While pockets of European interest in the game of crokinole have existed for a few years now, you could be forgiven if it appeared from afar as a passive hobby from a select few of the most enthusiastic board game lovers who stumbled upon the Canadian game of crokinole after hours searching through web forums such as boardgamegeek.com.
But in Budapest, an assortment of individuals proved that a deep interest in crokinole can be found not only in Hungary, but in many European nations.
A small social was held on the Friday evening by the tournament organizers (Zsolt Rimár, Daniel Létay and Dóra Salamon) before the first ever European Crokinole Championships. It allowed some keen competitors from Spain, Italy, Canada and the Netherlands to try out the local Hungarian boards, talk about the few Hungarian words they’ve learned so far, and remark about how crazy it was they had all traveled to a foreign country to partake in a crokinole tournament.
Speaking of the boards, they are all handmade by Zsolt Rimár. The boards are of quite similar quality to the boards you might have purchased from Willard Martin, both in features and in quality. Obviously the dimensions are the same, with the exception of a slightly shorter height of the outer rim. Comparing to an average Willard board, the pegs are of equal reboundnicity (that's totally a real word, you don't have to double check), and most importantly, the board surface has terrific consistency.
The two main differences with a Rimár board compared to a typical one found in North America, or possibly anywhere, are the wax finish on the board, and the discs.
The wax finish is satisfying to the touch, and to steal a quote from Al Fuhr, "you can just feel the smoothness." To give a more relatable description, the wax finish has enough shine to it to see you own reflection, or catch the glare from a ceiling light. This used to be a defining feature of some boards made in Canada as well, but perhaps suffered somewhat in highly humid summers to be a little sticky, and have seemingly become less common. With regard to the Rimár boards however, they seem to be well equipped for the warmer Hungarian climate and showed little indication of stickiness.
The second distinguishing feature is the discs. While nearly all board makers acquire discs from a factory, the Rimár discs are handmade. Zsolt will admit it is a cumbersome process, but it is impossible not to admire the dedication that goes into the craft.
The two day competition began on Saturday with Juniors, Women’s, Doubles and the first section of the Team competition. The Women’s competition was won by Dóra Salamon, with second place going to Klára Soós and third to Zsófia Schönberger. A triplet of Hungarians also won the junior trophies with Móric Szeszler in third, József Herczeg in second and Domonkos Kollár taking the title. Watching the Juniors compete was quite interesting and exciting. Not only did each player appear to be enjoying the game, there was a great deal of thought and focus present in most games that shows a clear desire from many of them to improve their skills. Of great help in spreading interest in the game to the youth of Hungary is credited towards a number of crokinole competitors who are school teachers, who have on more than one occasion, brought the game of crokinole into the classroom.
Afterwards, the doubles competition began with 26 teams entered, and an 8-game round robin that would see each team fighting for a place in the top 8. The tournament schedule allowed for significant time in between games and chose to utilize live scoring throughout the tournament, which made it easy to see which teams were playing well, and which would be fighting for every point to make the playoffs. At the halfway point, a number of the top teams had established themselves, with the Hungarian teams of Zámbo/Zámbo and Kacskovics/Móczár leading the way at 27 points, while the 4-time Belgian national champions of Costermans/Vrints sat 8th with a one point edge on 9th.
The Belgians would improve their play in the afternoon however and qualify for the playoffs in 7th spot. They would also be joined by 5 Hungarian teams, the Spanish champions of Cobo/Andrade, the Hungarian/Canadian team of Soós/Walsh.
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The playoffs split the 8 teams into 2 groups of 4, with each group playing a round robin to determine the semifinalists. In Group B, Zámbo/Zámbo and Costermans/Vrints won so handily in the first two games that their semifinal position were guaranteed before their final game. Meanwhile Group A was much tighter and in the final game Cobo/Andrade and Berzlánovich/Berzlánovich faced each other both sitting at 9 points, and Soós/Walsh played Nagy/Rimár at 8 and 6 points respectively. But under pressure to advance, there were definitive victories with the Berzlánovich’s winning 8-0 and Soós/Walsh winning 7-1.
