Chess

Chess: A thinking man's game with classic European pedigree.  Hard to get more WASP'y than that.
Chess: A thinking man’s game with classic European pedigree. Hard to get more WASP’y than that.

Since this is possibly the final weekend before world politics devolve into a Third World War what better time to highlight a pursuit that, perhaps more than any other, values strategic thought, deep calculation, psychology, and prudence.  Sadly I am most definitely not talking about 21st Century diplomacy… but rather the game of Chess.

Although come to think of it, maybe Chess could be the answer to this current crisis? The howtoWASP believes that war, and especially unnecessary war, is exceedingly detrimental to Western Civilization (and therefore WASP culture) and should be avoided if at all possible.

Rather than fight things out over the cities of Europe and Asia, why not settle this dispute on the chessboard instead?   How entertaining would it be to have President Obama challenge President Putin to a winner take all (or just the Crimea) game of Chess?  The broadcast rights alone would probably be enough to pay down a significant portion of the national debt.

Then again perhaps challenging a Russian to a game of Chess isn’t the wisest thing in the world?  It would be a bit like challenging a Norwegian in skiing, or an Irishman to drinking, or like the French challenging anyone else to an actual war…  Probably not a good idea.  But enough with the politics and back to the matter at hand, Chess!

Screech Powers was in Chess Club.  Enough said.
In the 1990’s Screech Powers was the face of Chess Club. Enough said.

Chess is kind of a strange topic because it straddles the line between the worlds of WASP culture and nerd culture.  In terms of historic pedigree, Chess has a lot going for it.  It was popular among the British, it’s seen as a noble intellectual pursuit, and often evokes images of civilized competition among students at a prep school or members of a social club.

Then again, over the past half century or so, Chess has definitely struggled with a reputation of being the preferred hobby of the kid you probably didn’t want to hang out with in school.

Today, there's a whole new style of Chess whiz.
Today, there’s a whole new style of Chess whiz.

Thankfully, that has been changing of late and Chess is becoming cool again.  Want proof?  Google the name of the current world champion, Magnus Carlsen, and you won’t see the stereotypical Chess nerd, but rather someone who would look perfectly at home selling Abercrombie & Fitch clothing at the mall.

So, with the social stigma disappearing, and the WASP cred as strong as ever, Chess is definitely something worth learning.

The History:

If you’re looking for historical pedigree, Chess is difficult to beat.  It is one of the oldest games on the planet, having been played in some form or another for neartly 2,000 years.  There is still debate over the earliest origins of the game, but credit is generally given to the Indians (the Asian variety) who played a game called Chaturanga as early as 300 A.D. Chaturanga was played on an 8×8 grid and featured different pieces that each had special attributes, more or less analogous to the modern Chess pieces of today.

By the 7th Century, Chaturanga had found its way to the Persian empire where it continued to gain in popularity and spread throughout the world.  Around the 9th Century the pastime began to pop up in Europe as well, most prominently among the Moors who introduced it into the Iberian Peninsula and what is modern day Spain.  It was during this time that the game, which had picked up the name “Shah” (Persian for “king”) began to be known as Chess.

How many games still around today were enjoyed by Members of the Knights Templar?  Not many, which is pretty badass.
How many games still around today were enjoyed by Members of the Knights Templar? Not many, which is pretty badass.

In the hundreds of years that followed, Chess spread quickly throughout Europe where it continued to evolve. During the 15th Century the modern rules for the game were adopted by the Spanish and Italians.  With small tweaks here and there, the game as we know it today was finalized in 1850.

It was during this European evolution that the aura of Chess as a gentleman’s sport was cemented in place.  Since the Middle Ages Chess has enjoyed a reputation as a noble pastime, where it was viewed as the game of choice for kings, knights, and other members of nobility.  It’s popularity and esteem continued to grow with the great thinkers of the Renaissance and continued into the Age of Enlightenment.  Benjamin Franklin himself went so far as to write an article praising Chess as a method of self improvement and for the virtues of strategy and thought it can instill in man.

In the Modern Age, since 1850, Chess experienced further explosions in popularity as rules for formal competition and rankings were set in place.  However, the good times would not last.  With the onset of the World Wars, and the Cold War that followed, much of the Western world lost interest in the game (it didn’t help that the Soviets dominated the wold competition during those years) and Chess settled into a new role as a niche hobby for those with more brains than braun.

