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Flamingoes and Hedgehogs

Croquet is the summer game dujour

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If I read through the entire page of The Official Rules of the United States Croquet Association Web site, I would be well on my way as an expert in the game, even if I had never picked up a mallet. The official rules are really that comprehensive, and it's immediately apparent upon reading them how serious some people take a game that, to me, has always been something reserved for spicing up family reunions.

I suppose I can broaden my idea of the game, though essentially play is made by striking a ball with a mallet. The player up is called the "striker" and the ball struck is called the "striker ball." Or if you've recently watched Alice and Wonderland and prefer more whimsical titles than "mallet" and "ball," think "flamingos" and "hedgehogs." The striker may never hit an adversary ball with the mallet but may move any other balls via their striker ball in action.

The game allows for four players to band together into two teams. Each person picks a differently colored ball at the outset of the game, after setting up wickets around the yard. Technically, (I never knew this) players are supposed to take each turn in the order of blue, red, black and yellow. Players are initially entitled to one shot per turn, and the turn ends unless the striker ball passes under a wicket or hits another ball. When the wicket is passed, the team gets a point and the striker is entitled to play one additional or "continuation" shot. When another ball is hit by the striker ball, the striker is entitled to two extra shots. The first of these two shots is known as the "croquet" shot, and is made after placing the striker ball in contact with the loser ball. The striker places a foot over the striker ball to hold it in place and proceeds to whack it with a mallet (taking care not to whack her foot) to bump along the loser ball-reminiscent of the popular board game, Sorry! This is perhaps the most amusing aspect of the game, sure to incense your former loved ones as you send their hedgehog flying to the other side of the yard, far from civilization and, most importantly, the win. Then the striker still has a second continuation shot. For the majority of players not interested in the extravagant details of professional croquet's scoring system, the team who scores 26 points first wins.

The primary offensive tactic is to hit as many balls as necessary to make all 12 wickets in one turn. This optimum feat in croquet is the equivalent of a grand slam home run or no-hitter in baseball, and promptly deserves a stoic smattering of golf claps. Defensive tactics frequently involve one team's balls joining at the boundary line away from their opponents, often to the bafflement of spectators as it appears no one is attempting to make wickets. All strategic decisions involve weighing the risk of each move against the reward if the move succeeds. To many, this is the essential challenge of croquet. As for me, I am slightly confused. But that's OK, I can still get excited about acquiring night wickets that glow in the dark to provide continued croquet mayhem when the sun sets. Find these nocturnal Wonder Wickets at http://wonderwicketlight.com, and traditional croquet supplies at www.croquet.com.

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