That set the semifinal stage: Costermans/Vrints vs Soós/Walsh and Berzlánovich/Berzlánovich vs Zámbo/Zámbo.
There were some interesting story lines in both matches. The all-Hungarian matchup pitted two pairs of brothers against each other, and also featured the top 4 ranked Hungarian players (at the time of this writing official Hungarian crokinole rankings could be found here, although that has since been updated and the current rankings are found here). The other semifinal saw Bert Costermans and Dennis Vrints, who had won all 4 competitive crokinole events they’d ever entered, looking to extend their unbeaten streak against a whole new host of competitors. Their opponents of Klára Soós (mother of Attila and Kristián Berzlánovich) and Nathan Walsh had only been partnered together 10 minutes before the doubles event began, and shared the unusual distinction of being the only doubles team that didn’t speak the same language. (Although Walsh quickly learned from Soós that huszas was the Hungarian word for 20.)
In the semifinals, Soós/Walsh began with the first 2 points, but the match quickly became one-way traffic with Costermans/Vrints earning definitive victories in each of the following rounds. They were able to grab the early lead and hold on comfortably in the last 5 rounds to win the first to 9 match by a score of 10-2.
In the other semifinal, the Berzlánovich’s looked stronger throughout the beginning and led 8-2 before the Zámbo’s mounted a bit of comeback making the match 8-4. But the Berzlánovich’s ended it in the next round to advance to the finals.
In the 3rd place game, Soós and Walsh fell to a similar fate as they scored the first 2 points, but then proceeded to lose the next 10 straight as the Zámbo’s looked dominant and comfortable as they even pushed to increase the lead they had in every round. The 10-2 victory gave them the bronze medal from the first ever European Championships.
A lot was on the line in the finals as Belgium and Hungary faced off, and you could tell the pressure was on as a few shocking mistakes were made early in the match. After 3 rounds, the match was 3-3 in the first to 11 battle. The Berzlánovich’s had been the top team all day, having the lead in the tournament at every stage, however, Costermans and Vrints had picked up momentum throughout the day, and in the final rounds, both in tactics and execution, they proved to be the better team. They won the final 4 rounds in a row and claimed the European Doubles title with an 11-3 victory.
The first day of the competition had stretched on quite long as the doubles play had been interrupted to play the first half of the team competition, which was to be completed on Sunday. However, that didn’t stop most of the foreign players from enjoying a dinner and a few beverages in the warm Budapest evening.
Sunday - Singles
The Singles event had a 12-game random draw preliminary round with 49 players looking to make the top 16. Attila Berzlánovich was the class of the field as he easily took the top spot with 81 points and 128 20s. Following behind him were Gáspár Létay, Bert Costermans, and the reigning Hungarian singles champion, István Kádár.
There was quite the crowd for the final playoff spots as only 5 points separated 12th through 23rd, and only 7 20s separated 16th from 20th. The most crushing misses were that of Móric Szeszler, the top junior player on the day, and Nathan Walsh, who only missed the final playoff spot by 1 20.
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Comparisons between points and 20s can be intriguing, and the most shocking line was that Dennis Vrints score of 61 points, but only 41 20s. The man says his strength is not in scoring 20s, and thus chooses to shoot away from the 20 hole (aka Conrad) even without the lead or hammer advantage. In fact he “Conrads" so often he might even have a better claim on the naming rights of the shot.
The Top 16 were split into 2 groups of 8, with a full round robin to determine the semifinalists. In Group A, Attila Berzlánovich kept up his top form, scoring 39 points to easily finish first, while Dániel Létay scrapped out a narrow 2nd place spot with 32 points, just ahead of Miklós Papp and István Kádár at 31 and 30 points. In Group B, Gáspár Létay was astonishing in 20 scoring, making 88 20s (equivalent to 125 in 10 games) and finished 1st at 39 points. With the help of live scoring it was also evident the 2nd spot would come down to last game’s head-to-head match between Bert Costermans and Krisztián Berzlánovich. Costermans won the game 6-2, which was enough for the 2nd semifinal spot from Group B.
