Croquet is a year-round pursuit at Ginger Cove retirement community in Annapolis

March 03, 2013|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

Nick Markakis, Adam Jones and the other Orioles get four months off between baseball seasons. Joe Flacco, Ray Rice and the world champion Ravens have five months to go before training camp begins.

Big-time athletes, after all, need a chance to rest their bodies and minds after the rigors of a long campaign.

Then there are the white-clad competitors at Ginger Cove.

"We don't want an off-season. We like to keep our skills sharp," says Bill Krause, the 91-year-old Imperial Wicket, or captain, of the croquet club at the retirement community in Annapolis. Then he bends at the waist, strokes a heavy ball with a mallet, and watches it roll 20 feet toward the wicket.

It's a chilly, rain-soaked Saturday in Anne Arundel County, but that doesn't bother Krause or the eight other players who have arrived for an intramural morning match, one of the twice-weekly games they play all winter long.

Croquet has been a staple of life at Ginger Cove since 1989, the year the place opened, and its players have long held their own against top teams like St. John's College and the Naval Academy. Residents who raised $93,000 to build two outdoor artificial-turf courts last year have also set up a ballroom to accommodate play year round.

It's one of the few places of any kind that boasts AstroTurf courts and the only club the United States Croquet Association knows of that offers the game indoors.

"That is one enthusiastic group," says Johnny Mitchell, president of the organization, which has 300 member clubs and 3,100 members in the U.S. "They obviously want to play, no matter what."

Krause's ball stops just short of his wicket. Unfortunately, it's also in a spot that an opponent will be able to exploit on the next turn.

He leans on the handle of his mallet, a $350 custom job made in New Zealand, and shakes his head.

"There are so many things we all love about this game," he says. "It's social. It keeps us active. It's fun. But the best thing is the strategy, and that was a dumb move on my part. I'm going to pay for that."

No clobbering

As far back as the 17th century, men and women in France played games in which they used mallets to maneuver balls around obstacles, according to scholars at the Jersey Cricket Club in Normandy, France.

One such game, paille maille, made its way to the British Isles, where it was played in London parks. Later called "croquet" (French for "crooked stick"), it became a craze in Victorian England.

The game spread to the United States, where the National Croquet Association held its first tournament in 1888 — and where, by the 1920s, a coterie of stars from the East often faced celebrity Californians like Harpo Marx and Darryl Zanuck.

Americans later adopted a version of the game — nine-wicket croquet — for casual play in suburban backyards. Over its history, a few fundamentals came into view.

"Croquet is a blend of the geometry you have in billiards, the shot-making of golf and the strategy you need in chess," says Susan Savage, an opponent of Krause's in today's informal match. "You can play for a long time and never master those dimensions."

"It's just fun to play this game and try to get better," says Jim Oberholtzer, 84, a retired naval officer.

Today's group — with an average age of 81 — features players at several skill levels, from newbie Dottie DeLong, 73, to Savage, 67, and her husband, Peter Stevens, 66, seven-year veterans visiting from the West River Wickets club in Galesville.

A morning on the Ginger Cove carpet is a glimpse at six-wicket croquet, the kind played in most competitions, including the dozens held at USCA member sites around the country every year.

"It's not the backyard game. You don't try to clobber your opponent's ball," says Krause, a 15-year veteran of the sport. "You may whack a ball, but not out of bounds. This is more genteel."

A wicket stands in each of four corners of a huge rectangle, a single wooden stake in the center. Add two more wickets — one just above the stake and one just below it — and you have your field of play.

Each player (or pair, if you're playing doubles) must roll his or her ball through the six wickets in succession, then do the same in reverse, "pegging out" for the win. Rolling a ball through a wicket earns an extra shot. Striking another player's ball gets two. The rules give rise to surprisingly complex strategy.

"Watch a little, and you'll see — a skilled player can make his [or her] turn last a long time," Stevens says.

Rolling on

As if on cue, Savage spots Krause's ball in front of the first wicket, strides over and lines up her play.

With a gently decisive swing, she rolls her ball into his with a "thwack." Their two balls still in contact, she lines up the game's most strategic shot, the "croquet stroke."

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