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Dr Ian Plummer

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Technical
Aunt Emma Play

Croquet is a subtle and tactical sport, but it is possible to play with a mind-numbing lack of enterprise which can literally bore the opponent into losing all will to further participate.  This style of play takes the name Aunt Emma, and should be stamped out at any possible inception in a player. [IRP]

Rob Edlin-White has provided the following summary of what the wise have written on the subject.

To quote from Miller & Thorp ("Croquet and how to play it", Faber & Faber, 1966):

"Unfortunately, the game has to put up with a considerable number of silly people who believe that 'Safety first' is a praiseworthy principle; that the fewer risks that are taken, the better. Such 'players' are known as Aunt Emma players and they are accurately described, in a phrase of Keating's, as 'old women of both sexes'."

(Mainly the male sex in my experience - Rob)

The quote continues:

"Aunt Emma does not try to pick up breaks: indeed it is doubtful whether she would even recognise one. Her policy is to make one hoop at a time with her partner ball, and then to lay up, leaving the opponent's balls as far apart as possible. This excruciatingly dull way of playing often paralyses the opponent into ineffectiveness, and results in victory by anaesthesia."
"more often than not she is an extremely good shot, and her taking off has to be seen to be believed. This makes her difficult to beat, and not surprisingly so, since she is utterly absorbed in winning the game and is not at all perturbed by the gruesome tactics she employs."

(I would add that they are also good at roll approaches to hoops from far away. - Rob).

"A beginner should not worry in the least if he "

(or she presumably - Rob)

" is beaten by Aunt Emma early in his career. Provided he resolves not to follow in her execrable footsteps, he will very soon be too good for her, and, what is more important, he will learn to play subtle and interesting croquet, while she will merely carry on with her merciless mission of bludgeoning her opponents to death."

Reckitt says, in the Foreword to the same book:

"I think there is a stronger 'case for the defence' than these authors have thought fit to make out, but this can only be conceded if the case for the attack is understood and applied on every appropriate occasion, and in emphasising this they are undubitably right".

Cotter says, in "Tackle Croquet this way" (Stanley Paul, 1960):

"Your object is to get on with the game. Whatever happens, don't become an Aunt Emma player. This mythical person symbolizes the player that is content to make one hoop at a time from his own ball and then to take off to the opponent's balls to 'separate' them, returning to 'mother' to start the dreary process all over again. Rather than play like this, be content to lose game after game in an honest endeavour to make a break. Your reward will come, for you will eventually become a Croquet player enjoying the rights of man to express intelligence: while the Aunt Emma player will still be wallowing in chaos and old night."

The phrase 'back to mother', used in tactical advice to beginners by some of these players, says it all. Let's flee from the big bad world where unexpected and dangerous things can happen, to the safe comforting ample bosom of my childhood.

Solomon says (in "Croquet", Batsford, 1966):

"do not bring your partner ball into the court until you have established or nearly established a three-ball break. This is likely to be the only piece of defensive play I shall ever advocate. It is not playing 'Aunt Emma' to do this; it is merely prudent. It is being Aunt Emma to leave your partner ball on the boundary after you have established a break. Croquet is a difficult enough game with four balls and there is no point in making it even more so by allowing yourself only three. Far too many players play every game in a defensive instead of an attacking frame of mind. "

The Aunt Emma style Solomon refers to is slightly less gruesome than some; he refers to a player who plays a 3 ball break using opponent's balls with 'mother' safely away on a boundary to retreat to if anything goes wrong.

McCullough & Mulliner ("The World of Croquet", Crowood, 1987) have this to say:

"...'Fortune favours the brave' should be the motto of all croquet players. We urge you to adopt an attacking philosophy. Those of you who are prepared to lose some games in the early part of your croquet careers, in order to test your skills to the limit (and thus to extend them), will be richly rewarded later on."
"Unfortunately, too many players take the view that their main objective should be to prevent their opponents from making any progress. This 'play safe' strategy inhibits them from experimentation in game situations and retards the development of their skills, to say nothing of increasing the tedium of the games they play. Proponents of this 'Aunt Emma' defensive school of thought are left wondering why their early success against fellow beginners who experiment evaporates, and why they cannot beat single handicap players in handicap games."

