Issue 9.2: April/May 2006

Real Croquet

story by Lee Siegel
photos by Jeffrey Asher

 

My enthusiasm for croquet began some fifty years ago, when I was nine or ten years old. I had ridden my bike over to Robbie Freeman’s house to see a copy of Swedish Sunbather magazine that he had swiped from his uncle. It was the raciest thing that we, as kids in the puritanical America of the 1950s, could get our little hands and big imaginations on. A group of stark-naked and blithely smiling Scandinavian men, women and even a couple of children were playing croquet and, according to the magazine, “having fun in the sun!” I gazed adoringly at the blond Swedish girl who, with a mallet swung back between her bare legs, was about to send a ball through a wicket. “Everyone loves a good game of croquet!” the caption read: “It’s fun! It’s healthy! And it’s easy to play!”

Robbie wanted to know if I had ever seen a naked girl, “a real naked girl.”

“No,” I confessed, “But I have seen a real game of croquet.” He wasn’t impressed that I had spent a weekend with my parents at Darryl Zanuck’s house in Palm Springs, where the game was played by such famed afficionados as Tyrone Power, Harpo Marx and Louis Jordan. As Zanuck’s doctor, my father was on hand to give his patient the vitamin B-12 injection that would invigorate the movie mogul’s performance on the court. Kids were not allowed to play the game; we were not even supposed to talk during a match of the game that was so much more than a game. It was solemn business and serious combat. Darryl Zanuck played real croquet.

Like millions of American families in the fifties and sixties, we had a Milton Bradley croquet set and played the game on an occasional Saturday or Sunday in our backyard—not real croquet, mind you, but the garden variety as dabbled in by amateurs and kids. Garden croquet, I have come to appreciate, is to real croquet what checkers is to chess. Real croquet requires the complex stratagems and patience of chess, the geometrical calculations and eye-hand coordination of billiards, the competitiveness and aggression of ice hockey and the finesse and sangfroid of bullfighting.

I began to understand the differences between garden croquet and the real thing years ago when I was a student at Oxford University. In celebration of the first sunny day of the year, a group of students at my college had planned a croquet party in University Parks on the west bank of the Cherwell. The game was just an excuse to be outside, drinking Pimm’s cups and eating cucumber sandwiches and strawberries with clotted cream. “Croquet is one of the few games one can effectively play while drinking and smoking,” Dudley Higginbottom, the organizer of the afternoon, had proclaimed. “The most difficult part of the game for me is deciding what to drink: Pimm’s, champagne or gin and tonic.”


 
Leo Nikora, on a roll at the 2005 Lana‘i
championship tournament.

As the only American playing that day, I was patriotically proud to be on a winning team. “Very good,” Dudley congratulated me. “Would you like to play some real croquet next week? Then do come along to Christ Church on Sunday afternoon. We play on the same field that Lewis Carroll played upon when he was a maths don there.”

Eager for the honor, I was disappointed, upon arriving at Christ Church in jeans, to be informed that was I disqualified from play. “Oh, terribly sorry,” Dudley wryly remarked. “I didn’t think to inform you about the whites. One would have thought you would have known.” For real croquet all of the men (and there were no women at Christ Church in those days) were dressed in white flannel trousers and white broadcloth shirts, the long sleeves of which, it was duly pointed out to me, were “rolled, by tradition, to precisely one inch below the elbow. What,” Dudley ingenuously inquired, “does one wear in America for croquet?” Although I wasn’t sure, I knew it was at least more than they wear in Sweden.

The game I then watched was substantially different and daunting in more than sartorial ways from the one I had played the previous week or in my childhood. Instead of two stakes, one at each end of the yard, and nine wire hoops in between, there was one stake in the center of the court and six iron wickets barely wide enough for a ball to pass through. The rules were elaborate. There was very little talking, no joking, neither sandwiches nor strawberries, and the libations were not served until after the match.

The game seemed to epitomize British manners: On the surface it was entirely genteel, almost courtly, with the players exhibiting civility and cordiality; but beneath appearances, there was merciless aggression and hostile competition.

It has been suggested that croquet has its origins in medieval Ireland and its antecedents in fourteenth-century France, when leisured aristocrats knocked balls through hoops of bent willow branches. That game, Paille Maille, evolved into modern croquet in England where, in the eighteenth century, the cultural ideals of sportsmanship and the sporting life became established and codified. Games became sports with complex rules, strict conventions and a refined etiquette.

