Kubb is a game of angles and projectile velocity. If football is the equivalent of an infantry battle, the two sides struggling to break the other’s front line, kubb is an artillery battle, each team launching mortars at the opponent’s forts. Imagine a rectangular field, say 15’ by 25’, with five rectangular blocks, called kubbs, on the short sides of the rectangle. In the middle of the field, there is a king, a larger wooden rectangle with something of a crown milled into the top. Players toss six dowel rods and try to knock down the opposing team’s blocks. At the end of each turn, the defending team takes the blocks the attacking team has knocked down and tosses them to the other side.
The goal is to get these “field kubbs” as close to the middle line as possible so as to knock them down easily, which you must do before progressing to the kubbs on the back line. In most variations of the game, the attacking team can toss from their farthest forward defending kubb. Once the opposing team has no more standing kubbs on its half of the field, it must knock over the king in the middle of the field. If it sounds boring, ask yourself what set of rules, except for paintball’s, ever made a game sound fun.
In Sweden, the game is a party game, perhaps the American equivalent of bags. Get together with some beers bought at the local government-run liquor store, grill some sausages, listen to Robyn (or ABBA if you’re feeling nostalgic), and play kubb. But in the U.S., kubb attracts two types of people: those who are trying to reconnect with their Scandinavian heritage and those who like lawn sports and know someone who is trying to reconnect with her Scandinavian heritage. When I was seven, I got into a fight with a home-schooled friend over who was more Swedish. (My mother was from Sweden, but my father was a Persian Jew. He had three grandparents of pure Swedish descent, so technically he had me beat by 25%.) I punched him in the face. He picked up a flashlight, shone it in my eyes, commanded me — in a voice reminiscent of Moses or Gandalf — to be blind, and pushed me over a wheelbarrow. We both started to cry, and I thought that I had got over my second generation Swede erection then.
But my hometown of Rockford, Illinois, a rust belt town 90 miles west of Chicago, has not. Rockford had nicknamed itself “Swede Town,” and I’ve heard that until the 1940s, you could get by only speaking Swedish on Seventh Street, the heart of the Swedish commercial district. (Seventh Street is currently known for prostitution.) I wasn’t aware that anyone else in the States was playing kubb until this past June, when my mother, at age sixty (and likely the youngest member of Rockford’s Swedish Historical Society), received a postcard advertising a kubb tournament a few miles from our house.
The tournament required teams to have at least two members, and I recruited my friend Evan, a 6’8’’ 300-lbs. monster of a man whose great-grandfather had immigrated from Sweden and changed his name to Estwing after being confused with another Johansson and losing a job over it. (He then started to manufacture the world’s first solid steel hammer.)
The big surprise of the tournament was a young couple from Stockholm, visiting the area on business. They were, by far, the most attractive and well-dressed people at the tournament. They were also quite bad at Kubb. “I think we’re out of practice. We’re not used to playing kubb when we’re sober.”
Evan and I fared little better. We were soundly beaten in an early stage by The Purple Pirates — a couple of men who looked not unlike pirates — from Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin. Despite our early exit, Evan and I were invited to the nationals. (Okay, so everyone was invited.) But it’s not often you get the chance to compete in the national championships of anything, particularly in a country of 300 million people, so Evan and I signed up immediately.
We had a month to prepare for the Nationals, and we committed to a Rocky-esque training program of drill sessions and matches. We played once over the next month. The night before the tournament, we drove up to Eau Claire and stayed at a Knight’s Inn on the outskirts of town. Evan explained to me that he booked that particular motel because the logo had a castle turret — surely a good omen for a kubb tournament.
Our team name was the Ragnaröks, which, loosely translated, means “The End of The Worlds,” or as I like to think, “The World Destroyers.” I had planned to make t-shirts with a mushroom cloud and the verse from the Bhagavad Gita that Oppenheimer recalled when he witnessed the explosion of the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos, but screen printers don’t appreciate a twenty-four hour notice, so we resorted to uniform plan B: the croquet aesthetic.
We looked like pretentious assholes. We both wore white polo shirts. Evan was wearing white canvas shorts, while I was sporting a pair of khaki linen slacks with white pin stripes and a pair of Topsiders. Most people were wearing Tevas, flip-flops, or no shoes at all. Straw hats and fedoras abounded. One woman was wearing a bonnet. Kubb veterans wore maroon “Kubbolution” shirts from earlier national tournaments. The only people that made me feel confident were the few competitors who were wearing kitschy shirts advertising some connection to Sweden. You know, the “I’m Crazy-Enough-to-Marry-a-Swede” type.
The organizers called everyone together to read the rules — likely the only national championship where this needs to be done — and then they played the Swedish national anthem. The boom box was so small that no one could hear anything. Some people continued to talk. Others were looking around, sizing up their opponents. A few old men stood erect, their hands over their hearts. The rest of us looked down at the ground, straining to hear the music and unsure of the decorum, anxiously looking around to see what others were doing. It reminded me of every kid birthday party I had ever had when my mom would make everyone pray before we ate cake, and I would pretend to close my eyes but would peek to see if my friends had their eyes closed.
