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Re-reading The Crokinole Book by Wayne Kelly

Nathan Walsh May 22, 2021

On a Whim

Near the end of 2019 I decided that I would integrate myself more with the city I now reside, and I decided the first step I’d take in doing that would be to get a library card. After all, what do my property taxes pay for?

After signing up for the first library card I’ve had since my kindergarten class took a trip to the public library of my previous locale, I took a few minutes to peruse the shelves. At first I scan to see what kind of selection they have in my preferred genres (if you must know: sports, politics and foreign classics), and then the thought occurs to me to check if The Crokinole Book is on the shelves.

I’m almost certain it’s going to be there. I recall about 8 years ago I randomly came across The Crokinole Book while trying to find a place to study in the Dana Porter library at the University of Waterloo (finding an open study desk in that library is about as easy as walking across campus without being harassed by a Canada Goose). It hadn’t occurred to me until then that the book was pretty popular, and likely to be found in a few libraries throughout Ontario, particularly those within Southern Ontario. (An incomplete listing of libraries holding a copy of the book can be found in this search.) I have a vague recollection of reading or hearing that the book was a Canadian best-seller, but upon attempting to validate that claim now I find nothing.

When I find the book on a low shelf it doesn’t not look like I remember it. This version is ring-bounded and seemingly of lower publishing quality. The version I recall was the one my father had purchased from Wayne Kelly himself, while in his basement (which Kelly referred to as crokinole mecca), and the book was very distinctive for it had a bright red cover.

The front cover of the crokinole book

It feels pointless to take out this book because I know I’ve absorbed the book my father purchased into my possession, and it’s stashed away somewhere in my house (I also absorbed the antique board my father purchased from Kelly, which was the initial reason he found himself in a Stratford basement that doubled as a cathedral of wooden circles and octagons). But standing in the aisle of that library I feel like I at least owe it to the late-Kelly to read a couple of pages of what is, and may long be, crokinole’s definitive historical reference guide.

Inspecting the opening pages of the book I see it’s a 3rd edition (2000), self-published and autographed by Kelly, after editions 1 (1988) and 2 (1994) were produced by The Boston Mills Press, and sold in that memorable red cover. Then a minor transcendent moment occurred when I read this passage from Kelly’s forward to the 3rd edition:

“[This 3rd edition] is not a ‘trade quality’ laminated cover or binding, and the paper stock is somewhat different. But it is hoped that you will be pleased with the content and new information contained herein as opposed to the aesthetic appearance of the item you hold in your hands.”

Emphasis as found in original text.

It felt as though Mr. Crokinole, whom I never did get to meet, was speaking directly to me. Saying, “Hey, give this book a chance, it’s got new stuff to read!” Geez, this guy knows how to sell, I thought as I checked the book out.

By the way, if you do own a first or second edition, you might want to hold on to it as they are hard to get now. I did a quick online search and found used copies at an asking price of around $100.

Early Promises

I believe I was 11 the first and last time I read Kelly’s magnum opus and I recall my impression of the book was that I was unimpressed. It’s not that the 11-year-old-me thought the book was bad, and I distinctly remember reading a very helpful lesson that one should hold their finger right next to the disc before releasing to maximize accuracy and eliminate pain (which felt to me like a revolutionary idea, although at that age I thought tying your shoes before running around at recess was a revolutionary idea).

I think my neutral feelings toward the book would be because I considered the book’s stories from the recent/modern epoch of crokinole to be unfamiliar, that I wasn’t interested in learning about different board compositions and manufacturers, and that I regarded all history, including crokinole’s history, to be duller than the round side of a crokinole disc.

In the same way that people can crave details of family history as adults that they found to be boring in their youth, my interests in crokinole have evolved. Since I’ve occupied the public relations role for the World Crokinole Championships (a role which Wayne Kelly first held when the event began), I’ve often had to answer questions to interviewers about all kinds of things: the background of competitive crokinole, the finer details of boards and discs, and the origins of the game.

In reading the Forward of the 3rd edition, I quickly found myself excited to read this 3rd edition as the early pages provided me with three notable commitments:

  1. The reader will learn about newly uncovered details about crokinole’s history (that’s new as of the third edition, in relation to the book’s first edition).

    ”Hmmm . . . “ I wondered aloud as a solitary eyebrow raised to my forehead, ”Could there be some intriguing piece of crokinole antiquity I could add to the rote responses I usually dole out in newspaper interviews?”

