Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Throw down!

Katie Powell (left) of Brookline and Lauren McCourt of Boston let fly at Game On! last month. (John Blanding/Globe Staff)
How bag toss became the next big bar game

It’s opening night for the Celtics, and the game is on dozens of screens in the lower level of Lansdowne Street bar Game On! There’s a sense of excitement and competition in the air, and the crowd of a hundred or so is cheering loudly — but not because of the C’s.

All eyes are on the beanbags that are flying through the air and landing with solid thwacks on wooden targets. Teammates playfully talk trash to one another and hand out high-fives for scoring tosses. The following night a similar scenario will play out across town at Clerys in the South End, and, on other nights, at pubs like Bleacher Bar and the Green Briar.

Foosball, darts, and trivia nights have long been mainstays of the local bar scene, but the deceptively simple and addictive bean bag toss is becoming a favorite at pubs around the city, not to mention in backyards and tailgate parties.

The game, also known as cornhole, is roughly equivalent to horseshoes, pitting two teams of two against one another in a competition to 21 points. Points are scored by tossing cotton bags filled with corn at target holes cut into angled wooden platforms placed 20 to 27 feet apart. The American Cornhole Association outlines the specific dimensions for officially sanctioned play, but occasionally at indoor tournaments one makes do with the limited indoor space. Bags that are successfully tossed into the target hole are worth three points; those that land on the platform are worth one.

While the number of players around the country is difficult to pinpoint, says Mike Whitton of the ACA, his group claims some 30,000 members and climbing. Their website www.playcornhole.org has 725 tournaments listed this year alone. “On any single weekend during the season there could be 100,000 players partici pating,’’ he estimates.

The reason for the game’s growing popularity? Because it’s so easy to learn, says Social Boston Sports co-founder Brian Shaw. He was organizing the flow of the 40 teams competing on eight different courts set up on the multitiered floor space at Game On! The league play at the bar includes seven weeks of competition.

“Look around,’’ Shaw says. “Everyone is holding a beer. You don’t need a whole lot of athleticism to play, or to even be good. It’s a social game, it’s not aggressive.’’

Peter Coumounduros, the Massachusetts rep of the Cornhole Game Association, which organizes games around the Reading area, agrees.

“The appeal is you can play very competitively with other adults in any number of settings — beach, backyard, block parties, or in a low-key environment with family and kids,’’ he says.
Unlike horseshoes or lawn darts, which have the potential for injury, cornhole is fairly harmless and can be played almost anywhere. “I’ve yet to see anyone get hurt by a beanbag,’’ Coumounduros says. “It’s easy to set up, easy to move around, easy to pick up and get used to the game. And if you’re short on players, you can pull in one of your kids.’’

Like many devotees, Coumounduros has constructed his own playing targets from material purchased online through the ACA or hardware stores. Another enthusiast, Matthew McDonough, a prosecutor from Marshfield, has boards of his own that he built and carts around to barbecues and parties every chance he gets.

“From my first game I was hooked,’’ McDonough says. “Cornhole is so much fun because unlike so many other yard or tailgating games, it remains challenging due to the distance between the boards, while being absolutely safe. Cornhole is so much fun that all my siblings got addicted and my sister ordered me to bring my boards to her own wedding. Tuxedo cornhole was a first for me.’’

Like most others who talk about the game, he can’t specifically pinpoint where or when the game was invented. Surely, some version of a bean bag toss has existed for eons. But the lore is that cornhole became popular in the Midwest roughly 60 years ago. McDonough picked it up on a trip to South Bend, Ind., before a Notre Dame football game. Whitton suggests it was born in the Cincinnati area in the late ’40s.

“There are rumors of it coming from Scotland, Ireland, and England,’’ Whitton continued. “I personally played the game in 1952 in Cincinnati.’’

Michael Rielly, a software engineer from Brighton who plays in a league at Clerys, just picked up the game this year, also on a trip to Indiana, and he’s already started his own organization called Boston Cornhole (www.bostoncornhole.com).

He was surprised to see how popular the game was back home when he returned. It’s easy to see why bars would be eager to start leagues of their own. “We have 28 teams at Clerys,’’ he says. “That’s 56 people. For a bar that’s getting 56 people on a Tuesday or Wednesday night, that’s pretty good.’’ He says he’d like to expand the opportunities to play the game at bars around Allston and Davis Square, where a concentration of college-age residents make it a sure match.

“Anyone can play it, and anyone can be good at it,’’ says Rielly, who credits much of its popularity to the game being played at tailgates outside football games. That’s where Katie Sammon and Kim Steffen, recent Ohio transplants, learned about it. The teacher and pharmaceutical rep were on their way to victory at Game On! the other night.

“The first rule of thumb of cornhole is don’t play girls from Ohio,’’ Sammon jokes. “We love cornhole. The Cleveland Browns aren’t any good, so what else are you gonna do at the game?’’ Sammon says, as her opponent lands a beanbag just shy of the target. Game over. That’s one match done. But all around the city dozens of others are just getting started.

Boston Globe

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