends in their own time.
For competitive players of six-wicket American croquet, white is still the color de rigueur, for everything from hats to shoelaces, but everything else is changed: the course layout; the hard plastic balls with variable degrees of bounce; the tall, heavy mallets; the rules; and even the texture of the pitch. The United States Croquet Association, founded in 1977, has standardized the rules and oversees all versions of competitive croquet in the country.
“Today there is only one club in Vermont,” says Ephraim Schulman, a soft-spoken retired dentist from Boston who moved to Vermont part time in 1979, full time in 1996, and joined the Croquet Club of Vermont, at the Woodstock Country Club, in 1998. He is a former president of the croquet club, and thus has had his turn nurturing it, trying to interest others in this genteel sport, and generously mentoring anyone who shows an interest in trying a hand at it. With only 21 members, the club is constantly looking for initiates.
On the face of it the game is simple. Working singly or in pairs, players must hit their ball or balls around the six-wicket course first clockwise and then counterclockwise before hitting their ball to the stake in the middle. Opponents try to advance their own game while running other players’ games amuck. As in golf, every competitive croquet player has a handicap, but age is not one of them.
“My first teacher was 92,” says Schulman. “It’s a game anyone can get better at as they get older. It’s a game of finesse rather than of brawn.”
Women, therefore, compete freely against men. In fact, the player with the lowest handicap at the Croquet Club of Vermont is a woman. Much more important than strength is the ability to think strategically. In this regard croquet is frequently compared to chess and billiards.
On July 18-21 the Croquet Club of Vermont held its biannual invitational tournament. Approximately 30 players converged to compete. Some were local, but one came from California. One woman drove up from Florida, stopping along the way to play in two other tournaments. Such is the love of the game by its players and the paucity of tournament-quality courts, that driving from Oklahoma to compete in Woodstock at croquet, as one couple did, is nothing radical.
“This is an absolutely beautiful place to play,” says Kathleen Dainton, who had driven from Massachusetts with her husband, John. She has an easy laugh, but according to the scuttlebutt on the viewing benches, she’s a fearsome competitor. She was out on one of the sun-dappled courts practicing, skillfully moving balls from one wicket to the next and destroying the game of her opponent.
Twenty years ago, local croquet aficionados approached Woodstock resident and philanthropist Laurence Rockefeller and asked if he would be willing to fund a proper croquet pitch. He was, and with that donation these serious croquet players oversaw the creation of two courts squeezed between Route 106 and the tennis courts, just off the Woodstock Country Club’s golf course. One court is four-fifths the size of a regulation court (105 feet by 80 feet) and one is three-fifths the size of a full-sized court. Size matters less than keeping the correct ratios.
The grass on the courts is dense, no more than one quarter of an inch tall. Up close, it looks like indoor-outdoor carpeting. One steel wicket, each only one-sixteenth to one-eighth of an inch wider than the balls used in the game, anchor the four corners of the pitch, and two flank the stake in the middle of the court. The colored stripes on the stake determine the order of play: blue, red, black, yellow.
Over the course of the afternoon before the tournament, most competitors wander onto the playing fields to practice and get a feel for the court. For a competition, this is the most convivial of gatherings. Old friends reconnect. Groups of players, often leaning sideways with the heel of their hands on the top of their mallets, line up to discuss strategy with the seriousness of union negotiators, but the atmosphere is warm and welcoming. There will be no mercy on the courts during the competition, but there is a great deal of bonhomie among the players.
It is not enough to play with just a robust repertoire of shots, an understanding of grips, and a feel for the way to swing the mallet with one’s arms in a way that pulls the ball rather than pushes it. That barely skims the surface of game variables, which include the wetness of the court (balls go faster and farther on a dry court), whether it has been two or three days since the grass was cut, and special techniques with names straight out of Harry Potter: sidey hoops, triple peels, or unusual cannons — and even more unusual cannons.
Robert Coleman, of California, is among the players who take the time to run the lines. That means hitting a ball the length and width of the court from all four corners to see how much the ball veers from the straight lines of the court boundaries. Ideally, a pitch would have no variation from the true and every ball would follow the line to the next corner, but few courts made of grass, sand, and dirt remain perfect over time.
“There’s a little character there,” he notes as one of his balls veers to the left toward the end of the run. That’s something to remember and compensate for when the tournament starts.
Players say that the two invisible players on every court are the ones who make the biggest difference in the game: Euclid and Sir Isaac Newton. Serious croquet players know that in the end, winning depends on understanding geometry and physics and using them to one’s advantage. Strategy is everything.
“Anyone can play,” Schulman says with smile that belies his words. “It doesn’t require anything but passion and practice.”