But again, with the dawn of the the 21st Century, it appears those days might finally be behind us and Chess is poised to rise again.

The Game:

The standard starting position for a fresh game of Chess.
The standard starting position for a fresh game of Chess.

The best thing about Chess is that it follows the golden rule for great games:  It’s simple to learn, but nearly impossible to master.  It can be picked up quickly and played by just about anyone, yet subsequently provide a lifetime of challenge and enjoyment for those who seek to improve.  Chess is also one of the few games where chance plays no role in the outcome.  You win or lose based on your play alone and the winner is always going to be the player who commits the fewest errors.

If you’ve never played before, or if its been over a decade since your last game, then the only place to begin is with the fundamentals.

I won’t waste time reinventing the wheel here because there are plenty of great resources available where anyone can learn the basic rules of the game.  My personal recommendation would be to check out Chess.com, which offers great lessons for everyone, from the rank beginner to the Grand Master.  If you want to go the more formal route, there are plenty of books on the subject available for pennies on Amazon, or for free at your local library.

Once you know how the pieces move, you could theoretically begin playing immediately, just be prepared to lose, a LOT.  While there’s no substitute for in-game experience, I would highly recommend devoting at least some further study to the three main components of the game and the strategy and tactics behind them.  As a very brief overview, these include:

There are many different openings, but the howtoWASP prefers the English, for obvious reasons.
There are many different openings, but the howtoWASP prefers the English, for obvious reasons.
  • The Opening:  This covers the first 10 moves or so of the game.  Basically both sides are seeking to establish position and control the center of the board as quickly as possible.  Setting up a solid defense and protecting your king are also paramount.  The good news here is that since Chess has been played for centuries, most openings are set to an established script.  While there are only 18 possible opening moves (and really only about 5 that you’d ever want to use) there are hundreds of “book” openings to cover all the possible responses, re-responses, and so fourth that can follow.  Again, Chess.com provides a wonderful library of book openings.  Like anything else, all it takes is study and experience to recognize and play them.
  • The Middle Game:  This is where most of the action occurs.  The fight for position continues, but more pressing is the need to set up an effective attack, or defense to counter an opponent’s attack.  Most of the time the goal in the middle game is to force exchanges (trading pieces) that leave you with a material (having a greater number of and/or more powerful pieces left on the board) or positional advantage.  This phase requires much more thought and analysis than the opening as tactics begin to outweigh the strategic focus of the opening.   Players must calculate several moves ahead, taking into account many different pieces and possible combinations, to be successful.
  • A typical End Game scenario: short on material, long on options. A tacticians paradise.
    A typical End Game scenario: short on material, long on options. A tacticians paradise.

    The End Game:  Assuming that you didn’t blunder the game away in the middle (which is definitely possible, especially as a beginner) then things proceed to the final phase, the end game.  Here calculations become theoretically easier because there are often only a few pieces remaining (usually mostly pawns and kings), but it rarely seems that way in practice because of the sheer number of possible moves available on the open board.  Here tactics are paramount as even a slight mistake can lead to a disadvantage and eventual loss.  If you’re ahead or even at this point, you’re playing for the win.  If you’re down, then playing for a draw(tie) is probably your best bet.

Of course that’s a gross over-simplification of the game, but those are the basics.  As I said, the only way to truly learn and get better is to sit down and play as much as possible (which thankfully is much easier in the internet age). Fair warning, it will probably take about 6 months of regular play before you start to really understand and win games on a consistent basis, but once you reach that point, you will have developed a new skill for life.

So what are you waiting for?  In this crazy world, where attention spans increasingly need to be measured on a nano scale, and shows like Teen Mom and Jersey Shore makes up a disturbing proportion of the entertainment content available, wouldn’t it be nice to slow down and give your brain a bit of proper intellectual (and supremely WASP’ish) stimulation?

