They came. They saw. They played crokinole
TAV IS T OCK, ON T. • Pee wee hockey banners 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, 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 sell used clothes, books and baked goods on their front lawns, anticipating the arrival of worshippers of the original Canadian board game.
During the World Crokinole Championship, it’s the only game in town. Players drive days to be here, pitch tents in the municipal park and spend hours contorted on plastic chairs, all under the watchful eye of volunteer referees in neon crossing guard vests.
They’re all here for the love of 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 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. For more than a century, the game lived on in farm houses, fire halls and church basements.
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 of enemy discs and points. Seniors often play a version using short wooden cues. In all games, the home runequivalent 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 your chair must remain static with one buttock touching at all times.
“It’s as old school as it gets,” says Brian Cook, a Torontonian who, for the third year straight, was 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 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 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 focus attracts crowds 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.
There’s no denying the appeal of a tournament in which grey-haired farmers engage in battles of attrition with shaggy teenagers, and packs of players argue fervently over what “speed” of granular wax is best, wearing T-shirts that read: “I came. I saw. I croked.”
“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 championship itself, an idea that began in 1999 when Tavistock went looking for a yearly event beyond its sauerkraut supper. The gathering has elevated the game to its most organized 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 that the board’s makers apply to their products. Some speculate its origins may come from the French, and their word croquignol, 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 not to 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.
“When I brought it home, my father just looked at it,” he recalled. “Then he said, ‘What the hell is that?’ ”
Brian Cook sets up his big win at this year’s championships.