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Arizona Open 2000 tries out "advanced rules"

by Bob Alman
Posted December 22, 1999
Related Links
Events Board Forum, Arizona Open 2000
USCA Rules, www.CroquetAmerica
International Rules, Oxford Croquet Website
"Fulford dominates 1998 Arizona Open", Croquet World

In mid-December, invitations to the Arizona Open arrived in the mailboxes of several hundred former players in the American rules annual which has been played for some 20 years under the warm winter desert skies of the Valley of the Sun in late February or early March. Among the stacks of catalogs and holiday greetings, many players did not notice the extra sheet in the invitation entitled "USCA Six Wicket Advanced Rules" signed by "Paul Bennett," - and if they did see it, they attached no significance. Since then, word has spread through the USCA grapevine of the first major tournament experiment with American rules variations in two decades - to which serious players have responded with the full gamut of emotions, ranging from joy to shock and outright horror - and some thoughtful comment. Here are the facts.
Paul Bennett is part of a "third generation" of Arizona players to have achieved the top ranks in the 90's. He follows in the tradition of the Arizona Croquet Club, which historically has played more International rules than American rules. Before the USCA was founded and before the USCA rules were formulated, the first generation of Arizona players were becoming experts in the "Association" game as played in England.

Paul Bennett
Paul Bennett (left) with a friend at the USCA Nationals in Palm Beach.
Bennett, 39, is an electrical engineer who designs integrated circuits at Motorola in Phoenix. His grandfather, Edward Pius Hardesty, took his croquet seriously enough to manufacture mallets in the early part this century; his brother, a clay court player of Kentucky rules, is now learning the grass game.

How did Bennett come to concoct this particular set of variations? Arizonan Daley Craig recalls the beginning of a discussion "while sitting at Ren Kraft's court last winter during a rain, when the subject came up of the decline of the American game in the West." Various opinions were offered on flaws in the game at advanced level, which led to the suggestion that an "advanced rules" version should be devised, mirroring the evolution of the Association game. "There was some disagreement as to what the advanced rules should be," Daley recalls, "but agreement was unanimous that some change was needed, particularly as to the 'killer leave'."

This courtside discussion inspired Bennett to codify a complete set of "advanced rules." As their principal proponent, Bennett has introduced them to several tournament directors and top players across the country in the last two years. The rules have already been used in a USCA sanctioned event (the 1999 championship of Black Mountain Croquet Club) and tested by others, including Mack Penwell at North Carolina's Pinehurst, with results reported as largely favorable.

The problem is that all of this experimentation has been done outside the purview of the USCA, and without benefit of interaction with the USCA Rules Committee or the Management Committee, or any other authorizing body. Yet Bennett has sent out the invitation to the Arizona Open with a set of rules variations entitled, "USCA Six Wicket Advanced Rules."

Bennett acknowledges that he should not have so implied USCA endorsement and has offered apology for this oversight. However, in spite of the resistance of USCA management, he still believes there is a chance to have the radical innovations approved and sanctioned on an experimental basis, by appeal to the USCA Management Committee. But both the president of the USCA, Dan Mahoney, and the chairman of the USCA rules committee, Jim Hughes, have stated unequivocally that the experimental rules cannot be sanctioned.

Mahoney is not trying to stamp out experimentation, and has done his share of it himself. He told me, "If they want to try this, then let them try it. We just won't sanction it. When I have wanted to try something new I have done it at the club level and it wasn't sanctioned. I don't mind their attempt at innovation; they shouldn't expect it to be immediately and universally accepted just because they thought of it."

Hughes expresses a stronger objection: "To use the USCA name in the context of rules which have not been discussed by the USCA Rules Committee, let alone approved, is unacceptable. My suggestion is that they title the rules 'Advanced International Rules with Carryover Deadness and Rotational Play'."

The main problem for the players is likely to be that the USCA Handicap system and the Grand Prix are both organized on the premise that the games recorded and tracked are played according to the approved regulations of the USCA, within fairly narrow guidelines which allow for some experimentation in format as well as rules, as defined by the "Experimental Rules" included in each published edition of the official rules. The "Bennett," rules far exceed these guidelines.

If the event cannot be sanctioned by the USCA, how will that affect the players, whose reasonable expectation is to have the game results included in the handicap system - perhaps more game results than in any other tournament in America for the half of the field who qualify for the unique triple-elimination playoff ladder? Bennett seems unconcerned with this issue. When I asked if he intended to send out another letter removing the implication of sanction by the USCA, he replied that all these issues would be discussed by the players at the evening gathering before the tournament begins.

