The sound of ice tinkling at Pimm’s, lawnmowers buzzing and the sound of a hammer hitting a ball – these are my memories of summer days in the English countryside with childhood friends, enjoying pleasantries and a game of croquet. Croquet has been a favorite English pastime since the 1850s, when it reportedly migrated from Ireland to London, where it was played in a slightly different form from the current version. Although this time-honored ball-and-hammer game has traveled the world, with players as far as the South Pole, it’s a thoroughly English game. Nowhere in the world will you come across a more beautifully manicured croquet lawn than in England in schools and colleges (the game is popular in both Oxford and Cambridge), country clubs and even luxury hotels.
While the serious version of croquet is often referred to today as “chess on grass” – a game of strategy, skill and tactics – for most, like me, it is a casual, somewhat lazy diversion. It’s full of fun and scams (watch out for ruthless cheats), but not overly energetic, and a great excuse to hang out with the opposite sex. We played croquet at home and at friends’ houses. The boys always went together against the girls – my croquet balls were constantly slammed against hedges and flowerbeds. There was always great deliberation about the rules (set by the host, who would usually win) and the occasional (lighthearted) argument. It’s an activity you play with family and friends before or after lunch on a summer weekend, ideally with Pimm’s in one hand and a hammer in the other.
HOW TO PLAY
Before each match, players must agree on the level of seriousness they want to play with and the rules they must follow – a decision that often depends on how many Pimms have been or will be consumed. Then the more relaxed participants among us follow these rules; they can vary widely. Only the really serious players, who play Association Croquet among others, follow strict international sports rules:
- For the players competing in yard or backyard croquet, the objective is to maneuver a colored ball (usually red, blue, black or yellow) through a series of hoops (known in the US as wickets) by hitting it with a hammer. one point for each hoop created in the correct order and orientation. (An official full-size croquet court is 28 yards wide and 35 yards long, but most casual players will determine their own size depending on lawn space.)
- Players take turns: The player or team with the blue ball goes first, followed by the player with the red ball, then black and finally yellow. If you hit your ball into someone else’s, you can put yours next to theirs and hit it for miles – it’s brutal. However, if a ball is knocked out of bounds, it will be placed approximately one hammer length into the playing area from where it crossed the boundary, but this may vary.
- Even if you’ve knocked your ball through all the hoops well, you haven’t won yet: your ball still has to hit a post.
Play continues until all players have reached the last bet, unless a player has knocked an opponent’s ball into the bet during play, in which case he or she will be disqualified.
For many years it was reportedly Winston Churchill’s wish to be buried in his croquet lawn in Chartwell, his home in Kent. According to his biographer Chris Wrigley, the Prime Minister was known to swing his croquet mallet with one hand, as if playing polo.
In 1979, Harpo Marx was inducted into the Croquet Foundation of America’s Hall of Fame along with film producers Darryl Zanuck and Sam Goldwyn.
In 2007, photographer Martin Schoeller captured George Clooney and Brad Pitt relaxing in a game of croquet at the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc, in Antibes, France.
Sean “Puffy” Combs celebrated his induction on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2008 with a reported $2 million croquet party at Ron Burkle’s Beverly Hills estate.
If you want to experience the sport like a real Brit, it pays to invest in the right equipment. Jaques of London is and has always been one of the foremost brands in the croquet market. It was John Jacques II who was the first manufacturer to produce croquet equipment for the general consumer in the mid-1800s, and his family has been producing quality garden game equipment ever since. The company’s offering now includes an impressive 28 different sets, with the top-of-the-line Sandringham set costing up to $7,500.
VARIATIONS OF CROQUETTES
As evidenced by the many backyard, or garden, croquet offshoots, this is a game that can be played absolutely anywhere and in any style.
- Association Croquet is the international tournament version. Most croquet players at tournaments come from countries such as the UK, Australia, New Zealand, USA, Ireland, Canada and South Africa. Two of the best players in the world, Chris Clarke and Robert Fulford, are of English descent, although Clarke now plays and lives in New Zealand. In fact, England is the proud home of 6 top 10 players in the world.
- Roque is a variation of croquet that originated in America in the late 1800s, possibly named after the term for when a shot hits another ball. Roque was an event at the 1904 Summer Olympics; the US won all three medals, as no other country entered.
- Extreme croquet is played on unkempt ground, on a field with no marked boundaries that is often dotted with trees, roots, hills, sand, mud and water. It can be any game you want. It follows the usual croquet rules, but with adjustments to the landscape. Mallets for extreme croquet are, unsurprisingly, much more durable than the traditional ones.
- Golf croquet is arguably the most popular variant of the game, especially in Egypt. This version is faster and more aggressive than Association Croquet, where players take turns trying only once; points are scored when the ball passes through the hoops in sequence.
- Gateball is a croquet for up to five against five and originates from Japan. The field is about half the size of a standard croquet lawn, with three gates and a center post. It is usually played in just 30 minutes.
CROQUETTES IN CULTURE
- Perhaps the most famous croquet painting is that of Édouard Manet Game of Croquet (1873), in which two men and two women play a game in what appears to be a rather rustic setting.
- Lewis Carroll loved the game and played at Oxford University. On the pages of Alice in Wonderland, he even created an anarchic version in which a hedgehog was used as a ball and a flamingo as a hammer, while playing cards folded in half to make the hoops. (In 1863, Carroll created his own modified form of croquet, a five-player, 10-ball version called Croquet Castles, in which each player controls two balls instead of one. It’s still played by some clubs as a novelty.)
- Leo Tolstoy was also a fan of the sport and romanticized it in his novel Anna Karenina, in which Princess Tverskaya invites Anna to a croquet party together with their admirers – the ladies represent the highest echelon of a new St. Petersburg circle.
- In the 2014 Oscar-nominated film The theory of everythingCambridge physicist Stephen Hawking is portrayed as a croquet lover.
- The 1988 movie heather, starring Christian Slater and Winona Ryder, it introduced the sport of comic croquet, although — spoiler alert — the black comedy ends in a series of murders of members of a popular croquet-playing high school clique.