Croquet just can't shake its rep as the favored pastime of the rich and aimless. Who can forget the teenage angst classic "Heathers," with those upper-crusty suburbanites whacking around their wee balls? But don't be fooled by the sport's garden-party vibe: Croquet can be viciously competitive, whether you're brandishing your mallet on a professional field or in your own back yard.

The game's appeal? Strategy, pure and simple, according to 23-year-old Nick Whittier, the "imperial wicket" (that's croquet-speak for captain) of the world-champion St. John's team. "It's like chess," he says. "An organized way to have a good time." And whether you're Jay Gatsby or Jay-Z, it's hard to argue with logic like that.

What to Expect: Croquet may be full of arcane terminology (the "striker" is the person playing; a "roquet" is a shot that earns you bonus shots), but the basics are easy to master. Two to six people play at a time; there's a wooden ball, a mallet and, depending on what kind of game you're playing, six or nine wickets (wire hoops that stick out of the ground). The object is to hit your ball through a series of wickets with your mallet. Whoever clears all the wickets first wins.

Six- and nine-wicket games each have their fans. The truly competitive folks favor using fewer, because the game then relies more heavily on defensive tactics such as trying to knock your opponents' balls out of position. Casual backyard players generally opt for the kinder, gentler nine-wicket version.

Although anyone can play free by traveling to Confederate Hill Recreation Center's public facilities (near Richmond), most local croquet lawns are owned by private clubs. In the name of croquet ambassadorship, however, such clubs often offer informal lessons and pickup games well-suited to novice players. Backyard courts can be set up to fit any available space, but a 50-by-100-foot playing area of close-cropped grass is ideal.

What to Bring: At a private club, check the dress code: Collarless shirts and non-white togs can raise eyebrows. You'll also need your own mallet, though many clubs will let you borrow in a pinch. More casual play calls for comfort, but beware baggy pants or long skirts, which might hinder those jazzy between-the-legs shots.

Cost: Membership at private clubs varies widely and starts at about $50 annually, but most clubs offer free informal lessons to prospective members or those interested in learning the game. You can pick up a backyard croquet set of your own for as little as $50.

Emily Heil

Get Whacking

Great Falls Croquet Club. 790 Walker Rd., Great Falls. 703-757-6506. This social club is known for its champagne-fueled dinner parties and spirited croquet matches. Members coordinate schedules to set dates for regular play, tournaments and classes. Annual dues are $50. Free lessons available.

Patuxent Croquet Club. 1960 Old Annapolis Rd., Woodbine. 410-381-6234. The group plays on a lawn set on a 285-acre farm; they occasionally host tournaments and clinics. Regular play is Wednesday, Friday and Saturday afternoons. Dues are $300 per year, with a first-year rate of $150. Free lessons available.

U.S. Croquet Association. 700 Florida Mango Rd., West Palm Beach, Fla. 561-478-0760. This organization offers everything the greenhorn needs to master the mallet, including instructional brochures, books and videos, plus tips for starting your own club. For true die-hards, the group holds clinics at its Florida headquarters and publishes schedules of all the major events and tournaments.

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Be the ball: Croquet is a game of skill and strategy -- as well as a great excuse not to throw out last season's whites.