Is Arizona in revolt...again? Bennett does not come across as a revolutionary. He is unfailingly high-toned and optimistic. He is not trying to change the American rules game, he insists, but only to introduce an "advanced" version of the game which will make it "definitely the most challenging and advanced" croquet game in the world. "The Association game has two main versions," Bennett points out, "one with and one without the lift. The one with the lift is referred to as the 'advanced' game, but really if you use the handicap rules, then you shouldn't use the advanced rules. The lift is a fairly new addition to the Association rules - in this century, at any rate." Bennett implies that the addition of "advanced rules" would be a milestone of the maturity of USCA croquet, making appropriate allowance for different levels of play.

Many players and organizers have long contended that the American rules will have to evolve further to handle the problem of the 'killer leave.'

Bennett says he does not advocate using these rules for anything but "championship" play, as they are clearly designed to "level the playing field" and produce a fairer and more competitive game at the very top level - preventing one player from running away with the game by virtue of a lucky coin-toss.

Many players and organizers have long contended that the American rules will have to evolve further to handle the problem of the "killer leave", which with the combination of nine-inch boundaries and rotation, gives a zero handicap player with the innings an often unstoppable advantage. Bennett's "advanced rules" certainly address this problem; but they incorporate, in addition, several other "good ideas" which have been broadly discussed by never given official sanction as experiments. Even advocates of change may say that this particular set of rules goes too far, is too radical, and blurs the distinction between American rules and International rules.

Overview of the Arizona "Advanced Rules" experiment

Quoting from Bennett's mailer, "Six Wicket American Advanced Rules" affect the following situations:

(1) Start of the game: All balls are alive after the first shot.

(2) Eliminating the Killer Leave: The player may lift to the baulk line after the opponent clears 1-back and 4-back, and may roquet a ball out-of-bounds on this shot. If the opponent's ball goes through both 1-back and 4-back, the player may lift his ball and place it in contact with any ball on which it is alive.

(3) Faults: The opponent may, at his option, leave the balls where they lay after a fault or replace them to where they were prior to the fault.

(4) Running the Rover Hoop: The rover hoop is run opposite the running of number 5 (away from the peg).

(5) Shooting hoops: There is no penalty for going out of bounds after running a hoop."

"Advanced rules" or "corrected rules"?

Only number (2) above on the "killer leave" is needed as a corrective at the advanced level. The other changes could just as easily apply to the American Rules game at all levels; and all the other changes, in fact, have been discussed in many quarters, including within the Rules Committee. Rules committees are almost always viewed by the players as too conservative, and the USCA Rules Committee is no exception. Is the purpose of the committee to regulate and guide the evolution of the rules - or to protect and defend the existing rules?

If Bennett had concentrated on number (2) and left deliberations on the other changes to the appropriate committee - slow though it may be - his proposal would have been greeted with less opposition. By including too many elements of change in one package, he has risked corrupting his own experiment. You can evaluate the effects of one variable, but how can you accurately evaluate five at once?

Evolution of the USCA rules

Although the USCA rules have evolved very slowly for the last 20 years, there were significant adjustments made in early years of the organization, in the late 70's, under the leadership of the founder, Jack Osborn, who hammered out the first version of the official rules in concert with the five founding clubs.

According to Teddy Prentis - one of a small circle of top-level American players of that period, along with Jack Osborn and first-generation Arizona players like Stan Patmor and Gerry Bassford - British champion Nigel Aspinall was the catalyst for important early changes in the game. Aspinall, the most celebrated croquet player of the era, was invited by Osborn to consult with him on the rules. Aspinall was able to demonstrate in play his main points, convincing Osborn of the need for incorporating into the rules relief from wiring and deadness.

Baulk line lifts were tried for a while, but Osborn ultimately rejected them, as he continued to reject many innovations drawn from the International rules game. But he did accept the idea of one-back relief - which in the American game was not a lift, but relief from deadness; and he accepted Aspinall's argument that some kind of wiring rule would be required at advanced level - again, a lift to contact, not to the baulk line.

Bennett's proposal reintroduces the notion of the baulk line. His "overview" says that "...when the opponent's ball goes through 1-back or 4-back, the player may lift the ball to play next to either the A baulk line, 9 inches in from the blue corner to the middle of the south boundary, or to the B baulk line....If the next ball to play is pegged out, then the lift goes to its partner ball when its turn arrives. During the lift shot, the striker may roquet a ball out of bounds....If the opponent's ball goes through both 1-back and 4-back in the same turn, the player may lift the ball and place it in contact with any ball on which it is alive."

