The Red Stick Croquet Club plays a variation of the game that’s far removed from the image of kids with mallets haphazardly knocking colored balls through wickets in the backyard.
For members of the club, it’s a sport centered on thinking and it involves serious competition. Think games involving strategy, like chess, billiards and backgammon.
“To younger people, it looks dull. But once you get into the game, you will find it very interesting and very challenging,” said club President Carl Jarratt. “It’s not just shooting balls through wickets. It takes strategy.”
The club meets every Wednesday and Saturday morning at a “course” nestled in front of the City Park Golf Course. The club’s members play in competitions across the country, and a few have garnered national recognition.
The group originated in 1999 at Independence Park, when Jarratt saw club member Bob Boseman and his cousin Tolliver playing nine-wicket croquet. Jarratt asked if he could play. The group grew to a 16-member team and moved to City Park Golf Course following its renovation.
There are four versions of croquet, according to the United States Croquet Association, and each is practiced by the Red Stick Croquet Club. Six-wicket croquet and competition under the association’s rules require hitting the ball through wickets in order and hitting a stake at the end of the court. Nine-wicket uses more wickets and a larger playing area, while golf croquet focuses only on which team can pass through seven wickets first.
No matter the version, the sport, in a tactical sense, draws comparisons to chess, billiards and backgammon.
Club Treasurer George Cochran said the complexities of croquet keep a competitor from ever getting bored.
“It’s a blessing, that’s all I can tell you,” he said. “You can come out and play this game for 20 years and still find new and exciting aspects about it.”
Cochran joined the club shortly after its origination when he found a recruitment advertisement in The Advocate. Fifteen years later, he is a six-time national champion in the sport and considered the best player in the state.
Cochran, a mathematics professor at LSU, holds three titles in both singles and doubles at the USCA 9 Wicket National Championships. He most recently won in the doubles competition in the 2014 Championships in Kansas City with partner John Warlick.
He points out that many of the best croquet players do not compete on the kind of long-grass courts he plays on, which is known as “backyard croquet.” Many professionals prefer a completely flat field of grass when they play, he said, making the game more reliant on shooting skills.
Cochran thrives in the conditions presented by long-grass courts and said his experience with probability plays a large factor in his success.
“I do a lot of consulting work where I optimize strategies for gambling games,” Cochran said. “Croquet in rough conditions on a tough course is kind of similar to that. It’s a matter of making the decision of when to play it safe, when to be aggressive and what shots will pay off.”
Practicing next to the golf courses has caused some golfers to inquire about the sport and sometimes join. The club set up a demonstration at BREC’s Art in the Park last spring, generating name recognition and helping gain a new club member.
Jimmy Sells is among the former golf course members to put up his clubs for a mallet. He joined upon at the urging of Jarratt, an old friend, and enjoys being able to play alongside a national champion like Cochran.
The sport’s heavy reliance on strategy means gender and age are small factors in one’s success. It’s an attribute of the game that a female member of the club, Andree Bothe, finds appealing.
“I know I’m getting older and I’m going to lose muscle, and that happens,” Bothe said. “One might say the men can hit it harder, but they’re going to lose muscle, too. I’m going to keep on trying.”
Without a club near her, Bothe commutes from Metarie every Saturday to practice with RSCC. She’s been playing the sport since 1993 and said as long as she can still walk she will still play.
With the youngest club member in his late 20s, the club may appear to struggle with appealing to the younger generation. But Cochran said even his own students would find the game interesting, if they gave it a try.
“I would just have them come out and hit balls, try to make some hoops and then they’re hooked, Cochran said. “It’s not a case where you have to sell a game by talking about it. You really just have to get them to where they’re hitting balls.”