As we know, Benjamin Franklin believed that Chess was an excellent resource for self improvement, and with that in mind, I will close with what I believe is the number one life lesson taught by Chess:  No matter how well you prepare, or how far you’re ahead, we are all but one blunder away from complete and unmitigated disaster.   Perhaps both Obama and Putin would do well to remember that…

Next Steps:

  • Assuming you’ve learned the basics, the best thing you can do is get out and play some Chess.  While in-person games are classic and always fun, the internet has opened up a whole new range of options.  My favorite offering from Chess.com is the ability to play online, turn based games (typically up to 3 days per move) that allow you to play at your own leisure, against thousands of players of every skill level across the globe.
  • When you play, try to play against opponents who are better than you.  While it’s always enjoyable to win, if it’s against a lessor player, you’re probably not learning much in the process.  The flip side is that while losing sucks, you can actually learn a lot if you pay attention.  Remember, it takes about 6 months to really pick things up and become competitive.  Don’t get discouraged!
  • Nothing classes up the joint like a dedicated Chess table.  Although all you really need is a good board and set.
    Nothing classes up the joint like a dedicated Chess table. Although all you really need is a good board and set.

    While online Chess is great, you’ll also want a good, old fashioned Chess set in your home. Why?  First of all because it will make you look smart and sophisticated when guests come over.  Second, it will allow you to play more games in person.  And lastly it can be a valuable analysis tool to visualize and play out scenarios in your online games.

  • Keep learning.  While there’s no substitute for actual play, reading books and watching video lessons on advanced strategy and tactics can really help improve your game. This is obviously more beneficial for experienced players, but if you’re like me, once you catch the bug, it’s hard to stop.

Wimbledon

Green grass, white clothes, and prodigious amounts of tradition.  It must be Wimbledon time.
Green grass, white clothes, and prodigious amounts of tradition. It must be Wimbledon time.

Enter into a discussion of WASP’y sporting pursuits and it won’t be long before you’re talking tennis.  The reason?  Simple.  As far as WASP’y sports go, tennis really has it all: an English heritage, plenty of history, loads of tradition, a distinct association with country club culture, and of course a complicated set of rules that make absolutely no sense to the casual observer.

And when it comes to tennis at its WASP’iest, nothing even comes close to Wimbledon (That’s actually The Championships, Wimbledon if you want to be really proper about it).  Wimbledon is to tennis as St. Andrews is to golf; the spiritual home of the sport.  It’s not only the oldest of the four Grand Slam tournaments, but having been played since 1877, it’s the world’s oldest (and most prestigious) tennis tournament, period.

And so, with the start of Wimbledon only weeks away,  the howtoWASP decided to put together a brief viewing guide to help you, the aspiring student of WASP culture, to fully understand and appreciate one of the world’s truly great a sporting spectacles.  Also so that the when, at your next cocktail party, someone asks if you saw Djokovic’s blown break after attempting that volley drop shot after deuce #4 in the third set of the Federer match you can respond with “Yeah, that was great!” instead of “Yeah… that was great?”

The Tradition:

Between its long history and English setting (taking place at the All England Club in suburban London) you might expect tradition to play a central role at Wimbledon, and naturally, you would be right!    In fact tradition is really what sets Wimbledon apart.  While the other majors have embraced the usual aspects of modern professional sports (technology, advanced playing surfaces, styling, advertising, etc…) Wimbledon has insisted, to the maximum extent possible, on keeping things as they have always been.

Wimbledon is famous for it's playing surface and strict dress code.
Wimbledon is famous for its playing surface and strict dress code.

The most unique aspect of Wimbledon is the playing surface: grass.  A century ago this wasn’t anything special as most tennis was played on grass (the game was originally called “lawn tennis” after all).  However, most tennis today is played on a hard court, or occasionally on clay.  In fact these days it’s pretty rare to come across a grass tennis court at all since they require so much work to maintain.

While the grass court is undeniably cool looking, it also has a major impact on the game itself.  Grass is the fastest surface on which tennis is played, which is mainly due to the low friction between the grass and the ball on impact.  This means that balls move faster and bounce lower than the players are used to.  Also the relatively irregular surface creates more variation and odd bounces, which are also difficult to address.  Those conditions tend to favor “all court” style players who can move quickly and hit a wide variety of shots from anywhere on the court, which in turn generally makes for exciting tennis.

Another uniquely Wimbledon feature is the dress code: all white.  Tennis players can wear whatever crazy colors they like during the rest of the year, but when they play at the All England Club, the choice is made for them.  While this may seem boring, the on-court effect is actually very cool, especially when set against the grass court backdrop.

It isn't unusual for the Royals to make an appearance.
It isn’t unusual for the Royals to make an appearance.

