Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Croquet can be a very confusing game. Without a great deal of experience, many players find themselves going through the motions during the course of a match; trying to make the most out of every situation, but with no real method for deciding what to do. If things fall into place, they may make wickets and when things fall apart, they will probably run away. When this happened to me, I had my uncle to guide me. During my first San Francisco Open tournament he gave me three simple priorities to try to fill every time I wondered what to do. Having learned at the Detroit Croquet Club he called these the “Detroit Rules.” I have since found an easy way to remember these rules. The three rules are:
1.Make Wickets
2.Setup Partner
3.Go Out of Bounds
MSG, like the easy way to a tasty meal, is the simple path towards good tactics.

Make Wickets: When spectators asked Ren Kraft what he would do against the best players in the country he responded, “Well, first thing I'm gonna do is score 26 points.” It is the goal of the game. He who ends with the most points wins. Whether you make one hoop on a turn or run a break around the entire court, it is important to see the opportunities as they arise. Many new players get caught up in oddly defensive thought patterns and fail to see when the way is clear and opportunities are abound.
On the other hand, one must not attempt to make wickets when there is great risk. In American Rules this means do not hit partner unless you have a 90% chance of making your wicket (do not hit the opponent unless you have a 50% chance). These percentages and qualifiers are all relative, as every player will have his or her own definition of a 90% chance, but the important factor is confidence. My uncle Larry “the Croquet Guru” likes to equate deadness to a poker game. If you have 20,000 chips, hitting partner is like making a 10,000 chip bet. You're not all in, but you're committed. Relative cost for danger ball deadness is around 6,000 while spent ball deadness is a little less (4,000). If a player does not have confidence in the play or the execution to make their hoop very soon, move on to another priority and avoid unnecessary deadness.

Setup Partner: Repeat this phrase 10 times, “spent ball to partner.” The ball that just played, or the spent ball, is the best tool for setting up the partner ball. Only the danger ball plays after the striker and before the partner ball (hence the name “danger” or “hot” ball). Every ball but the danger ball may be used to help your partner. With clever positioning of the striker and spent ball, it is possible to hand your partner a break for several hoops. It is always nice to start a turn with a three ball break and even better to begin without having to get dead on partner. If the opponent misses a shot with you nearby, it can be much simpler to set up partner with the spent ball than to make your own hoops. That is why we repeat “spent ball to partner” and let it become our mantra when we setup partner.
While leaving partner a break or a rush to the hoop are the best ways to accomplish this goal, it can be accomplished by simply joining. The important factor is to give your partner a chance to make hoops while leaving the danger ball a difficult shot. This can be a line rush or just a ball to hit near the hoop. When setting up for any future turn, the player must understand the next rotation and the deadness. Look down the road at what is coming next and make sure it will not ruin those best laid plans. Give the opponent the play that you yourself would not like to make and force the adversary to make a more difficult play than you.

Go Out of Bounds: When all else fails, or is too risky to attempt, the boundary is the safest place. Some beginners argue that rushing from the boundary to their wicket is difficult, but it is much easier to join up when partner is sitting on a boundary. When partners join up on court, they are a huge target for attack from even the most rudimentary attacker. It can also be very difficult to set a rush when the balls are joined on court. Sometimes the best strategic position on the boundary is near your partner's wicket, or a seemingly random spot behind a ball on court. This is often called “backing” the ball. The player shoots out of bounds behind the ball left on court so that if the opponent shoots and misses, they end up joining the boundary ball.

There is flexibility. In certain game situations, generally when the dead board looks more like a rainbow than a clean slate, a shrewd player will use more than one rotation to satisfy a priority. Making an attack to setup partner or getting dead on partner is much safer when the deadness allows for the striker ball to end the turn in position at their hoop.

Use MSG at the beginning of a turn, or after an unexpected shot. Often, while running a break, the balls begin to go wayward and the player can re-assess their tactical situation after making a hoop. Occasionally the opposition makes an error and the most efficient way to take advantage is to go through the list of priorities. This is not the end-all be all, but it can help you to come up with a plan without using a time-out.

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