Eliminating the "out game"

Besides number (2) above, the other Bennett proposal likely to cause controversy is number (1) - which eliminates the "out game", which has become an important feature of top-level play for many of the most successful competitors in American rules croquet - including Mik Mehas and Robert Fulford, both strong adherents of "out game" openings which are, of course, unknown in International rules play.

But Bennett is forthright in his attack on this unique feature of American rules. He says, "The 'out-game' is a novel six-wicket American rules problem. For some, this is one of the problems with the American six-wicket game. To start the game in the Advanced Rules, the ball is placed 36' from the #1 hoop. The player may not take croquet with his first shot. All balls are alive and in the game after the first rotation. The player may or may not shoot the first hoop. If the player runs the first hoop, he may play a continuation shot and thereafter roquet."

No reason is given for the necessity of eliminating the "out game" as a feature of "advanced play." Bennett identifies it as a "problem" but does not say exactly what the problem is. If the most advanced players use "out game" tactics successfully - such as Mehas and Fulford - how can it be said that the current rules regarding hoop #1 are not fit for advanced play?

Bennett has said that he is not a revolutionary. He is not trying to change the standard American game, he says, but only proposing a special set of rules for "advanced play." But by the evidence of his own words, his message appears to be aimed at a much broader audience than the top 100 players in America.

Arizona's original croquet revolutionary - Stanley Patmor - has joined the USCA establishment as an honored inductee to the Hall of Fame. Patmor's revolution in the eighties is credited with bringing International Rules play into the USCA. His announcement of the formation of the American Croquet Association to promote the play of International Rules in America gained many adherents - and several hundred paid members. For a brief time, it looked as though the United States would have two rival national organizing bodies. But soon after the formation of the rival organization, USCA founder Jack Osborn began to sanction International rules play in the USCA.. The ACA soon withered on the vine, having quickly achieved its founding objective. (Patmor's ACA still produces its flagship event annually - the U.S. Open.)

Nevertheless, he insists that whatever changes he proposes, he supports the USCA as the governing body of the sport in America, and he says that the USCA sanction fee will be paid for the Arizona Open 2000 whether or not the USCA sanctions the Championship Flight. Bennett - for all his enthusiasm for change and innovation - is not a croquet revolutionary. He's a nice guy who loves croquet and likes to experiment.

But he certainly has created a ruckus and stimulated a debate that will doubtless enliven the American croquet scene for some time to come. In what circumstances, by what process, and to what extent should experimentation be encouraged and sanctioned by the USCA? What do YOU think?

We asked a number of players and organizers to comment on these developments, as the beginning of a debate on experimentation with the USCA rules. We invite your online comment as well on our Events Bulletin Board (see the instructions at the end of this article.)

Player response to the Arizona experiment

Jerry Stark, former chairman, USCA Rules Committee

"I haven't tried out the rules. To me, you either play Association Rules, which lean towards playing offense and running breaks...or you play USCA rules, which lean toward defense because of the low reward for a big risk, or if you like one-shot chess matches, like Garth [Eliassen, editor of the Croquet Calendar]. Do we need a game that is a mix of the two games [we already have]?"

Johnny Mitchell, USCA Vice President, Southwest Region:

"I have seen the rules but have never played them. As far as using them in a major tournament, I'm not really sure. I agree that to present them to a larger group of people, a major tournament is a good place to do it, however, many play in tournaments such as the AZ Open for the opportunity to compete against lower handicap players they may not have at home and a chance to earn handicap points. Causing the tournament to not be sanctioned, I feel, would probably keep some players away. I also feel that players would not want to play a major tournament under rules with which they are not familiar.

"Most of those I have spoken with on the rules committee would reject the advanced rules because they are making the game too much like Association rules. I really do not see any future for the advanced rules under the current mindset. They appeal to small percentage of players, mainly the AZ group (again going towards Association play). I realize that any rule changes have to begin with a groundswell from somewhere and AZ is a good place to start, although I don't think it will go very far. At least not now.

"Bottom line: I would probably play in the Open regardless of the rules but I am not necessarily typical. I am willing to give the new rules a chance but feel that many would not. It would be more prudent for the Arizona club to offer another tournament for advanced rules and leave the Open alone."

Rhys Thomas, Chairman, USCA Selection Committee:

"My initial, shoot-from-the-hip reaction is that Arizona might as well invoke Association rules for the Open because this so-called American hybrid is nothing more than Croquet Association rules in devolution. I think the intent derives from long-simmering Association rules snobbery that exists among top players in the West and overseas, which is not to say there isn't American rules snobbery as well. I say, can't we all just get along and enjoy the two different games?"