After playing “The Star Spangled Banner,” the organizers read off the group assignments for the seeding portion of the tournament. Most of the sixty-four team names involved a play on kubb: Kubbsicles, Kubbra-Kahn, Carpe Kubb’em, Kubb Your Enthusiasm, Kubb De Grace, ad nauseam. The clever names got chuckles; no one chucked at our team name. There was one team from North Dakota and another from Helena, Montana, and a few teams from Des Moines. The rest were from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois, which makes the title of “National Championship” seem rather specious. This did not prevent me from texting several people to let them know, “No big deal, I’m just competing in THE KUBB NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS.”
The field had thirty-two pitches on it, and Evan and I made our way to the two pitches where our seeding group would be playing. Our first opponent was Huskarlar, a team from Duluth, Minnesota. They were unimposing enough: two skinny kids in their early twenties. One of them was wearing glasses with transition lenses. It turns out they had placed 2nd in 2007 and 1st in 2008. The matches were best out of three, and we hung with them the first game, though whenever we would make some progress, they would rally. They managed to win the first game after a lengthy battle. Anticipating a trend for most of our matches in the tournament, we lost the second match almost as soon as it began. Huskarlar would go on to place second in the consolation bracket.
The other teams in our group were just starting their second game of their match, so Evan and I had some time to kill. I saw a man wearing a shirt with bandy clubs on it. Bandy, which is basically floor hockey, is another sport that has thrived in Sweden but hasn’t really taken root in the U.S. I suspected he was Swedish, a suspicion confirmed when I heard him speaking Swedish to his children, two kids with hair so blond it was almost white.
I wandered up to the Swedish guy, who was in the midst of the game against a team of hipsters drinking IPAs. A short conversation in Swedish ensued about how he’s from Sweden and how my mom’s from Sweden. A guy wearing a Duke Volleyball shirt threw a line drive and overshot the back line. The stick took a mean hop and bounced into my left shin. The Swede had no interest in talking to me, so I limped away, my shin bleeding through my linen pants.
At 10:15 it was starting to get warm, so Evan cracked open his first beer. At 10:30 the other pair of teams had finished playing, and we faced the Knockerheads. We met midfield, shook hands, and introduced ourselves. Doobie was wearing a plaid fedora. D. was wearing a snap-brim and had a pair of praying hands tattooed on his neck and what looked like lightening bolts on each ring finger. He had a strong jaw and a hard edge to his personality that reminded me of some of the ex-cons that came into the staffing agency where I used to work.
“Where are you guys from?”
I was so nervous and tired that I miss the fact that they were wearing shirts with “Des Moines Kubb” emblazoned on the fronts.
“Des Moines. Well, D’s originally from Kansas.”
“Oh yeah?” I realized I have a friend from college who lives in Kansas. “Where in Kansas?” And then I realized I couldn’t remember where in Kansas so I should promptly shut up and stop trying to make small talk.
“But not the prison…”
“I was going to say!” What I was going to say, I have no idea, but I decided it was best to not make any of the Bleeding Kansas jokes that were starting to barge into my mind.
Evan started off the game by knocking down a couple of kubbs from their back line. We followed this with a few strong rounds, and suddenly we were on the cusp of winning. But no matter how many kubbs we knocked down, they manage to line them up and knock them down. The first game took thirty minutes.
They beat us in ten minutes the second game. When we shook hands in the middle of the field, they handed us a business card with a website for their kubb club. “You can watch videos that we’ve made on technique. It’s pretty cool.”
In disbelief, I stuff the card in my pocket and retreated to the to a bluff overlooking the Chippewa River and drank a beer. Evan and I did this between every match, at first talking about strategy and how glad we were that we came. “This is so much fun!” As the day progressed, we would only speak to grumble about the heat and occasionally assure the other that we were still glad that we drove the four hours to play.
We had one final match in our seeding group. Default hailed from Eau Claire, and it was made up of the sort of guys who would name a team Default. One of them had on K-Swiss shoes, a polo shirt, some sort of beaded necklace, and a Titleist golf visor. The other was packing a big lipper of dip. They didn’t make small talk. They didn’t smile. Within fifteen minutes, they had won both games. They would later go on to take second in the tournament.
This sort of gathering — a collection of enthusiasts for a particular sub-culture — always produces some bullshitting and braggadocio. At car shows I imagine this means talk of ripping out engines and finding original parts. At kubb tournaments, this involves talking about how much you play it and where you play it.
One guy was talking about how he put concrete markers in his lawn to indicate where the king should rest and where the back line should be set. The captain of the Des Moines team — a guy with a chin-strap beard, aviators, and plaid shorts who loudly announced he would be “face-tweet-blogging all day” — did him one better:
“Well, I spray painted the field lines in my backyard so there is never any dispute over whether a piece is over the line or in-bounds. Yeah, I’ve got room in my backyard for three full kubb pitches. It’s great. They can get kinda worn down, so we try to rotate them around.”
