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Reviewing Keith Wylie's
Expert Croquet Tactics

by Mike Orgill


Keith Wylie, arguably the twentieth century's foremost croquet theoretician, died in November. He was 54. His landmark book, Expert Croquet Tactics, is must reading for top-level international rules players and anyone aspiring to the expert level. Fifteen years ago consulting editor Mike Orgill gave a naive American view of Wylie's masterpiece in Croquet Magazine. Orgill has since learned the difference between a triple peel and a sextuple peel.

 RELATED LINKS
 • Keith Wylie obituary, London Times, November 25, 1999


I'm not qualified to review this book. K. C. Wylie, the book's author, told me so.

We spoke last year at courtside, under the main tent at the Sonoma-Cutrer Invitational International. I am not a short man, but Wylie towered over me. He looks like Ichabod Crane and speaks with the accents of an Oxford don. "I would like to review your book for Croquet Magazine," I told him.

"I'm not sure you would want to do that," he replied in that languid way Englishmen have. "I had planned to sell it only to players who've completed a triple, experts, you know." Then he looked at me with a slight concern. "Solomon's reviewed the thing, you realize," he said, "but you're welcome to give it a shot."

I misrepresented my croquet ability and bought a book. It was not an inconsiderable investment - it set me back $40, but I suppose that isn't a lot to pay for a limited edition, custom-printed, hard- bound volume bound with acid-resistant paper. "The book was printed and bound during a damp and cold December," the author admits in an errata sheet. The mind is filled with pastoral scenes of English greensward bathed in early morning fog swept in by a biting North Sea wind. "If you rush it [the book] into warm surroundings it is liable to warp."

Wylie goes on to give careful instructions to remedy this state of disrepair and assures the reader that "the act of actually reading it helps to stabilize the humidity in the paper at a suitably measured pace." If the "act of actually reading it" were so easy, none of the book's owners would have to worry about warpage again. As it is, I'm sure many of these volumes will lie warped on owners' shelves.

Don't misunderstand me. I am implying nothing about the quality of Expert Croquet Tactics. This book is without question the most significant croquet book published in the last twenty years. Expert Croquet Tactics is an uncompromising attempt to provide the foundation which will enable a low A player to rise to the top. It is unsparing and somewhat uninviting. For readers unfamiliar with triple peels, the first chapter (on the triple) will be forbidding indeed; the other chapters seem more accessible, but they have knotty sections that call for a good familiarity with general International croquet tactics.

Wylie provides a treasure house of croquet strategy for those readers willing to hunker down and study. He makes it clear that a low grade A should be prepared to understand little more than half of the book. An entire chapter, on "The First Break," and part of another, on "Establishing a Break" are designed for the top-level player. "Readers ... below that standard may find the book heavy going," Wylie admits.

If this book included only the first chapter, "The Triple Peel," it would be well worth the price. Mastery of the triple, as John Solomon says, "is the trademark of the expert, and the ambition of most up-and-coming players is the triple peel."

In writing the triple peel chapter, Wylie did not assume that his readers would be experts. ". . .you will be regularly and unflatteringly reminded of your fallibility," the author assures us. However unexpert you are, though, you will be able to understand this chapter if you start out knowing that in a standard triple you peel your partner through 4-back when making the 3rd hoop yourself, through penultimate when making the 6th, and through rover when for the rover yourself.

I strongly urge that any reader of Expert Croquet Tactics set up a croquet game board with stick pins or equivalents to stand for the balls. Only by following closely each game situation Wylie presents in the book will a reader get maximum benefit. Most of the diagrams are quite clear, but the game situations, especially for an American reader unused to International play, can be arcane. A game board with proper ball markers helps keep the mind on the situation at hand. (An International rule book at close hand would be helpful also.) '']

Wylie claims that most players do not organize their play well enough to ensure that a triple will succeed nine time out of ten.

Wylie's approach in the triple peel chapter goes to the heart of the difficulty of croquet itself: how do you organize your breaks to maximize the probability of completing a triple peel? Wylie claims that most players do not organize their play well enough to ensure that a triple will succeed nine times out of ten. Instead, they rely on pinpoint accuracy in their play and collapse when their execution or an uneven court lets them down. The author leads the reader through every facet of the triple, starting with the most elementary matters of break play, to make it clear that break-down need not happen.

After a few pages of this, Wylie sets out his triple peel "considerations - points and priorities to remember while in the midst of peeling:

1. Keeping the break going with safety;
2. Getting the peeled ball to the right place at the right time;
3. Soberly assessing the prospects of success of each peel attempt; and
4. Intelligent positioning of pioneers.
In the course of explicating these considerations, the author lets little gems of croquet wisdom fall for the novice to pounce upon and use: "The peeled ball should not hug its hoop in anticipation. It should keep its distance and leave a little room for manoeuvre." How often have we seen this little precept ignored even in top A-flight play?

In short, this chapter is the definitive word on the triple. It ranges over almost all possible ways of negotiating one's way to a successful completion of this play. It covers points unstated in every other croquet book I've seen, i.e., where to place the getaway balls, and, most importantly, when, and when not, to attempt peels. It is safe to say that if a player devoted concentrated study to this chapter, the triple would cease to be such a fearsome topic.

The remaining chapters, in which Wylie discusses "whole game tactics" as opposed to the triple, require even more concentration and familiarity with the International Rules. "The First Break" offers a fascinating peek at "POP" tactics (peeling the opponent), which are somewhat akin in flavor to "hypermodern" tactics in chess. The chapter on "Establishing a Break" is, in part, an eye-opening discussion of "aggressive croquet," "precision croquet," "canny croquet," and "Monte Carlo croquet," making each style clear through numerous examples. Every croquet player practices one or more of these styles, and reading the examples, you will see in your mind's eye almost every player you know.

The section on "The Opening" sets out the entire range of the International opening, making somewhat odd the claim of the inveterate American Rules player that there is little or no "strategy" in International croquet. This section is by far the most difficult to follow without aid, so make sure your croquet game board is with you at all times.

There is much to disagree with in this work. Wylie has definite biases (against the rush, for example, in almost all cases), but he cheerfully acknowledges them and invites the reader to come up with better suggestions. Expert Croquet Tactics, I repeat, is not easy to read; the Britishness of the prose will daunt most Americans unused to the Oxbridge style.

But buy this book and persevere. It is doubtful that you will learn more croquet at anybody else's knee.

[The softcover edition of Expert Croquet Tactics may be purchased through the English Croquet Association Website.]


 
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