In 1863 a certain Captain Thomas Mayne Reid published Croquet: A Treatise and Commentary, in which he encouraged British boys of the upper classes to take up the game as a healthy pastime, a character-building pursuit and a context in which to learn sportsmanship, gentlemanly manners, martial strategies, diplomacy and other such skills and sensibilities as might avail one in colonial service to the Crown. It was in nineteenth-century Britain that croquet became real.

Ever since that Sunday some thirty years ago in Christ Church College, I had hoped for an opportunity to try my hand at the real thing. Real croquet, I recently discovered, is played every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday at Waipu‘ilani Park on Maui. Leo Nikora, the founder of the Maui Croquet Club, offered to give me a lesson on Maui and invited me to watch this year's championship tournament games on Lana‘i.

The night before going to Waipu‘ilani Park for my initiation, I sat at the bar in David Paul’s Lahaina Grill. Recalling Higginbottom’s proclamation that the most difficult part of croquet is deciding what to drink during a match, I asked Annabehl Sinclair, the bartender, what she thought. I trusted her because she’s from New Zealand where, as a former British colony, croquet maintains a long tradition and current popularity. And so I drank everything she recommended: a Pimm’s cup, mojito, mint julep, pineapple martini, glass of sparkling rosé and, of course, the colonial classic—a Bombay gin and tonic with a dash of Angostura bitters and a squeeze of lime.

Perhaps it was the hangover that prevented me from playing better the next day when Leo Nikora tried to teach me the rules, techniques and strategies of real croquet. In an attempt to dress appropriately for the lesson, I had worn linen slacks and a white broadcloth shirt purchased just for the occasion. While Dudley Higginbottom might have been impressed that I had rolled my long sleeves up to exactly one inch below the elbow, Leo didn’t seem to notice. He played barefoot and in shorts. Dick Karr, another member of the team, was wearing a sleeveless t-shirt (albeit a white one), plaid Bermudas and a blue bandana around his head. Finally I had an answer to the question that Dudley had asked so many years ago about what Americans wear to play: Whatever’s comfortable, but a bit of white just for the sake of tradition. Embarrassed over being so conspicuously overdressed, I asked Leo about the custom of formal white flannel and linen. “This isn’t The Great Gatsby,” he remarked. “It’s athletics.”


 

Leo, a champion ranked thirty-five in the nation and in the 200s in the world, has been playing croquet for a long time, “for as long as I can remember,” he said, “ever since I was a child in West Virginia.” After showing me how to “stalk the ball,” how to stand, take aim and hold the mallet, he demonstrated a “drive shot,” “roll shot” and “cannon shot.”

I couldn’t seem to hit the ball softly enough. “Gently,” Leo coached, and my ball stopped mid-wicket, in what Leo referred to as “the jaws of the hoop.” And then, much to my astonishment, he struck his ball in such a way that, from a good thirty feet away, it bounced twice before jumping over mine to pass through the hoop.

“In most sports,” my croquet tutor explained, “surges of adrenalin help. But in croquet, you need to be cool and calm. It’s a contemplative game. You can learn technique and how to make hoops relatively quickly, but it takes years to master the strategy.” Fine play, I learned, is imaginative and intelligent, at once calculated and spontaneous. “A good player’s tactics,” Leo noted, “change with each shot, each game and each season of play.”

My lesson had to be curtailed to make way on the court for Dick Karr and Tim Wheeler. As we watched them, Leo reflected on the differences between conservative and daring play. In croquet, as in love affairs or business ventures, “it’s all a matter of balancing risk with potential reward.” Vulnerability early on can, if you know what you’re doing, lead to power when it counts.

It seemed odd to me that Tim didn’t watch as Dick took his turn on the court. Leo explained: “It’s polite to turn your back on your opponent, not to observe him too carefully. It’s a sign of trust and respect.” The more aggressive the game, the more politely it should be played. The authors of Croquet: Its History, Strategy, Rules, and Records distinguish between the refined gentlemanly player and “the coarse player, the man who works literally within the rules, but who is morally depraved… Coarse players are a fact of croquet life, and while it is natural to deplore this playing style, the new player should be aware of this streak of ferocity in order to guard against it.”


 

While Dick played, Tim recounted his own initiation into the sublime mysteries of the sport. “I was at a party where Leo had set up a game of jungle croquet. You had to run your ball through an obstacle course, around trees, bushes and outdoor furniture. It was so much fun that I wanted to play again. That’s when Leo asked the big question: ‘How would you like to learn how to play real croquet?’ He introduced me to the game, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Hooked,” he repeated. “Croquet is kind of an addiction.”

