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  Basic break play - the essence of croquet
by Geoffrey Naylor
(copyright by Hazard Press)
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Laws of Association Croquet - from the Oxford Croquet Website
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This entire chapter on the essential elements of break play from Geoffrey Naylor's new book "Play Better Croquet" is reprinted here by special permission of his New Zealand publisher, Hazard Press. John Prince wrote special sections of the book and illustrates it with more than a touch of whimsy. The author's main interest is coaching, and this is reflected in the clarity and pedagogic style of the presentation. The book is well stocked with court diagrams, but Naylor implores readers, as well, to diagram plays on their own, the more quickly to ingrain the proper moves on the court. Though written primarily for new players of the International Rules game, the book presages advanced play in a number of sections, including a brief "Starter's Guide" to the triple peel. Naylor seeks to distinguish himself from other writers of croquet primers by imparting a more complete understanding of the game. Does he succeed? Read "Chapter Four" below and judge for yourself.
A simple start

In this chapter we describe the basics of break play and include some diagrams to help explain the approach. You will find it easier to follow the way the balls are moved around the court if you mimic the diagrams, or follow the text, by doing as we suggested in an earlier chapter. Use the door of your fridge with four coloured magnets, or marking out a sheet of paper as a court and using tiddly-winks or other coloured counters, or even rounds of cardboard, to represent the balls. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of following these breaks "on paper" if you are still fairly new to croquet, or not yet off the lower rungs of the handicap ladder.

Break play is the essence of croquet. It has been likened to using just a few stepping stones to cross a wide river, so that when you have used one stone you must throw it ahead to use again. So with break play; the ball used to help you run one hoop must be sent forward so as to be of most use to you later in the break. Hopefully you will be able to place it as a pioneer (i.e. as a ball near to the hoop) at your next hoop but one, if you have already placed a pioneer at your next hoop. And so on round the lawn.

Break play is the essence of croquet.  It has been likened to using just a few stepping stones to cross a wide river...

You will see in what follows that with a four-ball break, that is, one in which you use the other three balls as "stepping stones," you have at most six strokes between running one hoop to running the next, which should be plenty. With a three-ball break there are only four, which clearly is more difficult. With a two-ball there are only two strokes, a roquet then croquet, followed in each case by the continuation stroke with which to run the hoop. Even more difficult, but not impossible.

Even though break play gives the greatest satisfaction to croquet players, there are some who steadfastly refuse the pleasure that building a good break can bring. They are called "two-ballers" and are generally regarded with disdain by opponents and their club colleagues alike. Club captains can sometimes have difficulty persuading members to play with them. Two-ballers will only very rarely try and run a hoop when an opponent's ball is nearby, preferring always to make the hoop off their partner ball. They rarely make more than one hoop at a time and thus emasculate the game, reducing it to a simple, and slow, roqueting contest. Indeed, a simple consideration of their tactics shows that they have a maximum break potential of only three hoops! Every time they just "take off" and leave a ball behind, they limit their potential. Of course, some people have been able to take this sterile approach to such a level that they do win games. But surely the object must be to play so as to gain more enjoyment than merely winning? So if you are already, or are in danger of becoming, a two-baller, please stop now and learn to make breaks, even if this means you will lose a game or two until you master the technique.

One more general point: a rush of more than a few feet is notoriously inaccurate, and best avoided by non-experts. In the suggested break below you will notice that there are no long rushes, but instead your pioneers are placed with croquet strokes, which are far more precise.

The first ball break

Let us assume that you are playing blue with the blue clip still on the first hoop, and that you have been able to get red near the peg, yellow about a yard in front of hoop 2, and have given yourself a rush with blue on black towards hoop 1. Of course, this is an unlikely position in a real game, but it will serve us well as a starting point, and will serve you well as a position from which to practise break play on the lawn. You would rush black up to a point no closer than about a yard in front of hoop 1 so as to give yourself room to stop shot blue up to a foot or so short of the hoop, putting black a yard or two past it. After running the hoop gently, you would roquet black. (Note that you will not try and rush it anywhere except to a nearby position which has a clear path to hoop 3.) You would now send black with the croquet stroke to a position about a yard from hoop 3 along a line towards the peg, sending blue near to red at the peg. Remember that the pivot ball - red in this example - is like a roundabout; you can approach it from any direction and yet still leave it in the direction you want to go. So now gently roquet red and take off to yellow, making sure you leave red close to, but clear of, the peg. Now it is a simple matter to repeat the steps that led up to running hoop 1, but using yellow instead of black, and make hoop 2.


The first few steps in a simple break.

