"It's not the backyard game. You don't try to clobber your opponent's ball," says Krause, a 15-year veteran of the sport. "You may whack a ball, but not out of bounds. This is more genteel."

A wicket stands in each of four corners of a huge rectangle, a single wooden stake in the center. Add two more wickets — one just above the stake and one just below it — and you have your field of play.

Each player (or pair, if you're playing doubles) must roll his or her ball through the six wickets in succession, then do the same in reverse, "pegging out" for the win. Rolling a ball through a wicket earns an extra shot. Striking another player's ball gets two. The rules give rise to surprisingly complex strategy.

"Watch a little, and you'll see — a skilled player can make his [or her] turn last a long time," Stevens says.

Rolling on

As if on cue, Savage spots Krause's ball in front of the first wicket, strides over and lines up her play.

With a gently decisive swing, she rolls her ball into his with a "thwack." Their two balls still in contact, she lines up the game's most strategic shot, the "croquet stroke."

She lines up another shot and taps her ball toward a spot inches in front of the wicket. It comes to a stop there. The same blow propels Krause's ball toward a spot just beyond the wicket, where it also stops.

Her eyes narrowed like an assassin's, Savage rolls her ball through the wicket, uses her free shot to whack Krause's again (two more), and keeps going.

"Uh-oh," says Krause, a retired chemical company engineer. "Here we go."

Many in the region know that nearby St. John's College has had a croquet club for years and has played the U.S. Naval Academy for possession of the coveted Annapolis Cup every spring since 1982. Some say the event has become the biggest in croquet, drawing as many as 4,000 fans to the St. John's campus (The "Johnnies" have won the cup 25 out of 30 times.)

Fewer know that for most of the past 20 years, both of those teams have faced Ginger Cove in the weeks leading up to the extravaganza.

The silver-haired set has compiled a 12-7 record against Navy and beaten six-time collegiate champions St. John's seven out of 18 times for a prize they call the Generation Gap Cup.

"Both teams have been excellent sportsmen," says Krause, who has won 20 intramural singles titles at Ginger Cove in his own right. "There's respect that crosses the generations."

The USCA calls croquet an intergenerational game — according to its website, tournaments draw 7-year-olds, 97-year-olds and everyone in between — though seniors and retirees are especially drawn to its gentle physical demands, as are many women.

"Anyone has a chance to play well — the age, sex or strength of the player is not important," Krause says.

Mitchell, the USCA president, notes that a recent survey showed the average competitive croquet player is about 60.

Few players may understand why better than Savage, who earned a doctorate in human development in her 50s with a specialty in "optimizing aging." She has written extensively on the subject, including a 2008 article she wrote that extolled the benefits of croquet for older players.

Intermediate players, Savage wrote, walk about a mile and a half with and stoop to the ground about 25 times during a singles game. Practices and tourneys generally call for two or three games a day several times a week, she added, "an ideal exercise schedule for the older player."

"There's always something to do here" at Ginger Cove, says player Ellen Boulier, 89. "This is a good way to stay active."