Croquet is a year-round pursuit at Ginger Cove retirement community in Annapolis

Nick Markakis, Adam Jones and the other Orioles get four months off between baseball seasons. Joe Flacco, Ray Rice and the world champion Ravens have five months to go before training camp begins.

Big-time athletes, after all, need a chance to rest their bodies and minds after the rigors of a long campaign.


Then there are the white-clad competitors at Ginger Cove.

"We don't want an off-season. We like to keep our skills sharp," says Bill Krause, the 91-year-old Imperial Wicket, or captain, of the croquet club at the retirement community in Annapolis. Then he bends at the waist, strokes a heavy ball with a mallet, and watches it roll 20 feet toward the wicket.


It's a chilly, rain-soaked Saturday in Anne Arundel County, but that doesn't bother Krause or the eight other players who have arrived for an intramural morning match, one of the twice-weekly games they play all winter long.

Croquet has been a staple of life at Ginger Cove since 1989, the year the place opened, and its players have long held their own against top teams like St. John's College and the Naval Academy. Residents who raised $93,000 to build two outdoor artificial-turf courts last year have also set up a ballroom to accommodate play year round.

It's one of the few places of any kind that boasts AstroTurf courts and the only club the United States Croquet Association knows of that offers the game indoors.

"That is one enthusiastic group," says Johnny Mitchell, president of the organization, which has 300 member clubs and 3,100 members in the U.S. "They obviously want to play, no matter what."

Krause's ball stops just short of his wicket. Unfortunately, it's also in a spot that an opponent will be able to exploit on the next turn.

He leans on the handle of his mallet, a $350 custom job made in New Zealand, and shakes his head.

"There are so many things we all love about this game," he says. "It's social. It keeps us active. It's fun. But the best thing is the strategy, and that was a dumb move on my part. I'm going to pay for that."

No clobbering


As far back as the 17th century, men and women in France played games in which they used mallets to maneuver balls around obstacles, according to scholars at the Jersey Cricket Club in Normandy, France.

One such game, paille maille, made its way to the British Isles, where it was played in London parks. Later called "croquet" (French for "crooked stick"), it became a craze in Victorian England.

The game spread to the United States, where the National Croquet Association held its first tournament in 1888 — and where, by the 1920s, a coterie of stars from the East often faced celebrity Californians like Harpo Marx and Darryl Zanuck.

Americans later adopted a version of the game — nine-wicket croquet — for casual play in suburban backyards. Over its history, a few fundamentals came into view.

"Croquet is a blend of the geometry you have in billiards, the shot-making of golf and the strategy you need in chess," says Susan Savage, an opponent of Krause's in today's informal match. "You can play for a long time and never master those dimensions."

"It's just fun to play this game and try to get better," says Jim Oberholtzer, 84, a retired naval officer.


Today's group — with an average age of 81 — features players at several skill levels, from newbie Dottie DeLong, 73, to Savage, 67, and her husband, Peter Stevens, 66, seven-year veterans visiting from the West River Wickets club in Galesville.

A morning on the Ginger Cove carpet is a glimpse at six-wicket croquet, the kind played in most competitions, including the dozens held at USCA member sites around the country every year.

"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."

As Krause looks on, Savage wends her way across the course, thwacking ball after ball through wicket after wicket, each time sending his ahead for her further personal use.

"She's the best player here," he says.



As the others take their turns, the conversation is as courtly as the play is, at times, unforgiving.

Carol Gomoljak, 85, rolls a 30-footer right through one wicket and laughs out loud. Later, Boulier, a relative newbie, leaves a ball halfway through another.

When players, even rookies, fail to get a clean wicket, they're given no credit.

"If you make exceptions, you end up arguing about every play," Stevens says.

DeLong taps her ball into that of Bruce Beckner, 87, but doesn't know what to do next. She asks his partner, Oberholtzer.


"Don't help her. She's on the other team," Beckner says.

Players stay quiet as others address their shots, but during down moments, they want to talk croquet, discussing the differences between indoor and outdoor play (carpet is speedier than grass), the ballroom's wickets (a welder adapted an outdoor set with weighted plates), the game's social benefits (Krause met his second wife, Nancy Morgan, at a practice).

They address the micro and the macro, from mallet options they mull when buying (carbon handles, lead-weighted heads, gold nameplates) to a tournament at the National Croquet Center in West Palm Beach, Fla., that 22 players from the Wickets and Ginger Cove will attend March 12-18.

"Part of the fun is getting to know players from around the country, seeing them every year, and hosting them at your place when the time comes," Stevens says.

The two clubs will also co-host the first-ever croquet competition in the Maryland Senior Olympics Sept. 26 and 27.

Once Savage's tear through the court finally ends, Krause regroups and manages a run of his own, progressing to the fourth wicket. The players' teams have made 10 wickets each as the clock runs out.


"A tie — a perfect way to end the day," Savage proclaims before hugging Krause around the neck, and she and Stevens wrap up to head out into the chill.

It's not Major League Baseball or the NFL, but It's the game they love best, and they plan to keep on playing.

"See you in Florida," Savage says.