Having run hoop 2, roquet yellow and send it with a croquet stroke to a yard nearer to the peg than hoop 4, driving blue back up towards the red pivot ball. Now roquet it, do a sharp left turn, and take off to your black pioneer at hoop 3, again leaving red near to the peg. And so on round the lawn, always using a croquet stroke - not a rush - to place the ball you have just used to run a hoop as a pioneer at the next hoop but one, where it should end up about a yard nearer the peg.

There are several points to be made about the simple break outlined above, apart from how unlikely the starting position might be in real life.

  • First, be gentle: more balls have stuck in hoops through being bashed at the hoop than have ever failed when being coaxed through. Moreover, you really do need to run hoops with control of the distance the ball goes through the hoop, so as to make the next roquet as easy as possible. Try and get your ball only three or four feet through the hoop.

  • Second, place your pioneers with care using the greater accuracy of croquet strokes rather than the more variable rush, when the ball could - and sometimes does - go just about anywhere.

  • Third, send the ball used to make a hoop to the next hoop but one - from hoop 1 to hoop 3, for instance - and remember that the best place for a pioneer is about a yard or more from the hoop and nearer the peg. Why? Because you will usually be approaching your hoops from around the middle of the court, probably from the pivot ball, and so when you roquet the pioneer you will, in fact, be gently rushing it towards the hoop. If you place pioneers in front of the hoop, then for half the hoops your approaching roquet will drive the pioneer further from the hoop instead of nearer.

  • Fourth, recognise that by keeping play within the rectangle which has the outer hoops at its corners, you will be playing on an area less than one third the size of the full lawn; all your shots will be shorter and easier.

  • Fifth, try and make your final approach to hoops from about a yard in front and slightly to the side, using a stop shot to get your ball in position a foot or two in front of the hoop, and sending the other ball a comfortable distance past it. By aiming to position your ball that far away from the hoop, you reduce the risk of having an acutely angled hoop to run; a couple of inches to the side makes little difference, but it will do if you send your ball just an inch or so in front of the hoop!

  • Sixth, try and leave the pivot ball fairly near the peg, moving it if you can to the same side as the hoops you are making. In other words to the east when you are for hoops 3 and 4; to the west when you are making 1-back and 2-back. As you improve, the circle within which you can safely leave the pivot ball gets wider.

  • Seventh, and finally, if you always start a practice break with the balls in these positions, you will soon recognise which colour ball should be where. For example, what will be the colour of the pioneer at two back? Yellow.

We hope that using your fridge or your paper court, you have gone through this break two or three times, taking your first ball, blue, through the first nine hoops, without worrying for the moment about where to leave the other balls when you have done so. Of course, not all breaks will be as straightforward as the example just given, but the principles will remain true. Usually in a game it will take two or three hoops at least before you will be able to get a break laid out as we have described, but it is worthwhile trying to do so. Indeed, just that precise layout should be played often enough for you to have it firmly planted in your mind. Then, when in a real game you find yourself at some point in the same position, you will know exactly what to do.

As you gain experience and confidence in your stroke-making, so you can vary the basic layout given above, in ways which will further limit the chance of errors. For example, in championship play the first lift is given to your opponent when you have run 1-back, so it is clearly essential that you do not fail at 2-back because it is so near to A baulk. Thus, it is most important that you have a good pioneer at 2-back, preferably already in place before you run 1-back. This can be most easily achieved from hoop 5 since it is so close. However, if you are to leave a ball behind at this point, it will be necessary to have a good pioneer already in place at hoop 6, and this is best done from hoop 3! So you can see that it really is necessary to plan ahead - and to remember to practise! Here is a simple way to do it. Have you got the fridge door cleared?

We assume you are still playing blue and started from the same starting position as above. When you approach hoop 3, leave black just past it and to the right. After making 3, send black as a pioneer for hoop 6. Go to red - the pivot ball - and split it to hoop 5, sending blue to yellow at 4. This is easily done if you rush red off the court somewhere near to hoop 4. Now make 4 and croquet yellow somewhere near to 2-back, sending blue to red. Make 5 off red and then send it as your 2-back pioneer, getting blue behind yellow - your "escape ball" - so as to be able to rush it about halfway to the peg. Then with a narrow split shot, croquet it to be your 1-back pioneer, sending blue to black. Continue now to make 6 off black, 1-back off yellow and 2-back off red using the carefully placed pioneers.

The shaded area is 13 yards or more from both baulk lines.
The pioneer for 3-back must be placed after running 1-back. But there is the extra problem of just where to leave all the balls since once blue has been through 3-back you will want to end this first ball break so as to avoid giving your opponent "contact." Of course, as soon as you ran 1-back, he became entitled to lift one of his balls and play it from either baulk line, so you mustn't leave any ball within easy reach of them; which is why it is so important to arrange to have a very good pioneer for 2-back, as it is so close to A baulk. (The diagram shows the area of the court which is within the 13-yard roquet distance from the baulk lines.)