The semifinal pairings pitted father against son as Dániel Létay played Gáspár Létay, and saw a rematch of the doubles final on the previous day as Bert Costermans played Attila Berzlánovich. For yet another match, Gáspár Létay was incredible on the 20s and was able to claim the match for a spot in the finals after an enjoyable match. However, the other seminal match was marred by a bit of confusion and controversy. With both players under the impression the match was first to 7 points, Costermans initially led 8-4 and both players acknowledged the completion of the game, before being called back to the board to finish what was a first to 9 points semifinal. Berzlánovich would win the three rounds once they returned to advance to the finals 10-8.
Costermans however would rebound very well in the bronze medal match to defeat Dániel Létay by a score of 10-6.
The championship match of Attila Berzlánovich and Gáspár Létay was well anticipated as both players had shown great consistency in 20s shooting and shot-making ability. A number of spectators had arrived or stuck around for the match and were quite enthusiastic throughout and quick to acknowledge some good shots. Unfortunately for Létay, the great form on Open 20s he had shown throughout the day didn’t maintain itself, and Berzlánovich, a very aggressive player, was relentless in his pursuit and won the match 11-3 to win the first ever European title.
The final event of the weekend was the finale of the team competition. But unfortunately with the day’s events running long, a few teams had to bow out before the final games were completed. The format of the event was a series of nation-to-nation matches. Teams of 3 played 2 rounds of singles against each player of another nation, with each match having a total of 36 points at stake.
Thankfully there was not a strict requirement on citizenship for each team, so that everyone had the chance to compete, as the solo Canadian joined the Dutch pair of Jane and Joert to form "Canderlands", while the two Belgians were joined by Norwegian national champ, Asbjørn Parmer, to form "Belway". The other teams in competition included Spain, Italy, Romania, and the Hungarian teams of Korongcsata, Savaria, Anduril and Kanizsa.
By the end of the round robin team Hungary-Kanizsa, including Móric Szeszler and the Zámbo brothers had the top spot with 134 points, while the Spanish team finished 2nd with 125, just edging out Hungary-Savaria, the family team of Berzlánovich/Berzlánovich/Soós at 123 points, for the other spot in the final.
The final was closely contested and ended in a score of 18-18, but by virtue of 20s, the Spanish team of Jose Luis Ramirez Pérez de Andrade, Victor César Cobo and Alfonso Javier Romacho Román took home the European team title.
Thoughts from the air plane
If I could speak personally for a moment, it was quite shocking to see first hand that there are many others playing this game. In Canada, and in the northern American states, the game of crokinole has been a piece of the rural household. Much of the popularity with the game of crokinole today stems from its place in the cherished memories of its competitors. Much of the interest in the game in North America comes from nostalgia.
In Europe there is none of that. The game is less than decade old in the Eastern hemisphere, and yet there are a significant number of people who have become dedicated crokinole players, who enjoy the game as much as any of us. They enjoy playing, watching and talking about the game, and a lot of them aspire to travel to the small town of Tavistock so they can compete in the World Championship.
For myself, it was at times a little uncomfortable to be treated with such celebrity status, but it was endearing and exciting. Four years ago I did a radio interview on NPR to talk about the blogs and videos I make about the game of crokinole. When the questions turned to, “What has come of this internet presence that crokinole now has?” I couldn’t say much. At the time, almost every tournament and club had declining attendance, and I questioned if competitive crokinole could survive for another four years.
But in that somewhat gloomy interview, I did mention there was a group of Hungarians who had taken up the game. It’s terrific now to see the results of the work they’ve done to build the game in their country and their continent, and it certainly feels like there will be more meetings (and huszas) in the future.
If you want to follow the game of crokinole in Europe, I’ve assembled a list of links for the various nations playing the game. (Hopefully with more to be added in the future).