Croquet is the game of the day during a hot Boca Grande summer

July 16, 2021
By T Michele Walker

BY T MICHELE WALKER – Croquet is believed to have been first played by thirteenth-century French peasants who fashioned ad hoc mallets to whack wooden balls through hoops made of willow branches. The modern game’s origins can be traced to 1852 when a game called “crooky” was introduced to England from Ireland where it had been played since the 1830s.

The growth of croquet began to wane due to the introduction of lawn tennis and the onset of World War I. It was during the 1930s and 1940s when croquet enjoyed a resurgence, particularly with the “literati” on the East Coast and the “glitterati” on the West Coast of North America. And now the sport has found newfound popularity with the “Bocaratti” at Boca Bay. 

“I give all the credit to Robert,” said Kateri Clemons, croquet aficionado. “He’s the one who organized everybody and got everybody into it.” 

Robert Levine, the unofficial pied piper of Boca Bay Croquet has been racing around in his red golf cart, acting as the pollinating bee for the sport of croquet. And his efforts have produced results with year-rounders as well as those who are not here for the whole season. His efforts have not just helped to form an actual croquet community. 

“I sure wish I could play with you,” texted Donna Hecker, a member of the croquet group who is not in Boca Grande this summer. “Boredom is setting in. Just had a physical and my doctor said I was going to live to 110, my health is that good. I attribute that to croquet.”

Donna may be on to something, as the benefits of croquet are well-documented and include:

• Ideal for all ages

• Intellectually stimulating

• A fun way to get moderate exercise

• Opportunity to socialize 

• Stress reliever and a natural antidepressant

• Being outdoors

• Emphasis on good sportsmanship and camaraderie

Kateri Clemons, a member of the Gasparilla Inn Mallet Club, points out that her love of croquet started here, playing with the group at Boca Bay. “I played when I was a kid, but very informally. It’s such a strategic game, the location is so beautiful and the people that I play with are very competitive,” she laughed. “Sometimes they play for money and they are fierce competitors.”

The competition is fun but Kateri emphasized that it’s the social component that brings her back every week. “I play as often as I can, sometimes after work. I love it because it’s a strategic game, kind of like a combination of darts, pool, golf, everything.” 

Robert agrees and calls the game, “Chess on the lawn. I’ve noticed that people have to think steps ahead. The closest analogy I can think of is a chess game.”

Ainslye Gilligan is taking time to set up her croquet shot, demonstrating how to execute a lighter, more accurate touch with the mallet. Like Kateri, Ainslye was originally invited to croquet at Boca Bay by Robert. “It’s a great way to get outside and meet people and it’s fun.”

Practically an expert on the intricacies of the sport, Ainslye enjoys the competitiveness and strategy of croquet. “It’s sort of like chess on grass, but similar to tennis and golf. There’s the expectation of politeness, you’re not rude to one another and if someone misses a shot, you don’t do a victory dance,” she laughed. “And if someone makes a good shot, you say something supportive like, ‘Great shot,’ or ‘Shot of the day,’ ‘That was amazing.’ Just being nice to one another is very attractive.” 

Mary Bess has been playing croquet for just over a year, and like the others, was introduced to the sport by Robert. “He has built a little croquet community.”

“It’s getting outside in the sunshine and meeting people. The game itself is more complicated than you would guess, but the game is secondary to me to all of the other aspects like getting a little exercise.”

Mary also notes that it’s a sport that men and women can do together. “It doesn’t rely on physical strength and it does keep you toned a little bit. It makes a big difference.”

Men and women playing together was built into croquet’s DNA. Given the nature of Victorian courting codes, young people, particularly women, relished the game, which allowed them to socialize out of the earshot of chaperons.

The croquet matches are one part competitive and one part educational, as Robert assists the players who are new to the sport. “I’m intrigued by the geometry, the chess-like strategy and the teamwork that’s involved. I’m fascinated by the communication and camaraderie that goes on between the players and the way they have to listen to each other and strategize.”

Robert is the organizer of the group, but he is quick to point out that there are no leaders and it’s truly a team effort. It’s surprising to find that he has been playing for just over a year himself. “It was the pandemic and I was watching these people play at The Inn. I watched them for a month and they encouraged me to join.”

“It’s a game based on etiquette. I’ve never seen a game actually based on etiquette,” Robert continued. “It must be because of the roots and the evolution of the game, the deference, the respect, and the support of each other. It’s almost intrinsically entangled into the fabric of the game.”

After spending a delightful morning on the croquet lawn, Robert emphasized, “You haven’t seen anything yet. That’s just a piece of it because it delves much deeper.”

“There was a croquet craze in the mid-1880s,” added Robert. “Croquet was popular with so many authors, like Lewis Carroll in ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ Louisa May Alcott in ‘Little Women’ and Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina.’”