- WASHINGTON POST
The world’s cornhole elite, chasing that one perfect toss
11:17 JST, August 12, 2022
ROCK HILL, S.C. – The surface of a professional-grade cornhole board – two feet wide and four feet long, give or take a quarter-inch, and made of birch or oak with a polyurethane finish – can change texture with the temperature. On a hot day, even indoors, the clear varnish can get tacky, slowing bean bags down as they slide toward the 6-inch scoring hole. Near an air-conditioning vent, boards “play faster.” Further away they get stickier.
Which is why, here at last week’s American Cornhole League world championships, held in a massive indoor sports facility in humid South Carolina, Corey Gilbert, 33, has opted for the “Sniper” set from his sponsor, Lucky Bags. It’s a middle-of-the-spectrum, Goldilocks option – not the firmest or the floppiest, neither the silkiest nor the craggiest, but it will slide comfortably on the boards, which have been playing on the slow side. It also suits both his own rocket-like throws and his doubles partner’s loftier, softer tosses. “You can just chuck it and it’ll be like skrr-rr-rt but it’ll still stop,” he says. The two often fine-tune midgame by changing which side of the bag – the smoother or the rougher – will hit the board.
It wasn’t a slam-dunk strategy, though it also wasn’t disastrous. When he arrived in Rock Hill, Gilbert was officially the 43rd best cornhole player on planet Earth; when we speak on Sunday, as the tournament winds down, he thinks his ranking may have slipped, but only a little. As Gilbert explains all this to me animatedly, his parents, 63-year-old Anita and 66-year-old Jerry, glance over, anxious to get him to the airport on time to fly back to Sacramento.
A barber in his weekday life and a former softball pitcher, Gilbert plays cornhole almost every night of the week, sometimes on boards he built himself. Among the accoutrements that have to make it onto the plane home with him: Gilbert’s rolling cornhole bag, which contains six sets of bean bags and weighs 28 pounds.
Tailgates, barbecues and frat quads have all done their part to raise awareness of cornhole, known in some regions as “bags,” and played in its modern form since the 1970s. On lawns and decks all over America, the game offers a way to pass the time while the burgers get grilled; a way to benignly bond with a father-in-law; a way to assert momentary, marginal athletic dominance over one’s buddies while holding a Bud Light in one hand. Cornhole is shorthand for relaxed summertime fun, an easygoing enough pastime that pharmaceutical commercials sometimes include it in their soft-focus “after” montages.
In recent years, though, many have gotten acquainted with the elite levels of the game by flipping past ESPN coverage of major cornhole tournament finals. For five years running, cornhole has been part of Ocho Day – ESPN’s annual celebration of niche and novelty sports, a whole genre of haha-no-way-OK-but-wait-what-a-shot TV spectacles. For the 1,800 players competing at “worlds” in the Rock Hill Sports & Event Center, a 170,000-square foot athletic complex built in 2019, ‘hole is life. And almost everyone here shares the earnest belief that the game is poised for global domination.
Behind Gilbert, stretching out across a prairie of hardwood floor under fluorescent lights, are 132 cornhole courts, every one occupied by either two or four players. A gigantic American flag looms over the expanse. The air smells like sweat, $2 pizza slices and the occasional discreet puff of vape smoke, despite PSAs ringing out now and again to remind attendees that vaping is off-limits. Sideline chatter accompanies the thwacking sound of competitors’ bean bags landing plumply on the boards (or, God forbid, the floor). There’s no official uniform of cornhole, but you could be forgiven for thinking it consists of a jersey, baseball cap and cargo shorts. Amateur players wear jerseys with the names of their local leagues: North Country Cornhole, Montana Vigilante Cornhole, A-Town Baggerz. Pros wear jerseys proudly advertising Bush’s baked beans. Beards are optional but popular. Women, who make up about a quarter of competitors at worlds, often pair their jerseys with leggings.
Every one of them has come here, some from hundreds or even thousands of miles away, with a goal: Some want to win their amateur division, others want to win their way to a pro card, still others want to win a pro singles or doubles title. Gilbert, who earned his pro ranking last year, wants to someday win a championship on ESPN.
Though the tournament’s main court is just two boards set up on half of a dramatically lit basketball gymnasium, under ESPN’s red-tinted TV lights it looks and feels like the Arthur Ashe Stadium of cornhole; its Colosseum, even, maybe. Competitors enter, prizefighter-like, through an inflatable tunnel sponsored by Johnsonville Sausage.
It was there, on Saturday afternoon, that Mark Richards, a 25-year-old first-year pro from Valparaiso, Ind., who came in tied for No. 1, claimed the pro singles championship title. Some spectators wore white foam wedge hats in the shape of cornhole boards; others held up yellow signs reading “4 BAGGER” when a player or team managed to sink all four bags. At tense moments – like when Richards reached 18 points against 51-year-old janitorial supply salesman Matt Guy of Alexandria, Ky., and found himself one clean shot from victory – the arena went spooky-silent, other than the frequent pop-chhh of aluminum cans emanating from the beer garden. When Richards’s last bag instead went skipping off the back of the board, the roar of anguish from the crowd rattled the bleachers.
Richards, a gym teacher, doesn’t have as much time to devote to the game as his contemporaries who play cornhole full-time. Nineteen-year-old Alex Rawls, Richards’s co-No. 1, graduated high school this year. He practices for up to three hours each weekday at an LA Fitness near his home in Jacksonville, Fla., that lets him set up boards in its dance studio. Jamie Graham, 24, ranked No. 3 behind Richards and Rawls, throws hundreds of bags every day. His girlfriend, 20-year-old Kaylee Hunter, a rising cornhole star herself, throws with him at their home in Hamlin, N.C.