  2. The reader should find information to be able to date antique boards.

    Something I planned to test out on the aforementioned antique board now in my possession.

  3. The reader will learn about the, trademarked, International Crokinole Association.

    Ooooh! Is this some precursor to the National Crokinole Association? Being that I’ve never heard of it I wouldn’t imagine it existed for very long, but nonetheless I’m intrigued to learn about the operations of this organization.

A Comprehensive Effort

Kelly’s inspiration for writing The Crokinole Book is provided in Chapter 2. He was reminded of fond memories of his youth and the game of crokinole while at the library. Interested in seeing what was available on the subject he searched the library’s databases, consulted the librarians, and found absolutely nothing other than the agreement of the librarians that a complete lack of crokinole information was “very unusual.”

What follows from there is the annotated journey of Kelly’s search to find all the answers he probably expected would have been found at the library during his first search for crokinole, along with the obvious additional query of why nothing had been written about the game before.

It’s clear to the reader that Kelly’s search was extensive and exhaustive. From patent offices, to trademark registries, to museums, to every dictionary and encyclopedia in existence, and even to soliciting personal accounts via newspaper advertisements and radio interviews, Kelly left no stone unturned. And for his efforts he is awarded with a foundation of crokinole knowledge that is nearly entirely still relevant today. The chapters that follow piece together a number of solitary snippets that confirm crokinole’s existence and popularity from every decade up to the 1980s, and back to the late 1800s.

The culmination of it all is enough to supply reasonable theories which Kelly freely espouses about the origins and previous popularity of the game. But as Kelly acknowledges, the precise details remain a mystery.

The biggest treasure trove of information comes in the form of mail-order catalogues, of which an entire chapter is dedicated, and provides credible evidence of the historical popularity, accessibility and advertising of the game.

People who have spent too much time in my company will have heard me reference crokinole as a "game of no objectionable features" as I find it funny how some activities were frowned upon due to the presence of luck/chance, and that somehow crokinole filled the outstanding void of acceptable recreational activity that was left. That phrasing comes from the second oldest catalogue reference Kelly could find, which was an 1895 Montgomery Ward & Company advertisement. That advertisement priced a 32 inch crokinole board made of polished ash at $3.25, or if you had wealth like C. Montgomery Burns you could purchase a Cherry or Oak crokinole board for a whopping $4.50.

I had a hearty laugh at the catalogue advertisements on one page. The top pronouncing Crokinole as The Old Favorite, which I’d agree with in the year 2021, but find surprising it was described similarly in 1941! I also found it interesting there was no “u” in “favorite” despite the ad being from a Canadian catalogue. But perhaps that was just a spelling mistake like the one in the bottom ad from 1897 proudly showcasing the game Corkinole. I guess those 1800s typewriters had the same auto-correct nuisances our smart phones have today.

The aforemention page containing an advertisement spelling the name crokinole incorrectly

There are chapters on rules of the game and technical aspects (of boards) which provide an overview of the variability and lack of standards that were found at the time of publication and throughout the previous 100 years. This is moderately interesting to consider, but entirely reasonable to expect that a game which went over 100 years with no formal organization would have so many different iterations of rules and materials/dimensions. A reader from today may be keen to ask how today’s standard tournament board and rules were established, and you’d think you would be in luck because Kelly played a substantial role in establishing those very standards for the World Championships. Unfortunately Kelly does not dole out such information, but in his defence the World Championship rules were barely 2 years old at the time of publication of the 3rd edition, and the WCC wouldn’t create their official board for another 3 years.

One technical aspect I was curious about was if Kelly had evidence about the popularity of round vs octagonal boards over time. It is unstated, but safe to assume octagonal boards were more popular when he wrote his first edition in 1988, but Kelly states round boards are more popular in “Waterloo and Wellington counties of Ontario and in various communities across Quebec.” He then mentions that a company in St. Jacobs, Kramer Woodcraft, produces a high quality round board. At first I was surprised there was no mention of Willard Martin, but I believe Willard (an individual so famous in crokinole he achieved Cher levels of first-name association) started to become renown in the 1990s, after the first edition of the book was released.

The closing chapters include some colour on the current popularity of crokinole, featuring a detailed description of the Preston Crokinole Club, along with minor mentions of other crokinole clubs and competitions active in the late 1980s. One quote stands out to me, attributed to a Waterloo county teacher named John Alles who said, “Many staff rooms in high schools in the county have crokinole boards and the games taking place during lunch hour have become quite competitive.” Of course I have to wonder if John Alles taught at the famed Cameron Heights, or if he worked elsewhere and there were indeed multiple crokinole cults to be found in Waterloo Region teachers' lounges.

