How to Beat the Higher Handicap Player?
A correspondent to the Nottingham Croquet mail list asked the question below.
“Suppose I'm a scratch player and I'm playing a 5 or a 10. Suppose also that I give my opponent credit for being able to get round on his bisques so the 5 will be able to get both balls round using his 5 bisques. What do I do?
For the opening I'll put my opponent in if I win the toss and he will put me in if he wins the toss. If he wins and puts me in I do a standard opening on the East boundary. Now, would it be better for me to shoot at his tice unless it is outrageously long. Even if it is outrageously long should I shoot at it anyway?
I don't regard myself as being able to hit the 13 yard shot so I'm not going into corner 2.
Anybody got any ideas on bisque extraction leaves?”
There's a short article on the Oxford Croquet site.
If you win the toss or your opponent puts you in, put your ball between hoop 5 and the 1st hoop.
Hit his ball in the third turn and go round to the peg and leave his ball on the west boundary down by the second corner and yours wide joined on the east boundary south of the centre line.
If you manage this, your opponent will be well rattled and the chances are that you will win even if he pegs you out.
I'm not aware of much having been written from the perspective of the scratch player, but there is quite a bit of material for the improving 5-10 handicap player. You will probably do quite well by thinking about the situation from the perspective of the 5-10, and specifically about whatever they're likely to dislike the most.
So, taking your example of your East boundary opening followed by a tice. The 5-10 player would (or at least should) much rather start turn 4 with your pair of balls joined on East boundary and their tice still in situ, than with balls on East boundary, a tice and corner II. Therefore, shooting at the tice is more likely to be the right choice than in a normal level game.
You can't be completely negative all the time, since you do need to find opportunities to hit something a make a break. So, you do need to decide what would you do if you hit the tice - perhaps a thick take-off to the East boundary ball and then attempting to approach hoop 1? If you have no line of play that you like, then perhaps a first turn to East boundary wasn't the right choice!
The key is to work out how much of an underdog you think you are. You say opponent is able to get round on his bisques. Does that mean if he plays at his average level? Or does it mean he has so many bisques that he can get round even if he isn't playing well?
If the first, then it may be worth playing defensively because you don't want to give him an easy start. So shooting at the tice is definitely worth considering. Or if it's very long perhaps do a wide join with your ball on the east boundary. You could also think about putting your first ball in corner 4 rather than in the normal starting point. And I wouldn't dismiss going into corner 2 (although third turn there are better options available, such as shooting down from corner I, ending up in corner II if you miss). Going into corner II second turn is definitely playable even if you don't reckon on hitting the long shot, because you're being defensive - so you're not going there with the aim of hitting but with the aim of making life difficult for opponent.
However, if the second option above, then you need to play aggressively. In that case if you win the toss, I like the duffer tice. Opponent will usually be joined up on the East boundary and if you hit the duffer in turn 4 you have the chance to go round. If you go first, it may well be worth doing the super shot opening that Andrew suggested.
The important point is to decide whether you need to play aggressively or defensively. That depends largely on how many bisques opponent has relative to his playing ability, but also on playing conditions etc.
I have found an effective opening to be to place your first ball (1st or 2nd turn) a few feet South and a few inches east of hoop 1. There are many good outcomes involving early use of bisques by opponent before 4 balls are on the lawn, and going round yourself on 3rd or 4th turn.
Also, consider laying up (say) by 4th hoop rather than in 4th corner. Opponent will have a shorter shot, but if they miss they have a 7 yarder. They may thus be tempted to trickle at your balls. Either way, it can lead to use of bisques.
Surely, when giving bisques, you don't want to "lay up" anywhere. Keep your balls apart (>10 yards), though maybe threatening to hit if opponent doesn't take bisques.
Duncan's principle of not leaving balls on boundaries is sound. It's also worth while using wiring (if you can manage it) to prevent the most useful shot by opponent.
If you're lucky enough to get the first break, you really want to think about doing some peeling to improve the tactical situation. For example, if you peel an opponent ball through hoop 1, you can leave it near 2, the other opponent ball near hoop 1. Any long shot he then takes leaves him a long trip back to his hoop.
One tactic I like to employ is to peel partner through 1 and 2, then leave it in front of or in the jaws of 3 (so not rushable to 1), with my other ball near 4 (ideally also not rushable to 1).
From my perspective, I don't think that we're really on the right track with the answers so far. The answers have been more appropriate for a stronger player.
1. We've got a handicap 0, so they aren't very likely to be having third turn balls round - more likely just to give an easy break to opponent
2. I haven't played many handicap 5's that just win with their 5 bisques (or 7.5), so I'd want to keep the opening tight.
3. What on earth are you going to do if you hit the tice?
4. I like being tight together in corner 4 as a defensive start.
5. If you are good enough, getting opponent in corner 2 and corner 3 and you tight in corner 4 is a perfectly good leave after the first break. Even if you aren't good enough to get going from this, the handicap 5 will often feel compelled to use their bisques immediately.
Chris Clarke expands on the above:
I believe that one of the most important parts of croquet is to think about what your opponent is likely to do. If you believe that your opponent falls into the category of someone who is always going to shoot 4th turn and use a bisque or 2 to set up a break, then you don't want to be shooting at his tice. The worst thing that you can do is hit it and make the leave that you suggest since it has made a break much easier for your opponent.
Given that you said you fancied your opponent was a strong 5, I made an assumption that they were going to go all out for a 4th turn break, therefore my suggestion for keeping the balls as tight as possible near corner 4. The tighter they are near corner 4, the greater the likelihood that the opponent will need to use a bisque to come back to get the second one into the break. What you ideally want your opponent to be trying to do is go round from a 2.75 ball break (i.e. trying to dig out a 3 ball break). This is likely to result in disaster for them, compared with using one more bisque at the start to get a perfect 4 ball break.
If your handicap 5 opponent is weaker and you actually want them to use their bisques at the start rather than randomly during the game, your suggestion for making an aggressive leave third turn has more merit.
Hopefully you now see why I am completely happy to forego the usually "free" attempt to hit in 3rd turn - I don't really want to hit.
Andrew's suggestion is perfectly sound if you are a hcap -2 or better, however you aren't.
The suggestion of a ball just short of hoop 1 is fine providing you are confident they will shoot at it. If you've got a clever opponent who goes 1 foot south of corner 2 or even 20 yard South of corner 3, then your opening hasn't really worked. If you are going to put out a ball near 1, I like having it 2 foot straight in front of the hoop.
Don't split up if you get the first break - make sure both the opponent's ball are in corners (2 and 3 is good) and then get tight in corner 4.
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