Still, Richards plays about eight to 10 hours a week. He works on his wrist flick, his backswing, making shots from different angles, whenever he can make time.
Up 20-7 with one bag left, Richards needed only to land it on the board to claim the championship. When he instead fired it cleanly into the hole, his girlfriend, sitting courtside, brought her hands to her face and burst into tears.
Indeed, Rock Hill Sports & Event Center is an insular social ecosystem unto itself, with its own gossip networks and cliques and scandals and royalty. Amateur players speak in hushed tones about how No. 7-ranked pro Matthew Creekkiller throws bags for, like, eight hours a day. (Creekkiller, a 20-year-old from Clouds Creek, Okla., tells me it’s actually more like four.) A score-entry error in an early-round women’s singles game sent cornhole podcasters into a tailspin; Trey Ryder, the chief marketing officer of American Cornhole League, whose additional work as an analyst has earned him the nickname “the Tony Romo of cornhole,” says he got death threats over it. And 2020 and 2022 women’s singles champion Cheyenne Renner, 22, is getting married this November to – who else? – an amateur cornhole player. Sarah Cassidy, who teamed with Renner to win this week’s women’s doubles championship, will be a bridesmaid.
In the championships’ vendor hall, one can purchase a generic fan replica of this year’s Bush’s Beans-emblazoned pro jersey. Nearby, sets of League-regulation cornhole bags – with names like “Karnage,” “Assault,” “Sniper” and “Juggernaut” – are sold for upward of $50 each. Some have skulls; some have camouflage. It’s a curiously violent, militaristic aesthetic choice for a sport that, rather than requiring its athletes to maintain any sort of fighting shape, is instead rather forgiving. What it takes to be a good cornhole player is mastery of a variety of shots and the wisdom to know when to deploy them – not any impressive degree of strength, or agility, or reflex quickness, or stamina.
Or even sobriety, really. True to cornhole’s origins as a bar or yard game, players at almost every level are known to drink before, during and after. Not everyone partakes. But Shannon Thompson, a contractor with the ACL, opens the beer garden at 8 a.m. every day of the tournament to a morning rush hour: “There’s guys who can’t throw their first bag until they’ve had their first beer.” Domestics are most popular, she adds (“obviously”), though Samantha Finley, a top women’s player, tells me with a laugh that she prefers to warm up with Fireball. Matt Guy has been playing cornhole competitively for 22 years and is widely understood to be the greatest to ever do it; he says his sweet spot is somewhere around six beers in. (Those are, he clarifies – after ACL media chief Marlon LeWinter shoots him a look – consumed over the course of several hours before a big game.)
Stacey Moore, the former tennis player who founded the ACL in 2015 and now acts as its commissioner, welcomes the obvious question with a laugh when we speak on Saturday evening, the ESPN crew packing up their gear behind us. No, he doesn’t have any plans in the immediate future to institute an alcohol policy, though “we definitely talk about it every season,” he says. On the one hand, rarely do cornhole players cause problems with their drinking; some players find it calms their nerves. “I want players to feel like they have the right to do what they feel like is going to put them in the best position to win,” Moore says. Beers, he adds, sometimes used to be affectionately called “PEBs” (a riff on PEDs, or performance-enhancing drugs). Eventually, though, he expects cornhole to go the way golf did – years ago, some players were notorious for how much they could knock back on the course. But eventually, Moore says, competition reached a level so fierce it paid to stay sober.
Already, the rate at which the game of cornhole has crystallized into a thousand tiny trackable, analyzable strategies and statistics has astonished even Moore. When he founded the league, “I felt like, ‘OK. There’s basically two or three basic shots,'” he says. Now, there are seven or eight, and Moore is still learning the new ones. He laughs as he ticks them off: Cut shot. Rollback. Bar of soap. Penguin.
Moore’s eventual dream for the American Cornhole League is for more tournaments with bigger cash prizes so that more participants can do it full time. (Richards, for example, won a $10,000 cash prize for winning the singles final, and split an additional $7,500 with his partner when they finished second in pro doubles.) He’ll need continued support from sponsors and an ever-expanding base of players who’ll pay entry fees for tournaments (yes, like this one), but he’s not worried. He’s courting new fans, players and sponsors with events like this week’s SuperHole series, which pairs up celebrities with pro cornhole players for doubles. In Friday’s final, Matt Guy and NFL great Doug Flutie bested Richards and basketball Hall-of-Famer Dawn Staley. Though the buzziest contestant on-site was “Jersey Shore” star Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino.
And after the tournament, Moore was scheduled to travel to the Netherlands for the first official ACL international tournament.
International interest, he emphasizes, is key to getting cornhole recognized as an Olympic sport. Initially, he set his sights on 2028. He doubts that will happen, “even though when L.A. 2028 rolls around, we’ll be in over 50 countries, easily,” he says. So he’s aiming for 2032.
The next day, the ESPN set gets swiftly dismantled after the network’s last broadcast is over, and the tournament’s main stage begins to look once again like a gymnasium. The day after that, an Uber driver who lives 30 minutes away in Charlotte laughs when I tell him what I’ve been doing in town.
“Cornhole,” he repeats, and shakes his head. “I did not know about that.”
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