After our final loss in the seeding group, I moped over to the scorer’s table and report our final record: 0-3 (0-6). There was an hour-and-a-half lunch break, so Evan and I drove into town to grab something to eat before coming back to practice the techniques we picked up from the Knockerheads. By the end of the lunch break, I had almost perfected tossing the kubbs just over the centerline, and I thought we might have a fighting chance. But because we had the worst record possible coming out of the seeding tournament, we started the playoffs matched up against a team that dominated their seeding bracket.
The Kubbsicles were a couple of tall, blond, cocky seventeen year olds. Their t-shirts were stenciled with kubb kings that had a stick coming out of them.
Evan and I almost beat them the first set, but they came back and managed to win. This game lasted 45 minutes. It took them five minutes to win the second game. It was now about 1:30. It was well over eighty degrees. The ice in Evan’s little beer cooler had turned to water. I was pouring sweat, and I felt terrible, having consumed somewhere between four and seven beers, a salami hoagie, a dozen cigarettes, and some peach custard. The park had a scant covering of grass, but it was mostly dirt, and my white polo had turned beige with a combination of dirt and sweat. As Evan wiped off his face with a little golf towel, he reminded me that not only were we being destroyed, we were missing the chance to tour the Leinenkugel’s Brewery in nearby Chippewa Falls. “It’s cool, Evan. We’ll still win the consolation bracket.”
The consolation games were single elimination. A couple of guys wearing shirts with a logo that looks somewhat similar to the Cobra insignia from G.I. Joe came up to us and introduce themselves as Kubbra Kai I, a team from Eau Claire. We joked about the heat and our abysmal records, and how they were ready for the day to be over. When Evan and I beat them, they seemed almost grateful. Not wanting to admit that I was surprised and relieved, I quickly shook the opponents hands and ran off the scorers table to report our only triumph.
We found our next opponents, Läkerol Originals, a couple in their late forties, drinking Mike’s Hard Lemonade under a tent with two Norwegian flags prominently displayed.
“Norway?” I said. “It’s a Swedish game.”
The husband flashed a scowl that turned into a grin. “Well, that’s where I first played it. And if it’s good enough for my Norwegian relatives, it’s good enough for me.” My rejoinder to the wife that Sweden used to possess Norway was completely ignored.
They were wearing Kubbolution shirts and had played in several National Championships. They were veterans. When I remarked that I thought kubb was like bowling in that beer would help my accuracy (up to a certain point), the wife responded: “Well, you know I could only play pool when I was drunk. Not bowling. But I used to be in a bowling league with a couple of gals, and then right after our games, I’d have some beers and go play in my pool league.” I realize that they’re the kind of people that dominate these sort of pseudo-sports.
They started the match by knocking down one kubb. We came back, and it was evenly matched for the first few rounds. Then, over the course of a few rounds, we were down four kubbs. Evan doesn’t do well when he’s frustrated, so I tried talking him up: “Don’t worry. We got it.” I think we both realized that I was reciting the mantras I would feed to the soccer team I coached at the prep school when we were being destroyed.
The wife was not bad, but the husband was the best person on the pitch. She might knock down one kubb with her three throws, but he knocked down three kubbs almost every time. The sky was overcast, and our hopes of success had disappeared with the sun. We had only three kubbs left on our side. They were throwing from midfield, too, since we hadn’t knocked down their field kubbs that were resting beside the midfield line.
When I was in high school, I spent one year on the speech team. Every Saturday morning at 6:30, I would pile into a van with the four other members of the team and drive to some school in the countryside to compete against the same schools week after week. After I realized that it was mostly a matter of self-confidence, I became relatively successful. I would make it a point to dress what I would at fifteen have described as “suavely,” and as I walked into the room to deliver my speech, I would stand erect, crack my neck, and tell myself I was better than my opponents. Then, I would win.
Like most games, p art of being successful at Kubb is calmness of mind under pressure. In an effort to steel my confidence, I had been secretly belittling good people in my mind in an effort to convince myself that I was better than them, or at least that I was more Swedish than them. I realized that I had taken to kubb because it made me feel authentic. An unheard of game that I discovered in Europe. Proof of my Swedishness.
But I was surrounded by people who had picked up kubb while visiting Scandinavia and people who were far better than me. It is sobering to realize your notions of authenticity are contrived and ridiculous. It is more painful to realize you’re no good at something you love, particularly if you’ve come to think of yourself as good at it. My current opponents were good people. And as the husband knocked down the last three kubbs and the wife knocked over the king, I was forced to admit they were better than me at kubb. They would go on to place fourth in the consolation bracket.
Dejected and with a four hour drive ahead of us, we had no desire to stick around to see the rest of the tournament, which would likely go until 8 p.m. We drove the 250 miles home in silence, replaying the losses in our mind as we munched on pistachios and silently chucked the shells out the window, knocking down imaginary blocks.