The original Canadian board game

Toronto’s Brian Cook, former world champion at Tavistock WCC. Photo courtesy Bill Gladding/Tavistock Gazette

By Greg Mercer, originally published in the National Post 09/06/10.

TAVISTOCK – Pee Wee hockey banners may still hang from the rafters here, but for one Saturday each year, this is the house that crokinole built.

Earlier this month, 350 players from around the continent convened on an iceless community rink in tiny Tavistock, Ont., a farming town tucked in the flat dairy country north of Woodstock. It’s the kind of place where tractors rumble down the main street and the townsfolk spread used clothes, books and baked goods on their front lawns, anticipating the arrival of worshipers of the original, though still somewhat obscure, Canadian board game.

On that day, crokinole is the only game in town. Players drive days to be here, pitch tents in the municipal park, and spend hours contorting on plastic chairs, all under the watchful eye of volunteer referees in neon crossing guard vests.

They’re all here for the love of crokinole, the simple wooden board game born in the rural heartland of Ontario – though there’s some debate about its true origins – which appears to be enjoying a revival of sorts with every sharp flick of a new fanatic’s fingers.

Though Canadian expats have exported the game around the world, Tavistock remains the closest thing crokinole has to a cradle. Local historians believe craftsman Eckhardt Wettlaufer built the first known board here, as a birthday gift for his son in 1876. Which, coincidentally, is the same year Alexander Graham Bell struck upon the idea of the telephone, that other great Canadian invention.

For over a century, the game lived on in farm houses, fire halls and church basements. It was once as popular in the pre-electricity era as TV is today, its fans claim, though it remained a largely rural phenomenon. Later in the 20th century, its popularity waned, although that may be changing now thanks to web sites like the World Crokinole League, which is drawing new interest in the game and spawning clubs across the country.

The rules are simple and have been altered little since Wettlaufer’s first board: Games can be played with two or four players, who take turns flicking small, round wooden discs across a slick, pegged board, in search enemy discs and points. Seniors often play a version using short wooden cues. In all games, the home run-equivalent is the 20-point shot, or a “doogie,” which is sinking a disc into a hole at the centre of the round board.

Oh, and remember that your chair must remain static with one “cheek” touching at all times.

“It’s as old school as it gets,” says Toronto’s Brian Cook, who for three years straight has been crowned world champion at Tavistock, claiming a $1,000 prize for first place in the competitive singles category, the gold standard of crokinole.

By day, Cook works as a researcher for the city’s public health department, and says his infamy on the elite crokinole circuit takes some getting used to.

“For 364 days a year, I’m ignored in Toronto. Then I come here, and it’s this,” he said, surveying the crowd from the stands at the Tavistock & District Recreation Centre.  “I like to say I’m big in small-town Ontario.”
That seems true: When he plays, Cook’s steely focus attracts whispers and crowds of men who speculate on his next move. He’s the man to beat, and everyone knows it.

“When he comes in the room, we bow,” says Fred Slater, a member of the Toronto crokinole club.

He’s not completely exaggerating. The elite crokinole world has its heroes and villains, and most high-level players take it deadly seriously.

Hamilton’s Jake Ruggi, a high school English teacher, recalls waking up at sunrise during a recent championship to find an opponent doing yoga on a nearby picnic table, ostensibly to sharpen his focus.

“I’m not sure if it helped his game or not,” he said.

There’s no denying the geeky appeal of crokinole, or of a tournament where Mennonites sit at tables with scruffy men in sunglasses, and grey-haired farmers engage in battles of attrition with shaggy teenagers. Or of packs of players arguing fervently over what “speed” of granular wax is best, wearing t-shirts that read: “I came. I saw. I croked.”

Some of these people have been playing it all their lives and can’t recall their first flick; others have been being introduced to it in school, like those in Ruggi’s woodworking classes, who make the boards as a class project.

“I see this as a backlash against video games,” reckons London’s Greg Matthison, creator of the World Crokinole League, who imagines clubs in every town across Ontario and beyond. “Some people are just coming to it now. We want this to be a novel idea again.”

Part of the revival is thanks to the world championship itself, an idea that began in 1999 when Tavistock went looking for a yearly event that it could tie its name to beyond its sauerkraut supper. The gathering in the arena has elevated the game to its most organized, regulated level yet.

That alone has increased Canada’s claim to supremacy in the game, even if crokinole’s true beginnings are as shrouded in mystery as the secret lacquer the board’s makers apply on their products. Some speculate its origins may come from the French, and their word croquinole, which means little biscuit or cookie. Similar games were also popular in Britain and India, and variations of those may have formed the basis of the game European settlers brought to Ontario in the 19th century.

But one thing seems to not be in dispute: if you want the best crokinole boards, you want the Canadian-made version.

“They’re going out the door as fast as I can make them,” boasts Willard Martin, who inherited an Elmira, Ont-based crokinole business from his father and now sells his boards from Norway to Australia. “I guess I’ve shipped to pretty well every corner of the world.”

A truly global game this is not, however. At least not yet. Just ask Ireland’s John O’Brien, who was introduced to the diversion at a Waterloo physics institute and might be the first man to bring a crokinole board to the Emerald Isle as carry-on luggage.

Once he dragged the heavy board past puzzled customs officials, he was reminded that a world crokinole championship was the kind of event that could only take place in Canada.

“When I brought it home, my father just looked at it,” he recalled. “Then he said ‘what the hell is that?’”

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