For the past few weeks, whenever I told anyone I was working on a story about Crokinole, they’d go “What?” “Croka-what?”
That’s the first thing I learned about Crokinole — it’s an aggressively what-inducing word. It’s also a Canadian table sport. Never call it a board game — that’s the second thing I learned.
“I think it’s pretty clear it’s a sport. It’s not Monopoly. Monopoly doesn’t take any hand-eye coordination to play. But Crokinole is a sport in that sense that it really does take a certain skill you have to acquire and learn.”
That’s my friend Scott. He became obsessed with Crokinole three years ago when his roommate inherited a board. With the help of a book called, “It’s Only Crokinole, But I Like It,” and some YouTube videos, they taught themselves to play. Soon they acquired three boards — a major commitment considering these things take up an entire tabletop. As with any sport, the more they played, the better they got.
The only problem? They couldn’t find anyone else on the East Coast to play with.
“I think in a lot of states, you’re not going to have more than a couple of Crokinole players,” he says, “but the ones you find usually are pretty dedicated.”
Nathan Walsh, who’s Canadian, was just 12 the first time he played in the World Championships in Tavistock, Ontario. Walsh is the one who posted the first videos of the World Crokinole Championship on YouTube. Soon he was blogging and tweeting about Crokinole too, uniting isolated players worldwide, like Scott, in their love of the game.
“Just this past year I learned about a group in Hungary, in Budapest, and there are maybe 20 or so who are pretty good Crokinole players,” Walsh says. “Every year at the World Championship there are about 10 who come from Ohio.”
Now, calling it the “World” Crokinole Championship may be a bit aspirational. But surely all this tweeting and YouTubing has led to some kind of renaissance for the sport. I asked Walsh, hoping I could still spin this as a story about a young wunderkind who’d breathed new life into a 19th century parlor game, using social media and tech savvy.
“To be honest, I would say it’s actually in decline, and I’m just going by what we see at our local clubs and what we see at tournaments. Typically we’re seeing less people. The reason for that is that the average age is pretty high for Crokinole players. It’s definitely more popular with a lot of senior folks,” Walsh says.
Luckily, there is hope for Crokinole. This year it was discovered by a new batch of players who will never age out the sport. I’m talking about robots that play Crokinole. Sheldon Marquis is with the group Skills Canada, which teaches high school kids robotics:
“There’s a different theme every year. Last year there was, the competition was Connect Four Dots, the year before that it was Dropping Blocks into a Bin, this year the competition coordinators decided that we’d do Crokinole,” he says.
These robots are pretty good, and Crokinole does not deserve to be compared to dropping blocks in a bin. Scott persuaded me to play a few rounds with him and I have to say, sinking that first 20-point goal felt really good.
It’s kind of like air hockey without the air, or pool without the cue or — you really just have to play it. After one game, I was on board with Scott’s mission to turn Crokinole into the curling of table sports. Team Crokinole! Bring on the fluorescent unisuits!
And it turns out there’s good news amidst Walsh's gloomy Crokinole forecast.
“I think there is a tournament that’s in October that’s been in, I think, a little place called Astoria, New York,” he says.
It turns out there’s an east coast tournament for Scott in Queens that’s about 500 miles closer to his home in New Haven, Connecticut, than Ontario. The Choner Crokinole Tournament has been quietly operating for three years now. They may not use “regulation boards” or import the official tournament shuffleboard wax Scott buys from Canada. But they do promise everyone a “flicking good time.”