Fun & Games
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Extreme Croquet

A stately game gets a serious shot of fun

By Andy Bennett
Published: June 1, 2009
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Brady takes a crack at the wicket which hides behind a stand of trees past the freshwater pond.
Photo by Sunny and Katy Helbacka
My wife’s parents, Sunny and Michele, have a home on the shore of a sparkling river. Over the past decade they’ve sweated away the summers turning their massive expanse of lawn into a wild, lush landscape complete with a fishpond, countless rock gardens bursting with color, and staircases carved out of grass and dirt for navigating the steep hills. Their garden is postcard-perfect, but it has something a little wild about it as well. It feels like at any moment  nature might just reclaim this swath of green. So it makes perfect sense that it was in these gardens that Extreme Croquet was born. 
 
You CAN Beat a Classic   
The most common form of croquet is nine-wicket. This involves up to six players, each with their own mallet and croquet ball, attempting to navigate through a series of nine wickets, which are set up in a standard double-diamond rectangular court configuration. Additionally, there are variations on the game including six-wicket, backyard croquet, golf and a team version called gateball. The one thing these games all have in common is a rigid structure and set of rules – something that doesn’t go over very well in our backyard. In devising Extreme Croquet, Sunny and Michele pulled their favorite bits from the various games and combined them into one fast-paced, fun version that’s better suited to the cabin than a manicured lawn.
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The dreaded staircase wicket claims another victim.
Photo by Sunny and Katy Helbacka
Get Extreme   
In our version, curved willow branches, complete with greenery still attached, have replaced the traditional metal wickets. There is no set number of wickets, either, you put out as many as you want. Also, the layout resembles more of a golf course than a croquet field. Gone is the stately symmetry of nine- wicket. Our course sprawls across the entire grounds, weaving through trees and past gardens, curving around a pond and winding through rock piles. Players begin at one stake and maneuver their way through the course, one shot per turn. They pick up an extra shot each time they pass through a wicket, and the course is designed  in such a diabolical way that there are many bottleneck points, where large leads can easily be erased and the playing field leveled.   

Stairs of Doom   
One such point is the staircase Sunny carved out of the hillside and covered in sod. The result is a natural, grass-covered set of steep stairs, complete with curved willow handrail. It’s a beautiful spot, to be sure, but when a wicket is placed in the middle of the staircase, it becomes fraught with frustration. You find yourself offering up a little prayer as you send your ball down the steps, hoping it will find its way through the wicket. When it invariably does not, you’re forced to spend the next dozen turns whacking the ball back up the stairs to take another shot at it. Many a game has been won and lost at this point, as an early pass through here often means doom for the competitors you’ve just left in your dust.
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Arlene and granddaughter Libby enjoy some family time between turns.
Photo by Sunny and Katy Helbacka
Poison   
Our favorite part of the game, however, comes after the first player has finished the course and hit the end stake. See, the game’s not over then. That player’s ball has become “poison” and now heads back into the fray as a croquet assassin. Any ball it touches, it kills instantly, ending the game for the player. Most games end with a tense ballet of cat-and-mouse as the last remaining player tries to avoid the poison ball while trying to complete the course. I’m sure that if anyone from the United States Croquet Association saw what we had done to their civilized sport they’d run screaming in terror, but that’s part of the fun. For me, croquet will never be the same again.

Andy Bennett loves playing croquet with his family, but he has yet to win a game, and that’s starting to get to him.  
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