Sunday, July 14, 2002

World's best-kept secret

West Side's game: Cornhole

By Shannon Russell,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Ryan Prendergast of White Oak (right) and Angie Hamilton of Monfort Heights practice playing cornhole in White Oak Friday.
(Greg Ruffing photo)
| ZOOM |
        It's time for a very important news flash: Cincinnati is NOT home to the World's Largest Ball of Twine, which weighs 17,320 pounds and actually resides year-round in Cawker City, Kan. Even worse, Cincinnati cannot claim the World's Largest Viking (Alexandria, Minn.), the World's Largest Stump (Kokomo, Ind.) or the World's Largest Boll Weevil (Enterprise, Ala.).

        The obvious question is: Why, then, would anyone want to live in Cincinnati? The answer is simple. Besides baseball, homestyle chili and flying pigs, this city has the World's Best Kept Secret.

        It's called Cornhole.

        I was terrified about embarking on Summer Adventure No. 6, mostly because a.) Cornhole originated on the West Side of Cincinnati, which is generally any area west of I-75; b.) I am considered an East-Sider because I live east of I-71; and c.) West-Siders eat East-Siders for breakfast.

        While the game rages on the West Side, it is creeping eastward with the speed of a distracted tortoise. It must be known that many West-Siders' entire pride is rooted in Cornhole, and the word itself is plastered on restaurant marquees, telephone post signs, bar advertisements and the occasional tattooed arm.

    Long ago, ancient civilizations lofted giant rocks at deep openings in the earth, and the game of Cornhole was born.

    Or did the Germans bring it from their homeland? Perhaps pioneers played it in Kentucky's foothills?

    The origin of Cornhole continues to be a great mystery among West Siders. In an impromptu survey of serious West-Side Cornhole players, few could settle on the game's past or longevity in Cincinnati.

    But many veterans agree on one thing: Cornhole's future is what's important.

    “I think everyone should try it in Cincinnati,” Whiteoak resident Judy Ping said. “I think it'll catch on more on the East Side when more people find out about it.”

    West-Sider Lori Campbell works in Blue Ash. She said her co-workers don't understand the West's unending infatuation with the game.

    “They think it's sick,” said Campbell, who plays once a week in a Cornhole league. “I try not to talk about it too much.”

    Bridging the Cornhole gap between the Cincinnati's halves shouldn't take too long, according to West Chester's Pat Schleitweiler. A seven-year Cincinnati resident, Schleitweiler learned about the game just this summer but plans to build his own set of boards soon.

    “It seems like it's easy for people to pick up because it doesn't require a whole lot of thinking,” he said. “I'd say it's the East-Side equivalent of horseshoes or bocce ball. It's a lot of fun and it seems to be catching on.”

    Patrick Hughes of East Walnut Hills enjoyed playing in a work-related Cornhole tournament in Sharon Woods on Thursday, but he admittedly prefers “more refined” activities such as crocquet and badminton.

    Others, such as Loveland's Phil Said, predict that Cornhole will always remain a second-tier activity on the East Side.

    “One of my neighbors has it, so I know what it is,” Said said. “I like to play baseball or football or basketball instead. Something a little more physical.”

    Mike Robbins of Whiteoak isn't surprised.

    “East-Siders are always looking to find bigger and better,” he said. “But West-Siders are cool with a 12-pack and a side of boards.”

        As I drove to Whiteoak's Northside Knights of Columbus Community Benefit Center for my Cornhole debut, I promptly wondered: “Will I make it out alive?,” followed closely by “WHAT IS CORNHOLE?” I brought along my East-Side ally, Danielle Boal of Hyde Park, who also was perplexed about Cornhole and somewhat skeptical of an outing involving neither wine-tasting nor sushi.

        Our afternoon tour guide was business manager Jerry Vesper, hereto referred to as “Boomie,” because that is, in fact, his nickname.

        “Cornhole is big over here because so many different people can play, and men and women can compete against each other equally,” Boomie boomed.

        “Well, um,” I stammered, “how come I've never heard of it?”

        “BECAUSE PEOPLE ON THE EAST SIDE ARE AFRAID TO SAY CORNHOLE,” Boomie said with a booming laugh. I briefly considered defending the entire East Side but decided I wanted to keep my teeth intact. And besides, the statement isn't entirely false.

        Boomie led us to the Cornhole Courts, which are sacred and hallowed and lined with gold and ambrosia. They also double as horseshoe pits. This is where he shared the World's Best Kept Secret, otherwise known as the rules of Cornhole.

        Cornhole boxes have a surface area of 2-feet by 4-feet, and they gradually slope upward so the rear is several inches taller than the front. A grapefruit-sized opening is situated close to the back. The goal is to toss 6-inch square beanbags — filled with authentic corn kernels — toward the hole at a lengthy distance (ours was 39 feet).

        Teams of two compete with four beanbags per person and two total boards; first team to 21 points wins. A hole-in-one counts as three points, and every other beanbag that lands on the board counts as one point. Players can cancel opponents' point values by earning the same amount of points in a single turn.

        “That's it?” I asked, relieved. “That's all Cornhole is?”

        “Just wait,” said Sharon Linde, manager of Northside's weekly Cornhole leagues. “Once you play, you'll see that it's kind of addictive. But it's really fun.”

        There was no fooling Danielle and me, veterans of tougher things, such as youth soccer and gym-class whiffleball. We thought we had this game licked. Danielle teamed up with Boomie and I partnered with Finneytown's Michelle Van Praag and we began playing, but not before we discussed a VERY SENSITIVE SUBJECT.

        Note: To shield the unassuming eyes of young readers, it's hereby decreed that anything in parentheses is invisible to those under age 21, mostly and limited to the word (beer). But it's very important to point out that (beer) is often a Cornhole staple, partly because of the game's social atmosphere and partly because players get nervous when their non-tossing hands are empty. When an errant toss nearly toppled Boomie's (beer), he informed us that knocking over someone's (beer) is the Cardinal Sin of Cornhole. Jason Schimpf of Delhi later amended the statement, saying the real sin was putting down the (beer) in the first place.

        Competitors Danielle and Michelle launched their first tosses from one end. Boomie and I collected the bags and fired back with a series of underhand throws. And just as I suspected, my third toss was a hole-in-one. Hurrah!

        “This is only the warmup round,” Boomie said.

        Rats! I figured it wouldn't be too hard to duplicate, considering my impeccable aim and newfound confidence. Both vanished within 4.6 seconds when we saw that Boomie can hit a termite from 12 miles away, which explains his shower of holes-in-one and my team's ensuing 21-13 and 21-15 losses.

        Pinch-Cornholer Scott Holthaus of Whiteoak replaced Michelle for the last game. Scott undoubtedly practices Cornhole in the dark, standing on one leg, because he boasts a consistently accurate throwing technique: Instead of tossing the bags underhand like a slow-pitch softball, he skips them like Frisbees. He propelled us to a comfortable lead.

        Just as the sun began to set and other players left the court for (beer) refills, I came through for the team. With one last heave, I aimed for the boards and released.

        The bean bag flipped and turned. It wavered and descended. And then, for the second time ever, it fell directly into the hole for the 21-11 win. Double hurrah!

        I celebrated as if I'd won an Olympic gold. There I was, in West-Side territory, an East-Side winner.

        And you know what? The West-siders were proud. Not one person tried to eat me.

        “There you go,” Boomie said approvingly. “You've got it now!”

        So forget about the World's Largest Cow Skull (Amado, Ariz.) or the World's Largest Thermometer (Baker, Calif.). The World's Best Kept Secret remains in Cincinnati, Ohio. And we're not telling anyone.


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