Beyond the court and the dress code, Wimbledon is packed with all sort of other minor nods to tradition.  You’ll see very little advertising on the court for example.  You’ll also usually see members of the Royal Family in attendance, especially in the later rounds of play.  The overall effect is a retro look back at the way tennis used to be enjoyed, but with modern competition among some of the best athletes ever to play the game (more on that to come).

The Score:

Tennis is a fairly complicated game, but thankfully the basics required to enjoy a match on TV (or if you’re lucky enough to go in person) are easy to get down.  First we’ll look at scoring.

A tennis match is decided by “best of” series of “sets”.  Sets are decided by “games” and games are decided by “points”.

In a major, women’s matches are decided on a best of three sets series and men’s matches are a best of five affair.   The sets themselves are generally decided by the first player to win 6 games.  However, there is a catch: you must win by 2 games.  This means that a set can’t end on a score of 6 to 5.  If that happens, another game is played.  If the player who had 6 wins, then he wins the set 7-5 (having won by two).  If the player who had 5 wins, then the score is tied 6-6 and one of two things can happen.

Final score of the Isner vs. Mahut match in 2010, which took 11 hours 5 minutes to complete.
Final score of the Isner vs. Mahut match in 2010, which took 11 hours 5 minutes to complete.

If it’s the final set of most Majors (Wimbledon included), then play will continue until one player has won by two games.  Sometimes this can go on for a very long time.  In fact the longest match ever played was at the 2010 Wimbledon Championship where John Isner won the final set 70-68!

However, most often the set will go to a tie breaker, where the first player to reach 7 points wins.  But like sets, a player has to win by at least two points.  This means that tie breakers can go on for a very long time as well, but since a winner is decided by 2 points (as opposed to 2 games) they’re generally much quicker.  The final score of a set decided by tiebreaker is recorded as 7-6.

Individual games are won by points.  Essentially the first player to win 4 points wins the game, but the scoring terminology is a bit odd.  Instead of 1,2,3… scoring is recorded as follows:

  • 0 Points = Love
  • 1st Point = 15
  • 2nd Point = 30
  • 3rd Point = 40
  • 4th Point = Game

So, for example, a game where a player has won 3 points, while his opponent hasn’t won any, would have a score of 40-Love.  If his opponent wins the next point, it’s 40-15.  And if he wins the next, that’s game.

Pretty easy, but keep in mind there’s that pesky “win by 2” rule to deal with.  In the case of a game, if the score reaches 40-40, it’s referred to as “deuce”.  The player who wins the next point then has the “advantage”.  If he wins the point after that, he wins the game (having won by 2).  If his opponent wins the next point, the score goes back to deuce (sometimes you’ll see the number of times deuce is reached appended, so in this case it’s deuce #2).  Play continues in that manner until one player wins the deuce and his advantage point.

The Play:

Once you understand the scoring, the play is actually pretty simple.  The players line up at opposite ends of the court.  One is the server and the other the receiver.  Once the server is ready, he’ll stand just behind the baseline (see diagram), toss the ball up, and hit it into play.  That first hit must travel over the net and land somewhere in the opposite court’s service box.  From that point on anything goes so long as the ball travels over the net, lands in bounds, and doesn’t bounce more than once before being hit.  The first player to violate those rules loses the point, at which point the ball goes back to the server and the process repeats.  A player serves for the entire duration of the game, but will switch sides (left and right) after each point.

Basic anatomy of a tennis court.

Once a game has concluded, the receiver becomes the server and vice-versa.  It’s generally considered an advantage to serve, which is why service alternates after each game.  After every odd numbered game (so at the end of games 1, 3, 5, 7, etc…) the players will switch ends of the court and get a little break.  Play continues in that manner until one player has won 6 (or 7) games to win the set, and ultimately 2 out of 3 (or 3 out of 5) sets to win the match.