Dead Ends

If the reader wished to use The Crokinole Book as a launching point for their own dive into crokinole history, they can be thankful Kelly included pages upon pages of direct reference material, so much so that he doesn’t even provide commentary on the majority of them. However I found myself annoyed in multiple instances where Kelly left a small crumb, when I was desiring a whole cake.

With regard to the three promises that stood out to me in Kelly’s introduction:

  1. Newly Uncovered Details of Crokinole’s History

    About one page in the first edition of the book is dedicated to the game Carrom and the somewhat obvious observation that crokinole is a similar game, perhaps with a tied ancestry. What Kelly refers to as the newly uncovered details of crokinole’s past mostly refers to his expansion of dialogue regarding carrom. Perhaps this would have been an interesting knowledge addition in 2000, but over 20 years later there’s nothing provided about carrom and it’s potential ties to crokinole that can’t be found from an alternative source and theorized.

  2. Verification Tools to Date Antique Boards

    The best tools provided in the book to attempt to date antique crokinole boards amount to the wealth of photos Kelly provides from his own personal selection. I am thankful Kelly goes to the effort of describing some of the trends he noticed in board manufacturing over the years; he claims in the book to have had 2500 antique boards pass through his hands so he has got to be a leading authority on the subject. However the book only offers somewhat disconnected pieces of evidence to use in dating a board, with nothing that approaches offering a definitive or comprehensive toolset. So I can’t say the descriptions really left me with much confidence I could accurately date the very board that Kelly sold my father, and that I now possess.

  3. International Crokinole Association™

    This last item is the most personally perplexing, as there’s literally nothing provided about it in the book. When the International Crokinole Association is referenced in the Forward, there’s a ™ affixed to the name, suggesting it’s so formal it requires a registered trademark. But I’ll save you the effort of looking for more information about this in the book or online. It turns out that the only place to read more about the International Crokinole Association is in your dreams.

If you are sensing my frustration you may be reasonable to suggest I set my hopes too high about what new things I may come to learn from this book, but the book’s very own language seemed to state that all of this could be expected to be learned by the reader. Perhaps I was fooled by the salesmanship.

I would describe the three items above as small disappointments. I would describe what I found on the very last page as a medium sized annoyance.

Wayne is currently working on several other crokinole projects including a television documentary, commercial video presentations, and a screenplay. A forthcoming new book on crokinole is also in progress.

I have to say this was an frustrating way to end the book, knowing today that none of these projects came to fruition (at least not in a commercial sense, perhaps there’s a finished screenplay manuscript sitting in a family home). I would have preferred these finals lines weren’t included at all, so as not to get my hopes up. (Haven’t I already suffered the despair of dashed hopes enough as a Leafs fan?)

If you are wondering whether the “television documentary” turned out to be the film Crokinole, the answer to that has to be a no, considering that was filmed in 2004, well after this book was published.

Looking to quell my frustration I went on a somewhat labourious scavenger hunt for the possibility there was more information left to find. I scoured internet archivals of Kelly’s old website and found kernels that led to more wishful internet searches. Few bore fruit, most bore nothing. I’ll provide the links here, but I’ll let you know these are, to continue the metaphor, just crumbs:

The History of Crokinole (Part 1 of 10) - By Wayne Kelly This was available online around 2006, but it appears only part 1 was ever produced. The description of the item states that it’s a 20-page booklet on assorted crokinole material “written by the author, and from his lecture series given on this topic,” and lists three books written by Kelly: Crokinole-The Best Family Game Ever!, Carrom Chronicles, and Crokinole World-The International Newsletter for Crokinole Players.

I did not find either of the first two books, or the lecture series advertised on the archived version of the website. I have also never heard of any of these resources in all my years around crokinole, but would be keen to hear from anyone who may have.

Crokinole World-The International Newsletter for Crokinole Players The newsletter is advertised as containing information on: WCC™ and ICA™ News, tournament highlights, and crokinole history notes among other things. A tagline on the ad states “No nonsense, no stupidity . … just the facts!”, which I find humourous. Was there a competing newsletter dedicated to crokinole that did offer nonsense, stupidity and a lack of facts?

