2,200 miles for the love of the game

Peter Voeth

Outdoors & Sports

2,200 miles for the love of the game

East Coast kubb team makes the trek to the Midwest to take on teams in ‘Viking chess’

Suddenly, there the Kubbstaches were: on the same field, standing alongside such famous American kubb teams as the Kubbsicles, Team Knockerheads, and the Ringers.

These were the Lebrons, the Peytons, the Beckhams of semi-professional kubb. The Kubbstaches had seen these teams before on YouTube, but now, on this Saturday in mid-July, they were with them in the flesh in a field in Eau Claire, Wis., the official Kubb Capital of North America.

The Kubbstaches had traveled more than 1,100 miles to get this small town – a long distance for the team of four men, particularly considering that they didn’t know such a kubb community and the people in it existed only 11 months earlier.

The kubb teams from the Midwest – and in the Kubbstaches case, eastern Pennsylvania – had descended upon Eau Claire in July 2015 for the 9th annual U.S. National Kubb Championship, an event that team member Bob Hickes discovered months earlier in a Google search.

"US National Kubb Championship" by Joshfeathers - Camera at Nationals. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:US_National_Kubb_Championship.jpg#/media/File:US_National_Kubb_Championship.jpg
“US National Kubb Championship” Credit: Joshfeathers

The obscure-in-America kubb (pronounced koob) is “a yard game on steroids,” as Hickes describes the Swedish game requiring the strategy of chess and the throwing capabilities of horseshoes or cornhole, plus a touch of luck. Near impossible to explain in writing, kubb can be played in a backyard between two small teams and involves wooden baton throwing, the tumbling of wooden blocks known as “kubbs” and a single king piece that, like an 8-ball in pool, only should be knocked down at the end.

Hickes and his teammates, who in their daily lives work as software engineers in Morgantown, Pa., play kubb every day during their hour-long lunch break. One day at the office, he searched to see if there were any kubb tournaments where they could compete. Low and behold, the U.S. National Kubb Championship reared its head in the search results.

“I turned to my coworker and told him about it and we were like, ‘We’re playing every day anyway, so let’s go,’” Hickes recalled. This was August 2014, which gave the four men – Hickes, Jake Leavitt, Kevin Bachman and Jesse Wienckoski – 11 months to prepare.

“From August to July we took kubb much more seriously. We started taking everything online and devouring it, looking at YouTube videos, looking at everything they have put out about [popular kubb-throwing toss] the Drill technique, and we started working on our team dynamic,” he said.

The U.S. National Kubb Championship was established in 2007 by Eau Claire resident Eric Anderson, who is, by the national kubb community, considered the godfather of organized kubb in America. The Championship, hosted in the town’s soccer park, is a nonprofit and gives all proceeds to charity. In 2015, the Kubbstaches weren’t the only team of 108 to make a long trek to Eau Claire; teams also came from Virginia, North Carolina and California. But the Midwest, by far, was the best represented and is home to the teams to beat.

On the Thursday before the Saturday event, three Kubbstaches piled into Hickes’ Toyota Sienna (the fourth flew), leaving his supportive wife and two kids to manage in the family sedan. Driving, they figured, would allow them to take coolers, chairs and a tent – needs and logistics that, for the 2016 tournament, the Championship is going to handle for those requiring long-distance travel, giving out-of-towners the opportunity to fly.

When the Kubbstaches arrived in Eau Claire on Friday afternoon, the team picked up a few friendlies with other teams and attended the pre-tournament gathering at the town firehouse.

“It was interesting to meet people who we only knew online,” said Hickes, who runs the @kubbstaches Twitter account and had mostly only interacted through 140-character conversations. He recalls Anderson, the championship’s founder, bear-hugging him when they first met. “It was really cool because everyone was so nice. It’s just that Midwestern hospitality.”

Teams were open to sharing techniques and strategies and taught the Kubbstaches different tossing strategies.

The first day helped the Kubbstaches understand where the bar was set.

“We knew we’d gotten better over the year, we knew we wanted to compete in the championships, but we had no idea where we were at,” Hickes said. As it turns out, the Kubbstaches were good, but they had work to do if they were to compete with Midwesterners.

“It was like going to the PGA Tour,” he says. “These guys were good.”

Kubb King on an unused pitch during final rounds of the 2013 USA Kubb National Championship. Credits: Jamie Thingelstad
Kubb King on an unused pitch during final rounds of the 2013 USA Kubb National Championship. Credit: Jamie Thingelstad

Eliminated late in the day on Saturday, the team stayed Sunday for the finals to take it all in. “We were there just watching, we just soaked it in. What they do, how they do it, their techniques. We left as soon as finals were over. We didn’t even stay for the trophy ceremony because we were losing an hour coming back [to Pennsylvania],” Hickes said, recalling getting to his sister’s house at the halfway point in Ann Arbor at 1:30 a.m. The three slept for five hours and hit the road at 7:30.

Round trip: 35 hours of driving over 2,236 miles. “It took me a week and a half to recover,” Hickes said laughing.

For the former soccer player and track and field athlete who suffered a debilitating foot injury at 24, kubb has brought athleticism and competition back into his life.

The Kubbstaches have made strides and continue to improve their game. They drove to a tournament in Ohio this fall and won in a rain-soaked day. It wasn’t about the win, though, so much as it was showing support and working to build kubb’s reputation in the East. They’re considering a tournament in Charlotte, and they’re also working hard to get a kubb tournament in Pennsylvania added to the Keystone Games, a summer festival that features a number of amateur sports.

“Kubb has so many different skills you have to master: it’s strategy, it’s a little variability, a little luck,” he said. “But you can really work on it, and I get obsessed with stuff like that. I really want to drive to be the best at those types of things. The competitive stuff that I lost when I was 24…it’s like kubb, it lit this fire in me.”

And the goal for the 2016 Championship is twofold: Fly, and make it through to Sunday.

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