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Cornhole in the Olympics? Not yet, but ‘America’s tailgate game’ remains popular in Harford County

She is six months pregnant, and carrying twins, but that hasn’t stopped Tiffany Anstead from playing a challenging game of cornhole. Time and again, she steps to the line at the Bel Air Armory and flings a one-pound beanbag, which sails across the room, skitters onto a slanted wooden platform 27 feet away and — more often than not — drops into the six-inch hole.

For Anstead, an Air Force medic, it’s akin to a three-point landing.

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Monday nights find Tiffany and her husband, Tommy Anstead, competing in their favorite pastime in the armory’s high-ceilinged hall. There, about 50 cornhole enthusiasts gather to play the game — long a mainstay at neighborhood barbecues — which has now gone upscale. At the armory, there are digital scorekeepers, monetary prizes and points tabulated that count toward national rankings.

“It’s a whole new world for us,” says Tiffany, 29. “A lot of people play this game in their backyards, but we didn’t know it was high level until [the pandemic] hit and we went looking for a way to escape and to socialize.”

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Thomas Anstead of Bel Air and his wife, Tiffany, warm up before playing in a cornhole tournament. The Ansteads are expecting twins girls in May. Old Line State Cornhole holds its weekly social play and tournaments at the Bel Air Armory.
Thomas Anstead of Bel Air and his wife, Tiffany, warm up before playing in a cornhole tournament. The Ansteads are expecting twins girls in May. Old Line State Cornhole holds its weekly social play and tournaments at the Bel Air Armory. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Once the bailiwick of backslapping buddies who play with a bag in one hand and a beer in the other, cornhole has mushroomed into a genuine gaming enterprise, with pro leagues, four-figure paydays and players whose jerseys bear logos of corporate sponsors. ESPN televises cornhole championships, where the best of the bunch — men and women — dole out autographs like the celebrities they’ve become.

“The game is growing,” says Steve Jeddry, co-founder of the Old Line State Cornhole organization in Bel Air. “I see it pushing its way into the Olympics someday, as crazy as that sounds. But who’d have thought snowboarding would ever be there?”

Launched in 2017, Old Line State Cornhole hosts open events at the armory every Monday and at the Aberdeen American Legion hall on Thursdays. Competition is collegial, if sometimes intense. Entrants can choose their skill level. Anyone can play; walk-ins are welcome. The cost? $10. Grand winners for the night pocket a bit more.

“We have players from age 12 to 80,” says Jeddry, of Bel Air. For two hours (7 to 9 p.m.), players pair off and take turns tossing the six-inch stitched cloth bags, filled with plastic resin pellets, toward a two-by-four foot angled board with a hole carved out near the top. Points accrue when bags land in the hole or on the board; 21 points wins the game.

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A "corn" bag falls through a 6-inch-diameter hole of the board, scoring three points.
A "corn" bag falls through a 6-inch-diameter hole of the board, scoring three points. (Kenneth K. Lam)

It’s a sport not unlike horseshoes, though you don’t need sand, stakes or a pit.

“Cornhole is portable; you can pick it up and move it,” Jeddry says. “It’s called ‘America’s tailgate game.’ Before the pandemic, you couldn’t go to a Ravens game without seeing cornhole boards all over the parking lot. We’d get there at 8 a.m., start cooking food and then play cornhole until 12:30 when we had to go inside [the stadium] to watch the game.”

Some rabid tossers ignored the kickoff and just kept playing.

Jeddry’s group is part of the American Cornhole League, founded in 2015 to oversee the game’s growth. ESPN signed on a year later and has helped boost its popularity during the pandemic as the network — desperately short of live sports to broadcast — turned to lesser-known events such as cornhole.

The game’s concept is timeless, says Jeddry: “The [notion] of throwing something into a hole goes back thousands of years.” And while some bags used in casual play are still filled with corn, which absorbs water, competitive cornhole demands resin, which gives a more exact weight.

How fast is the game growing? Bars and breweries are becoming favorite venues.

“Some bars have cornhole boards set up, just as they would dart boards and pool tables,” Jeddry says. “It’s a simple game — you don’t need a glove, bat or special shoes. A round of golf can take five hours; a game of cornhole, 10 minutes. You don’t have to be athletic to play, though some of the pros are former athletes.”

One weeknight regular is Danny Wiseman, 53, a onetime bowling champion who won 12 PBA tournaments and is a member of two bowling halls of fame. Semiretired, Wiseman lives in Abingdon and says he got hooked on cornhole last summer.

“For me, it was always a Fourth-of-July thing, something you did between eating and drinking beer,” he says. ”Then the pandemic came and I started watching it on TV, picking apart the [strategies] of the pros — what worked and what didn’t.”

Now Wiseman, who bowled 45 perfect (300) games on the PBA tour, is a mainstay at the Bel Air armory, where he’s often incognito in T-shirt and jeans.

“I’m holding my own — the hand/eye coordination helps — but I’ve got a lot to learn,” he says. “It’s a diversion, it’s competitive and I love it.”

He has a custom set of cornhole boards, resembling bowling lanes, at home.

A tossed "corn" bag pushed two other bags into the 6-inch-diameter hole of the board. A bag tossed through the hole scores three points while landing on the board scores one.
A tossed "corn" bag pushed two other bags into the 6-inch-diameter hole of the board. A bag tossed through the hole scores three points while landing on the board scores one. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Jeddry has seen people pour concrete pads in their backyards to anchor cornhole platforms, and string lights so they can play at night.

“Some play [competitively] seven days a week. It’s very social, and when you bring one of America’s beverages into the game, it just becomes fun,” says Jeddry, 51, who works as national account manager for fairlife milk.

That it’s a senior-friendly game appealed to Jim Swank, of Pylesville.

Players compete in Old Line State Cornhole's weekly tournament on Monday January 18, 2021 at the Bel Air Armory.
Players compete in Old Line State Cornhole's weekly tournament on Monday January 18, 2021 at the Bel Air Armory. (Kenneth K. Lam)

“I’m too old to play softball or basketball anymore,” says Swank, 67, whose bag-tossing began four years ago. “This seemed a sport I could play with our [grown] son. And while I love retirement, I missed the interaction with people. The game lets me rub elbows with new friends.”

When he met Jeddry, the two men — and Swank’s wife, Wanda — organized Old Line State Cornhole. Swank also builds boards in his workshop for the group’s events and for clients who want high-end platforms made of Baltic birch, an attractive, heavy-duty wood from Russia.

To date, Swank has sold several hundred custom boards for up to $300 a pair, including Wiseman’s “bowling” boards. Other platforms have borne images of everything from beloved pets to family crests. For a wedding gift, Swank produced a set bearing the betrothed couple’s names and marriage date on the wood.

For their part, the Ansteads believe the game has strengthened their bond in the two years they’ve been married. After work, in good weather, they’ll set their boards in the backyard of their town house and throw for several hours.

“We don’t feel obligated to play. It just makes us happy, watching each other do it,” says Tommy, 32, who’s employed by the Maryland Air National Guard. “Tiffany is better than me; she has won several times [on Mondays].”

His wife, who is due in May, says she’ll compete right up to the end.

“I joke around with other players. I tell them that I’m growing my belly so I can fit in with the cornhole community,” she says.

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And once the babes are born?

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“We’ll strap them to our backs, or stomachs, and keep on throwing,” Tommy says. “Later, we’ll teach them how to play; it’ll be a family thing.”

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