As a final tidbit of random research results, I came across this webpage which somewhat strangely has copied and pasted emails received from dozens of people regarding a 1908 postcard displaying a horse-drawn carriage of crokinole boards. Contained on the page is a 2001 email from Mr. Kelly asking for permission to use the postcard in a new crokinole book he was writing at the time.

Surprising Similarities

The day before the World Crokinole Championships two years ago I did a series of interviews on CBC Radio on the subject of the tournament. I was contacted a day prior to the interviews and had a prep meeting with a producer. From my experience I gather the goal of these types of prep meetings are to 1) give the producer an idea of the type of questions they should be asking in an interview, and 2) give the interviewee practice attempts at actually answering the questions. (It doesn’t matter how many attempts I get, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to describe crokinole through an audio medium without the visual aid of just being able to point at a board. Anyone who’s had to describe the game to a border security officer will sympathize.)

Early in the prep meeting comes the question, “So do all the players have nails made of steel? Whenever I played crokinole my finger would hurt substantially.” Of course I know the answer (I can thank Kelly for that) but struggle to describe it colourfully. ”You have to . . . uh . . . hold your finger like really close to the disc, so that it’s already touching before you shoot. . . Umm, like most new players have this big gap between their finger and the disc, and that’s the cause of the pain. . . . so ummm, yeah . . . ”

At this point it should be clear to the producer that my day job doesn’t involve public speaking. Thankfully they cut off my rambling with a perfect hockey analogy, “So it’s like a slap-shot vs a wrist-shot?” I find this a brilliantly unique description so my response comes immediately, ”Wow that’s perfect! Can I use that?” (And I’ve used that analogy in every interview since.)

Returning to the The Crokinole Book I finally come to the only part I distinctly remember from my initial read at 11-years-old, in a section entitled ”How Come It Hurts My Finger?” Apparently I didn’t remember it too well.

Kelly describes being interviewed on the CBC Radio program Morningside, and the host, Peter Gzowski opens the interview by immediately asking how one can stop their finger from hurting. Kelly goes on to describe:

”Picture a hockey game. A wrist shot is accomplished by a flick of the stick with the puck touching the blade. A slapshot is a wind-up with lots of air space between the blade and the puck. Imagine your finger in between. Which would hurt the most? Of course, the slapshot! . . .”

I was shocked that it turned out this perfect answer to the age-old question had been available for more than 30 years. This time I won’t forget it.

In the Acknowledgements Kelly thanks a few others from CBC Radio, among them is a personal favourite of mine: Stuart McLean, most famous for his radio show The Vinyl Cafe. Although I never heard a Dave and Morley story that included crokinole I’ll just assume that there was a board sitting somewhere in the family attic of Dave’s childhood home in Big Narrows.

Final Remarks

I must revise my un-nuanced review from 11-years of age, to say that I am genuinely impressed by the book. The effort undertaken to produce it must have been substantial, and in the intervening years between his first and third editions of the book Kelly witnessed a spike in crokinole’s popularity that he undoubtedly played a role in (although he modestly tries to downplay his personal contributions). Kelly did rightfully benefit from his early efforts, and I imagine he made a pretty penny acting as the sole major crokinole retailer for a couple decades (in which he also had first-mover-advantage in nabbing the trademark Mr. Crokinole and owning the domain).

Kelly makes it clear he sought to write The Crokinole Book because he was astonished so little written material could be found on crokinole. Ironically, Kelly himself only left behind one piece (at least that I know of) on the matter of crokinole. And despite Kelly’s success in growing the game, it would be years later before anyone else came along to leave a literary footprint on crokinole’s lawn.

But as much as I find it annoying that I can’t find supplementary works by Kelly, I can’t be mad. For without his first book, there never would have been a craving for a second or a third. And without the first book, there may never have been a World Crokinole Championships, or subsequently there likely would not have been a CrokinoleCentre.

The Crokinole Book sits closer to the point on the spectrum labelled scrapbook than it does to the label story. There’s no simple connected narrative, but rather a winding string of details, and those looking for definitive and absolute answers won’t find them. But it’s clear there was no other way to present the historical information of what’s available about crokinole. A passing reference in a writer's journal, a board sitting on the table in the background of a family photo, a 5-word entry in an old dictionary. Over the years there’s evidence that crokinole existed, and there’s personal anecdotes that people enjoyed it. But no one ever sat down to write about it.

Until Wayne Kelly, and for that he’s a very deserved Mr. Crokinole.