The Lingo:

Tennis has some unique vocabulary, some of which you’ve already experienced just by reading this post.  Below is a quick sampling of some other common (and confusing) terms you’ll hear while watching a match:

  • Deuce Side: The right side of the tennis court. The first service in a game will always begin from this side.
  • Ad Side: The left side of the court.
  • Break: This is when the receiver (as opposed to the server) wins a game.  The final point is called a “break point”.  Breaking an opponent is usually considered a major advantage and will often decide a set.
  • Hold: The opposite of a break, this is when the server wins the game.  Since the server theoretically has the advantage, he is expected to win, or hold, the game.
  • Fault: Technically any ball that goes out of bounds, but generally used to describe an illegal serve, i.e. one that either stopped by the net or lands outside the opposite service box.  If this occurs on the first serve, the player gets another try.
  • Double Fault: Same thing as above, but the illegal serve occurs on the second attempt.  In this case the point is awarded to the opponent.
  • Let: A let occurs when a serve hits the net, but still continues over it.  If the ball lands legally in the service area, then it’s still the first serve.  If the ball hits the net and lands outside the service area, it’s a fault.  However a second serve that hits the net results in a do-over regardless of where it lands in the opponents court.
  • Out: Usually used to describe a ball in play that lands outside the playing area.  The player who hits a ball out loses the point.
  • Ground Stroke: Any shot that a player hits after it has bounced once.  Forehands and Backhands are the most typical ground strokes.
  • Volley: A shot that is hit out of mid air, before bouncing on the court.  These generally occur at or near the net.
  • Lob:  A high, arching shot that goes over the opponents head and usually lands deep in the court.  These are usually defensive shots that give the hitter time to get set up for the next shot, or back an opponent away from the net.
  • Drop Shot: A short shot that is placed as close to the net as possible.  This requires the opponent to quickly move forward and often results in a weak return, allowing for a…
  • Overhead:  Also known as a smash, results from an easily ball hit or bounced high into the air, typically near the net, that is returned with a powerful over-the-head swing.  Usually these shots are unreturnable and result in…
  • Winner: Any shot that decisively ends a point for the player hitting it, but generally a powerful or well placed shot that the opponent either can’t reach or has no chance of returning.
  • Error:  The opposite of a winner, it’s a shot that a player mis-hits into the net or out of play.  Unforced errors are points that the hitter gives away to his opponent via his own mistakes.
  • Spin: Refers to the spin or action put on a ball by a player.  Topspin results in balls that arch down rapidly toward the opponent’s court and kick up high after.  Backspin results from slice shots that bounce low and away from an opponent.  Side spin can be used to “kick” a ball left of right after impact.
  • Pace: Tennis speak for the speed of the ball.  A player that generates a lot of pace on his shots is hitting fast balls that are more difficult to return.

The Players:

While there are 128 men and 128 women all competing for the Singles Championship (plus many others in doubles, mixed doubles, juniors, etc…) there are really only a handful of players you’ll want to pay attention to.  That’s not to say you can’t enjoy every match, but at the end of the tournament, odds are that it will be one of the following four names will be talking about.

Federer defeated Andy Murray in last year's Championship to win his record setting 17th Grand Slam title.
Federer defeated Andy Murray in last year’s Championship to win his record setting 17th Grand Slam title.

Roger Federer: Federer is arguably the greatest tennis player in history.  He’s got more Grand Slam titles than any other play (17) and the grass courts of Wimbledon are his specialty.  He won the Championship from 2003-2007 straight and again in 2009.  Oh, and he’s also the defending champion having won the 2012 event as well.  All in all that’s a record tying 7 titles at Wimbledon, an achievement he shares with Pete Sampras.  A win this year to defend his title would give him the undisputed record and join Rafael Nadal as the only other player in history to win the same major 8 times.  Federer is an excellent all court player with a ton of shots and seemingly unlimited finesse.  The only problem is his age.  At 31 he’s far from his prime and professional tennis is a young man’s game.  Going five sets against a younger, fitter opponent might prove too much.  Still Federer is probably the odds on favorite to win.

Fred Perry was the last British player to win Wimbledon back in 1936
Fred Perry was the last British player to win Wimbledon back in 1936

Andy Murray:  Murray is a relative newcomer to the elite ranks of tennis and is still looking to prove himself and improve upon his lone Grand Slam title (the US Open last year).  However the real story with Murray is that he represents the best shot for a British player to win the Championship since 1936.  He came close last year, losing to Federer in four sets.  Despite the devastating defeat, he came back to beat Federer just a few months later in the gold medal final at the London Olympic games (hosted at Wimbledon), proving that he had what it takes to beat the best on the grass.  He followed up his gold medal with a US Open title last fall and a trip to the finals of the Australian Open this year.  He skipped the French Open and should be well rested and poised to give Britain perhaps it’s best chance in nearly 80 years to win one for the home team.