Mik Mehas, 1998 "Player of the Year" and multiple national champion:

"I believe these rules changes are an attempt to make a number of inferior American rules players more competitive in their "new" UNAUTHORIZED game. I assume that they will be spending a lot of time working out all the gimmicks to help them find a way to win other than superior play through the new UNAUTHORIZED game...When the tournament is not sanctioned, I expect that they will cry FOUL. How would one sanction this game which fits no precedent of the USCA?. Actually I think it would be ideal for the ACA [the Arizona-based American Croquet Association] to sanction.

I have been basically chastised for playing the "out game" since I started playing croquet some eleven years ago. I beat the same players in American Rules as I beat in Association, and I expect to also beat them in the UNAUTHORIZED game. I LOVE to play the American game as is. I LOVE to play the Association game as is. I LOVE the W.C.F. Golf-Croquet game even more....I look at the "UNAUTHORIZED" game as a new challenge if I am still playing croquet by then!"

Paul Scott, USCA National Doubles Champion, 1999:

"I am not aware what the experimental rules being considered are but the following opinions are independent of the rules involved:

1. The rules of a tournament are up to the tournament organizers.

2. The decision to sanction or not is the prerogative of the USCA.

3. The decision as to whether or not to play in a tournament, sanctioned or not, is the sole prerogative of the player.

4. I have not played at the Arizona Open but hope to one day. The fact that it is sanctioned or not is not directly relevant to my desire to attend - only the strength of the field it attracts. If not being sanction means the field is weakened I would be less likely to attend in the future."

Buzz Lee, USCA Vice President, Southern Region:

"1. It is difficult to react rationally to proposed rules without trying them out. We tried out these rules for our Black Mountain Club Championship in October with 10 players (Hdcp from 1.5 to 6). There were no objections, no hassles, scores tended to be lower, most comments were favorable. Probably didn't change the outcome. As far as sanctioning, why not? Other tournaments have been sanctioned when experimental rules were used.

"2. Perhaps the Rules Committee could recognize these Experimental rules for Advanced Players only.

"3. The best way of testing the efficacy of these options is to try them out in a major tournament. Bravo, Arizona.

"4. Is this proposal a predictable reaction to the 'DON'T TINKER WITH THE RULES COMMITTEE''?

"5. The British have seen fit to have advanced rules with success. Certainly, our young game of only 24 years has room for some improvements. "I have strongly encouraged all clubs in the Southern region to sanction their club championships. Most assuredly I did this with the 1999 Black Mountain Croquet Club Championship event in October, where these experimental rules were used. HOWEVER this does not mean that the USCA approved or endorsed the rules. When I say it was sanctioned, it means that the sanction fee was paid and the results and Tracking points were duly processed. Many club tournaments, invitationals, and even regionals have used Experimental Rule #3 [in the current USCA official rules] defining last ball to play. So there is adequate precedent for USCA sanctioning AND approving use of experimental rules.

"In my two years on the USCA Management Committee, the issue has never come up, nor have I seen any reference to the matter of sanctioning an event with experimental rules. When it comes up, I am sure some others will join me in saying...WHY NOT?"

Nate Weimerskirch, former USCA Director of Croquet:

"I feel that if progress is to be made in this sport, change will only happen if noteworthy events like the Arizona Open try new things. The USCA titled events should be slow to change, they should be the control group setting the standard to be measured against. Other events should tinker with things as they see fit.

Mack Penwell, Pinehurst pro and former national champion:

"We`ve used these rules several times in fun or pickup type games. Personally I like them, especially the lifts and being able to roquet a ball out of bounds on the lifts. It eliminates the so-called 'dead leave' that the American game rules affords a top player. I also believe it brings the American game closer to the Association game. However, I would never be in favor of giving up deadness and the nine-inch baulk line. I also like all balls being in the game at the end of the first turn, no more "out game," which to me is golf croquet. As to using these rules in the Arizona Open, that should be left up to them. I personally will be there to play in the Open if I can.


Follow this link to our Events Board and click on the responses of other readers in the Arizona Open 2000 Forum. To make your own comments of any length, click on the "Submit a Posting" link at the top of the index page, then follow the simple fill-in menu. Use the pulldown menu to designate the Arizona Open 2000, and type in "Forum" as your posting title. After you finish your comments, you can "preview" your entry, make changes if necessary, then hit "submit" when you're satisfied with the result.

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