You have to be addicted to be a real player of real croquet. You have to love the game. When I asked one member of the club why there weren't more than seven players in the tournament, I was told that, “Some people seem to care more about their families and jobs than about croquet.”

As Tim took his turn on the court, Dick, the oldest member of the club, confided in me that he wasn’t as obsessed as the others, that he had taken up the game because playing golf had become too expensive. After guzzling a bottle of water, he told me it was important to drink a lot during a match. I asked if they ever drank real drinks during their games. “No,” he said. “You actually walk about three or four miles per game, so it’s important to drink lots of water to re-hydrate.”

I wondered why there were no women in the croquet club. Since the game does not require strength and there’s no direct contact between opponents, it seemed to me that there would be women players. There had, I recalled, been even more women than men playing the croquet game that had been documented in Swedish Sunbather. Dick's opinion was that women weren’t competitive enough. Tim surmised that women didn’t find the complexities of strategy engaging. Leo said, “You’ve brought up one of the great mysteries of the game. Why are so few women interested in it? I don’t know. Maybe we aren’t good-looking enough.”

Researching the mystery, I came across an article by Richard Hilditch in Croquet World Online. In his opinion, there are few female players because “croquet is a sport for nerds… and nerds are (almost by definition) male.” A Freudian analyst would probably not be surprised that women were less compelled than men by a game in which each player, swinging a mallet between his legs, has two balls which he tries to protect while attacking those of his opponent.

At the end of the day, I practiced my “croquet stroke.” That’s what you earn when your ball hits one of the other balls on the court, either your own or your opponent’s. You then put your ball against the ball you’ve hit and send both balls into some strategic position. I couldn’t get either of my balls anywhere near where I wanted them to be. I had a lot of practice ahead of me before I could dare to play real croquet.


 
The Maui Croquet Club: (front row, left to
right) Dick Karr, Leo Nikora, Paul Billings
and Dave Kron; (back row, left to right)
Bruno Amby, Tim Wheeler and
Larry Icalla.

A week later, I visited Lana‘i to watch the tournament championships at the Ko‘ele Lodge. Two well-maintained croquet courts serve the mystique of the lodge as a sort of elegant colonial country manor, sumptuous and yet subdued in a British old-world sort of way with high tea and scones served in the afternoons. Captain Thomas Mayne Reid would feel quite at home. There are fireplaces in many of the rooms, most of which have private lanais. Mine overlooked the main croquet court.

The tournament, I could see from my window, was already underway by the time I woke up. That it was raining caused me concern that the games might be postponed. But Leo later assured me that they would have continued to play, despite the rain, until there was so much standing water that the balls floated off.

The high point of the tournament for me was in the match that pitted Leo, the master, against young Paul Billings, an agile athlete, an adroit and inspired player intent on taking the championship away from the man who had taught him how to play. It had the dramatic suspense of a gunfight between a youthful Billy the Kid and ol’ Wyatt Earp. And I was cheering for Leo, not only because he had given me my first and only croquet lesson, but also because, at my age, I always root for the older guy.

After missing a roquet—a hit against an opponent’s ball—early in his first match against Paul, a disappointed Leo muttered that it had happened because he was not used to wearing shoes when he played. I watched Paul stalk his ball, take a deep breath, back up, survey the position of all the balls on the court, stalk his ball again and begin a four-ball break. The intensity of his concentration and poise was formidable. But an undaunted Leo subsequently took up the gauntlet and ran with it. This was real real croquet.

It was close, so close, and in the end there was, based on the number of games won, a three- way tie between Paul, Leo and Lana‘i local Bruno Amby. But, based on the total number of hoops run, Leo Nikora had retained his title as the champion of the Maui Croquet Club.

After the players had left to catch the ferry back to Lahaina, I continued to celebrate my teacher’s victory at the lodge bar. There was an elderly couple sitting next to me. The man introduced himself in a lilting foreign accent and said that he had been worried about the morning’s rain because they had come from halfway around the world to Hawai‘i just for the sunshine. I told them that I had come to Lana‘i from Honolulu just to see the croquet championship tournament.

“Oh,” the woman exclaimed with a bright smile. “I used to play croquet. That was many years ago, when I was a young girl in Sweden.”HH