Everything you've heard about croquet is true.
White-clad aristocrats, swinging mallets on carpetlike grass to the music of ice tinkling in tall glasses, cleverly outwitting each other at the wickets. Families in their back yards, the sizzle of hot dogs on the grill, chasing each other from wicket to wicket.
Then there's the Capital City Croquet Club, a group of 14 men and women from Virginia, Maryland and the District who play the serious tournament version of the game, without all the snobbishness. Theirs is a game of strategy that has been likened to chess.
The rules are complicated, and the equipment is costly, but there's nothing like it for stretching the mind while getting some fresh air. Nothing like it except, perhaps, lawn bowling.
Technically speaking, croquet should be played on a flawless, 105-by-84-foot green. But since such a thing does not exist for public use around here, the Capital City Croquet Club has learned to do quite well with what's available -- such as the back yard of the Lee-Fendall House in Alexandria, where the membership played on a recent hot Sunday afternoon.
George Oliver, a District resident who teaches at the University of Maryland, started the club last year, hoping to find some like-minded people to share in his wicket ways. (Call 328-2303 for details.)
"Part of the snotty upperclassness of croquet is the cost," Oliver said between sips from a can of soda. "Hopefully some American companies will make regulation equipment, so the costs will go down. I'm hoping it will not be just for the upper class." Oliver said that a "regulation" wood and brass mallet alone runs about $150; a typical back yard croquet set can be purchased for under $50.
Croquet first became popular in the Victorian era, when it was one of the few games men and women could play together without benefit of marriage.
"Men and women can play equally," Oliver said. "It's the same with young and old. You don't need physical stamina, just a lot of skill."
"You have to line up the shot," Oliver said, explaining croquet's chess-like strategy. "You do it in a leapfrog fashion, because you're only allowed to hit each ball once per wicket, although if you roquet hit an opponent's ball that is "alive," meaning that it has already cleared the wicket , you get two shots. You often see people shooting at anything but their own wicket because they're playing defensively."
A tournament croquet course has only six wickets and players run through them twice; back yard croquet has nine wickets. Tournament wickets are cast iron and allow only a quarter-inch clearance. That complicates matters for players accustomed to bending wire wickets to accommodate poor aim.
But these obstacles only enhance tournament croquet in the eyes of its fans. The annual Navy-St. John's College tournament in Annapolis (St. John's has one of the area's few true croquet courts) attracts plenty of attention. So does a public tournament every September on the Mall sponsored by the English-Speaking Union and the National Park Service, competition one local family has been dominating for years. The U.S. Croquet Association, with offices in New York and Florida, has done quite a lot to connect players with clubs.
As far as Frederic Schwartz, a croquet player and member of the English-Speaking Union, is concerned, croquet was tailor-made for this area.
"Croquet is a paradigm of Washington. Once you knock someone off the court, they spend the rest of their lives trying to get back at you," said Schwartz, an attorney who knows something about court battles. "There's no camaraderie among croquet players. Our motto is, 'With Mallets Toward All.' "
Lawn bowling may not have a motto, and it may not be as well known here as croquet, but thanks to the efforts of an English bowler, Northern Virginians may soon be rolling three-pound black balls at the same rate their neighbors are swinging three-pound mallets.
At Fairfax County's historic Sully house, Joe Kelly -- who moved to Vienna last year from Southhampton, England, with his wife, a Vienna native, and their two daughters -- has been introducing the sport to American hoi polloi.
In lawn bowling, each player or team gets four bowls (not balls), which are slightly leveled off and weighted on one side. The bias, as that side is called, is used to control the curve of the bowl (or "wood," even though most bowls are made of an artificial fiber these days) as it moves down the 12-foot-wide lane.
The idea of the game is to get as many bowls as possible as close as possible to a small white ball called the jack, which already has been thrown down the lane. Considerably complicating this task is the fact that it's perfectly legal to move your opponent's bowls, and to move the jack itself. Therefore, the game "alters every time a wood rolls up toward the jack," said Kelly, leading him to conclude, "You can't compare it with anything else."
But until beginners understand "line," or how to get the bowl to travel along the proper line, and "length," or moving the bowl the proper distance, they can't begin to worry about strategy, Kelly said. Even once line and length are mastered, constant practice is required. "You always have a roll-up," or practice round, before a tournament, Kelly said. "An eighth-inch difference in the cut of the grass can mean the match."
Lawn bowling, which has enjoyed renewed popularity in England recently, had been thought of as a game for the elderly. But that wasn't always so: When Sir Francis Drake received word of the Spanish Armada's approach, he was playing bowls. "There's time for that and to beat the Spaniards after," he reportedly said as he finished the game.
Another famous lawn bowler was George Washington, whose bowling green at Mount Vernon is still there, but no longer used for the sport.
The American Lawn Bowls Association says there are about 14,000 U.S. bowlers, who play for clubs in 20 states. For those who care to join their ranks, Kelly is willing to take on students.
Sully, which has purchased two sets of lawn bowls for public use, hopes to install the proper turf (regulation play calls for a 120-by-120 foot expanse of putting green-quality grass) for lawn bowling next year, and to make it and the equipment (a regulation set of four lawn bowls costs around $150) available to the public, said site administrator Margaret C. Peck.
"I think lawn bowling's just my speed," said Peck, who's had a few roll ups. "My husband's been trying to get me to put up the badminton set and play, but I've been too tired."
While neither lawn bowling nor croquet requires enormous physical energy and agility, that's not to say they don't bring out the spirit of athletic competition. What Schwartz said of croquet is also true of lawn bowlers: "Once you start playing, all that enormous urge to win comes back."