City flickers revive a country pastime with Canadian roots
A Canadian expat is introducing Brooklynites to crokinole, a board game invented in 19th-century rural Ontario
It’s a Thursday evening in early July. People begin arriving at the Brooklyn wine bar around 7. They walk through the cosy book-lined lounge, past the grand piano and into the backroom, an airy space lit by the early evening sun. Grabbing tallboys of Narragansett beer or jelly glasses of the house red, they take their seats at tables, pairs facing each other across circular game boards.
Soon, staccato clicks are punctuating the lively chatter as the players snap black and white discs across shiny tabletops and then wait intently for their opponent’s next move. Curious neophytes, poking their heads in to see what the noise is, are soon led to a board and taught how to flick.
After Montreal-style bagels and poutine, crokinole is the latest Canadian import to gain a following among New York’s hipster class. In fact, the board game may be enjoying a moment all its own: the Oxford English Dictionary re- cently added crokinole to its list of new words for June.
The dry definition (“A board game in which participants take turns to flick wooden discs onto the circular playing surface, attempting to displace opponents’ pieces and land in the higher-scoring central section”) doesn’t hint at the fervour with which this 19th-century game named after a Quebec pastry has been embraced by some 21st-century fans.
Greg Pinel founded a Thursday night crokinole club in February in the backroom of Milk and Roses, the Brooklyn wine bar.
Though born in Quebec and raised in Vancouver, he had never played crokinole until moving to the U.S. He was introduced to the game by a friend from New Mexico who had picked it up from two Canadian expats.
The game’s emphasis on dexterity and socializing proved irresistible for Pinel.
By getting the word out through his “Alternative Canadian Expats” group on Meetup.com, he now draws dozens of American fans at the weekly events, the only crokinole game night in the city. While most people come for the fast-paced competition and mingling, Pinel enjoys building a cultural bridge between his home country and his adopted town. And he’s encouraging a new generation of players to get into the game — one that few people (even Canadians) have even heard of.
“A lot is unclear about the history of this game,” Pinel says. Historians believe crokinole was invented in Tavistock, Ont., near Stratford, around 1860, but the creator’s identity is a mystery. Legend has it the inventor thought the wooden discs, or pucks, looked like a type of French cookie, hence the game’s unusual name (“croquinole” means biscuit in a French dialect).
Eckhardt Wettlaufer, a woodworker in nearby Sebastopol, Ont., crafted the first known crokinole board as a 5th birthday present for his son Adam in 1876. It’s now part of the collection at the Joseph Schneider Haus, a national historic site in Kitchener with a focus on Germanic folk art.
In the days before radio or other amusements, families would gather around the fire after dinner and play crokinole during the long Canadian winters. The homespun game gained popularity, especially in Mennonite communities, as a wholesome alternative to card games associated with gambling. From the 1890s on, some players formed “crokinole circles” with their friends and neighbours and held regular competitions in the members’ homes, says Wayne Kelly, author of The Crokinole Book. Many players in rural communities carry on the tradition today, he adds.
The game spread throughout eastern Canada and New York state, and in 1880, J.K. Ingalls of New York filed a patent on a crokinole board design. Major toy companies began manufacturing the boards and discs, but after the Second World War, Pinel says, the game “seemed to practically vanish” in urban areas amid the rise of television and other distractions.
Pinel keeps several handmade boards, which measure about one metre in diameter, in Milk and Roses’ backroom. He readies the boards for games night with a coat of automotive wax, which maintains the glossy smoothness of the playing surface and erases any dings that could hamper the pucks’ movement. He also adjusts the boards on the bar tables with a level, making sure that no one gets a gravitational advantage.
Then he distributes the discs — each board has a set of eight black and eight white pieces, made of plastic (slightly faster on the board) or wood (the traditional choice). Recently Pinel began experimenting with shuffleboard powder, a dry, gritty sand that lets the pucks glide even faster, though some purists prefer the naked surface.
On this Thursday, Nadia Gomes, a Toronto native who has lived in New York for the past eight years, is attending her first crokinole night after seeing the notice on Meetup.com. “I always wanted to check it out,” Gomes says, as she practises her flick with tips from Amanda Bruns, a longtime player who lugged her own crokinole board to the bar. Bruns says she loves “the idea of running into a Canadian and saying, ‘Hey, I play Crokinole,’ and having them say, ‘I know that game — that’s great!’
“I have had that happen,” she adds.
As they speak, five games are being played around them. Regulars use cutthroat moves on each other, but are quick to help and advise new players. No board stays vacant for long.
“Not enough flicking going on! More smacking of pucks, please!” Pinel shouts during a brief lull in the action.
The best part of the event, he says, is the genuine camaraderie. “People are meeting each other for the first time over this game every Thursday night. And you just can’t help but have a good time and interact with someone and get to know them.”
Plus, he adds, “I’m introducing people to an aspect of Canada. I feel more in touch with my home now that I play this game.”
In June, Pinel competed for the first time in the one-day World Crokinole Championship in Tavistock, accompanied by Tommaso Mazzoni, the owner of Milk and Roses and an equally avid fan of the game. They drove all night from Brooklyn, dodging deer and getting lost, to arrive in time for the tournament, which took place in a hockey-sized arena.
“People were thrilled that someone outside of the region was so passionate about the game, and was willing to drive that far,” Pinel says.
Kelly, the author and crokinole expert, helped found the championship in 1999. This year, the tournament registered players from four provinces, several U.S. states and a handful of European countries. As an online crokinole equipment retailer, Kelly notes that he has shipped boards to every province and state, attesting to the game’s resurgence.
In the doubles tournament, Pinel and Mazzoni were ranked 13th but missed the playoffs by one point — still an impressive achievement for first-timers. Then Pinel competed in the singles tournament, a gruelling sequence of 10 games against 10 different opponents, including many former champs. He tied a former world champion in the preliminaries, finishing with seven wins, one tie and two losses for a total of 57 points. He was ranked fourth in the world going into the playoffs, but didn’t make it to the final round.
At the tournament, Pinel introduced his plan to broaden crokinole’s fan base even further. As the former principal of an onreserve school in British Columbia, Pinel says the lack of resources for aboriginal education sparked his dedication to creating more opportunities for underserved students.
In 2010, he founded an independent adult soccer league that raises money for free after-school sports programs for New York public school students. Pinel also donates the proceeds from his crokinole nights to the student program, but he hopes to do more: his next step is to start an afterschool crokinole league for kids. When Pinel announced the idea at the world championship, the organization donated a board to the nascent cause. “Every student should have something fun, practical and safe to do after school,” he says.
Now that crokinole seems equally at home in a snowy log cabin and the backroom of a hipster wine bar, school gyms could be next. But one major obstacle stands in Pinel’s way: the hard-to-remember name.
“I think if you want to make this game more popular, it would help to change the name, rebrand it somehow,” he jokes. “But what to call it? We’ve struggled with that. ‘Biscuit’ doesn’t suffice.”