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Croquet Anyone?

On the greensward it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.

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Courtesy begins before you hit the field, or as the pros call it, the greensward. That’s why on a recent Sunday around noon, Urchie Ellis, 81, and his wife, Joyce, 79, wait politely in their car for the arrival of a reporter who hopes to learn how croquet becomes contagious.

The Ellises have come directly from church, First Presbyterian in Richmond, and carry the necessary accoutrements — white leisure attire — in canvas duffel bags, their mallets in tow. Already they’ve picked up the key to the croquet closet from fellow croquet enthusiast Ansel Worley’s house across the street.

The Ellises cross the sidewalk and lawn leading to a host of white tables and chairs set neatly out of the sun. They point out that the greensward of short-trimmed Bermuda grass — a slightly smaller version of an official-size field — looks good. For now, the sylvan landscape, maintained by Henrico County, is undisturbed except for the sound of cicadas and the intermittent thunder of planes overhead. Soon pound-size balls will be thumped and whacked and will roll to a stop. Anticipation will mount. And two teams of players will rove the field in an attempt to drive four missiles through six wickets twice, strike the stake and claim victory in an hour and 20 minutes.

Jason Tesauro, who is 30 and whose wife is expecting their first child any day, arrives. He’s been a regular at Confederate Hills for more than a year (membership in the croquet club costs $45 per couple annually). Tesauro, who works at Barboursville Winery and is author of the etiquette book “The Modern Gentleman,” carries a canister holding a bottle of the French aperitif Lillet, and a stainless steel gadget called a soda siphon. Add a spritz of lime, he says, and the ingredients make a refreshing concoction that whets one’s appetite for croquet.

Retired beekeeper John Houston shows up just as Urchie Ellis, an attorney and civic activist, is explaining the basics of the game to a reporter. Joyce Ellis, having swept the course of errant dead grass, fetches what’s called the deadness board, a board with slats that open and close corresponding to the four colors that is used to keep players aware of the status of balls. “I like to say croquet combines the shot-making skill of billiards with the strategy of chess,” Urchie Ellis says. But there’s an overriding precedent to any tactic employed, he stresses: “Courtesy is built into the rules.”

For the first game it’s decided that Urchie Ellis and Houston will play against Tesauro and Joyce Ellis. The reporter will become acclimated by keeping the deadness board. A coin is tossed to see which team will be blue and black — and therefore possess the blue ball that always goes first — and which team will follow as red and yellow. The Ellis/Houston team wins the toss. The timer is set. The game begins.

Within minutes, Urchie Ellis is smacking the blue ball through the second wicket. “Nice, Urchie,” Tersauro says, applauding. “He did a split shot. He sent his ball in the direction he wanted it to go while knocking my ball away from the wicket,” he explains. “Urchie’s on the attack.”

His wife isn’t. “Joyce, you’re in a little bit of a predicament,” Tesauro says. “Yep,” she replies, sizing up her ball impossibly angled next to a wicket.

Once his turn is over, Urchie Ellis approaches the sideline for some conversation. And soon it appears that what develops most at the greensward has little to do with croquet. It’s the ripple effect, perhaps the point of the game: to strike bonds and relish the commonality that bubbles when people talk about families, careers, accomplishments or anything at all without obstacles getting in the way. For many, they are obstacles real or imagined, as in the distances of golf courses or the divisiveness of nets. Or else they are obstacles protracted by time. On the greensward everybody’s in the same close pool. The Ellises played tennis for 25 years before they retired that sport and picked up croquet. “With croquet we make the occasional good shot and a lot of lousy ones,” he says. “We don’t take it seriously. We may grumble about it in the car on the way home — but it’s a lot of fun. What’s more, he says, “There’s a more social side to things. We’ve made some good friends.”

For instance, there are Dr. Phil Peters and his former medical school colleague Dr. Robert Whitmore — who travels each week from Norfolk — and Ansel Worley, a retired telephone worker who rides his bike from his house nearby. All three have just arrived. Peters demonstrates how a player should approach a shot. Your stance should be like you’re sitting in a chair with your head down watching the ball, he says, shoulders squared with your nose over the end of the mallet’s handle, hands gripped comfortably like on a golf club with the mallet’s head equidistant from each foot. Pull back just a little, he says, and swing.

Time is running out on the first game and the Ellis/Houston team is trouncing the opponent. A question arises on the greensward about a “ball in hand” play. Urchie Ellis pulls from his pocket a copy of the “Official Rules of the United States Croquet Association” for guidance.

It’s almost 4 o’clock when Tesauro’s beaming pregnant wife arrives with two friends, both rookies. Instantly they are swept into a round. By now, two games of regulation croquet and a game of yellow ball have been played with no team making all 26 possible points. Still, Ellis/Houston win by two wickets in the first game, three in the second.

Croquet at Confederate Hills is possible because the neighborhood association that once ran the recreation center sold it to the county, Worley says. There was a pool here that was filled in and covered up with grass because it meant too much upkeep, too much liability. Today it’s the greensward. And to those who come, it’s more refreshing than a pool and a much more therapeutic. Croquet is a game of finesse not a game of power, Tesauro says, because people generations apart, male or female, can compete on a level playing field. Joyce Ellis is about to prove this. Approaching wicket number 5 she strikes her teammate’s ball scoring two points and two more shots. “I’ve wired him!” she exclaims of her maneuver. And cheerily she professes: “Heck, I can play against a 30-year-old good as anybody.” S

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