A simple leave

There are many different "leaves" of varying degrees of safety, depending on how good a shot your opponent is. Sometimes it seems there is no safe place to leave the balls! However, here we give another example of a basic type of break, followed by a simple and common leave.

  • After making 6 off your partner ball, rush it about halfway between 1-back and 2-back, and about six feet from the line.

  • Take off to yellow at 1-back.

  • Make the hoop and then rush yellow to the line and a little further from the corner than in line with 1-back. (Note that to do this requires that you placed yellow to the right of the hoop with the shot used to approach the hoop.)

  • Take off to the left of black and rush it off the lawn somewhat nearer to corner one, preferably not quite as far as in line with 2-back.

  • Now it is quite easy to stop shot black to 3-back, sending blue to red and then to make the 2-back hoop.

  • When you've done so, send red up to near the peg, either with a rush then taking off to black, or less easily perhaps, with a split shot doing both at the same time.

  • Run 3-back

    Notice how the pivot ball moves around a lot more, roaming ever more widely from its starting position near the peg, as your play improves. Some advanced players seem to carry it around the lawn with them!

    When you have made 3-back you will want to "make a leave" which will give your opponent the smallest chance of being able to make a break himself. At this basic level you may like to consider the following:

  • In your approach to 3-back make sure the black ball goes to the right of the hoop. After running it, rush black off the eastern boundary just a yard or so north of the hoop.

  • Now take off to red and position it very near the peg but on hoop 5 side. Return to black just north of it.

  • Note that if yellow shoots at red rather than taking the lift, it is likely to end up in a useful position on the east boundary; and if red shoots at yellow and misses, you will have the two opponent's balls close together, which should give you good break possibilities.

The second ball break

When the time comes for you to take your second ball round, the same basic pattern of play applies, except that you do not need to end your break after 3-back. Remember your opponent is entitled to "contact" only if (a) you make 1-back and 4-back in the same turn and (b) your partner ball has not made 1-back before the start of this turn. Clearly, in the case we are discussing, your first ball has already run 1-back, so no contact.

When you have finally managed to get both balls through rover you must then peg them out. That is to say, you must hit them onto the peg. Usually players try and do this to both balls in the same turn, using a croquet stroke to peg out the first ball and the continuation stroke for the second. Very careful lining up of the croquet stroke is essential and must be practised. Depending on how far away from the peg you are you will use either a gentle stop shot, if you are nice and close, or some degree of a roll shot if further away. At this stage, however, it is important to be aware of just where the opponent balls are, because if you fail to peg out one ball you could be left with little choice but to peg out the other, leaving you with one ball and your opponent with two. Just how and when and which ball can be pegged out is covered by Law 15, but it is different for handicap games than for championship play.

Of course, your turn may end sooner than you wish - it happens to us all. Usually this happens because of an error such as a missed hoop, or a missed roquet but sometimes not. If you decide that the balls are set out on the lawn in such a way that to continue the break will be difficult, then you must "make a leave" just as you will have had to do after running 3-back with your first ball. How to make good leaves we discuss again in a later chapter.

It is a good idea to practise with a friend, but not such a good idea always to play a game with them. Such games often do little to further the understanding of the game - - and may not even cement the friendship! As practice for break play it can be more useful for the non-player to walk round and reposition any pioneers that are not properly placed, thus allowing and helping the other to continue the break more easily. Take turns, of course, swapping over after two or three hoops, and by doing so you will both learn exactly where the pioneers for each hoop should be. Now you can play a game.

There is one final point to be made in this chapter which is perhaps not quite so basic. It is often and truthfully said, that it is better not to make the last hoop of the first ball break, off your partner ball. We make no apology for having done so in the example above, because it is so easy to follow. But we leave it to you, and your fridge door, to work out how to avoid doing so, and why.

We end this chapter with a plea. Do go through it again at home, two or three times so that the pattern of play is firmly and clearly established in your mind. Then go out on the lawn, and if necessary reposition your pioneers "by hand" and even, if necessary, kick the balls through the hoops. What is most important is that you learn the basic layout - the basic pattern of a break - and how to place the balls around the lawn as "stepping stones," so that you become a break player and not - definitely not - a two-baller.

The book "Play Better Croquet" can be ordered from: Hazard Press Ltd, PO Box 2151, Christchurch, New Zealand. Ph: 377-0370; Fax 377-0390; A single copy retails for NZ$29.95; postage from New Zealand to North America would be about NZ$10.00 (approx US$8.20).

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