According to A.E. Gill, in "Croquet, the complete guide" (Heinemann Kingswood, 1988):

"There is a croquet expression whose origin is also obscure - the 'Aunt Emma player'. The hallmark of such a player is cowardly tactics ... and indeed an article on 'Cowardly Tactics' appears in Arthur Lillie's book 'Croquet up to date' under the pseudonym of 'Aunt Emma'. 'Croquet up to Date' was published in 1900, just in time for the Edwardian rebirth of interest in the game, and clearly the expression, even at that early date, was used in its current meaning of a thoroughly irritating player, whose play may be effective but is also selfish, and generally boring for his or her opponent. Lillie gives no explanation of it" (the origin of the term - Rob) " and obviously assumes that his readers are familiar with it. No-one in the croquet world knows what the origin of the expression is, but  believe I may have discovered it."

Gill goes on to suggest it refers to an Emma Clutton-Brock (nee Hill) who married an uncle of the Victorian croquet pioneer, Walter Jones Whitmore. She had a weakness for port, and was for various reasons rather disliked by the Whitmore Jones family.

Gill continues

"Don't ever be afraid to experiment and take chances. If you don't, you'll never advance. At worst, if you are too conservative, you run the risk of becoming an 'Aunt Emma' player. These people are the bane of croquet courts, with their timid but viperish technique of keeping their own balls together, but taking off to split up the opponent's balls, then returning to home base to crawl towards a hoop, which they will only run if it is utterly safe, when the whole boring process is repeated. The average game of croquet may last two and a half to three and a half hours. Aunt Emma can stretch it out far longer, and in any case makes one hour seem like three. It is not even as if his" (sic) "style of play carries any particular advantage, because if he comes up against a passably good regular player, who can create breaks he can be out manoeuvred and vanquished".

Keith Wylie's book is above my head (or rather my skill level), and targeted at a level where the normal Aunt Emma can't thrive, but I remember seeing a relevant and comprehensible chapter on striking the balance between 4 approaches which I think were described as canny, attacking, hot-headed and precision.

One or two writers refer to an A-class Aunt Emma (perhaps an obsessive user of Wylie's canny croquet?), but I will leave it to others to comment on this person.

I once played a particularly cautious Aunt Emma who, when for penult and penult, refused to attempt to leave any ball near penult. Repeatedly I would shoot at my partner, or wide join, he would split me up as widely as possible, and with his last croquet stroke try a 20+ yard take-off for position in front of penult, fail to get position and retreat to partner in the middle of the North boundary. He wouldn't even attempt to lay up with a rush to penult, presumably because of the danger of leaving partner in the middle of the lawn if the approach stroke or hoop stroke failed.

Miller & Thorp note that Aunt Emmas are good shots. In my experience they suddenly become A-class shots as soon as I get the innings and some kind of leave. If they have the innings, they never attempt any kind of shot.

It has been said Aunt Emmas drive people away from the game. If it weren't for the advice of the writers above, and others like them,  I would have been driven away. Thankfully, I have persisted long enough to improve to a level where if do hit in, I have some chance of building a  break or making a powerful leave, even from the very negative positions this sort of player leaves. I take the view that while my handicap is still as poor as 10 (UK system), virtually every game should be treated as an opportunity to improve, not to win at all costs. I hope others will be encouraged to persist by the advice from the writers quoted above.

Readers who have got this far may be somewhat relieved to know that I think I have exhausted the references to Aunt Emma in my library; Lamb, Reckitt, Nicky Smith, Pritchard and Peel seem not to comment. Gaunt's 'Plus One on Time' appears somewhat more cautious in places, but he does not recommend Aunt Emma style tactics. I do not have the Lillie book referred to by A.E.Gill above.

Finally I hope no-one who is or suspects they are an Aunt Emma will take any offence at these quotes and comments, but rather resolve to strike an appropriate balance between prudence and enterprising play, for the benefit of their own game and the game as a whole.

Rob Edlin-White

Author: Rob Edlin-White
All rights reserved © 2004


Updated 28.i.16
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