Nadal is the undisputed king of clay, but is he healthy enough to win a 3rd Championship?
Nadal is the undisputed king of clay, but is he healthy enough to win a 3rd Championship?

Rafael Nadal:  Federer may be the greatest player of all time, but Rafa has made a strong case for himself as the best player of the past 5 years.  His specialty is playing on clay, which is evidenced by his record setting 8 French Open titles, including his most recent earlier this month.  However Nadal’s skills go beyond the clay and he’s proven that he has what it takes to win just about anywhere.  He has achieved a career Grand Slam and has 12 major titles under his belt, including two wins at Wimbledon in 2008 and 2010 (beating Federer both times). If Nadal has a weakness, it has to be his health.  He spent most of the past year recovering from a knee injury and is still feeling his way back to the top.  That being said, he still managed to win the French Open convincingly, proving that even a recovering Nadal is better than most players at 100%.  Rafa has made it clear that he wants to limit his play on hard surfaces to preserve his knees, which means he’ll likely be trying extra hard to secure Grand Slam #13 on the last “soft” court major of the year.

Djokovic is the best player, but does he have what it takes for a repeat of 2011?
Djokovic is the best player, but does he have what it takes for a repeat of 2011?

Novak Djokovic:  Djokovic is probably the best all around tennis player today.  At 26 he’s still relatively young, yet he’s also already managed to rack up 6 Grand Slam wins, including the Wimbledon championship in 2011 (along with the Australian Open and the US Open that same year) and the Australian Open title earlier this year.  He narrowly missed the career grand slam this June in the French Open, losing a grueling 5 set semi-final match to Nadal, the eventual champion.  Like Federer he’s an all court player, which should work to his advantage on grass.  He’ll be a formidable opponent to whomever he faces and will probably be the favorite in every match he plays.  He is beatable, but only through exceptional play on the part of his opponent.  Anything less and he could very well find himself with another Championship this year.

Other Players to Watch:  Other players to watch include David Ferrer, who made (and lost) his first Grand Slam final against Nadal in the French Open this year.  Jo Wilfried Tsonga could also make trouble for the elite four, as could Juan Martin Del Porto.  John Isner represents the best (if not remote) chance for the Americans.  While most of the excitement will take place on the men’s side, Serena Williams is the one to watch for the women.  Defending her title from last year and fresh off a dominating performance in the French Open, the question is not so much whether anyone has what it takes to beat her, but if they can even make it a competitive match.

Next Steps:

There you have it, all you need to understand, watch, and enjoy the 2013 Championships at Wimbledon in style.  Not much else is required on your part but to dress smartly in white, get some strawberries and cream, and tune in June 24 to watch the action for yourself.

Oh, and one final note.  Nothing makes a better excuse to treat yourself to Brunch (and perhaps some Bloody Mary’s) than the Sunday final of a Grand Slam tournament, especially Wimbledon.  Enjoy!

Clay Pigeons

Hunting done WASP'y

Ask your average WASP to list his favorite activities you won’t have to wait long before the subject of hunting comes up.  Or more precisely, bird hunting.  In WASP speak you’ll sometimes hear this referred to as “upland game”, which basically means the kind of hunting where you’ll be wearing tweed instead of camo.

If you think about it, the WASP affinity for upland game hunting makes perfect sense.  Just consider all the things it has going for it:  Time spent outdoors, expensive specialized equipment, retrievers (Golden or Labrador), classic outfitting, and of course a strong English tradition.  But unless you happen to have your own country estate, actual hunting is probably not a reasonable everyday activity.

Fortunately there is an alternative: Clay Pigeons.  In many ways shooting clay pigeons (or just “clays”) is actually a lot better than shooting real pigeons.  What the clays lack in sheer WASP appeal, they more than make up for in terms of fun, economy, and for our PETA readers, the fact that you don’t actually kill anything.

A Shot of History:

Shotguns have been used for centuries to hunt fowl and put food on the table, and like many other skills of necessity, it wasn’t long before human nature turned shooting into a skill of competition as well.  By the mid 19th Century, competitive pigeon shoots were all the rage across Victorian England.  The early competitions were much like those of today, with shooters taking turns firing at targets released on command.  Of course there was one major difference; the targets were live pigeons!  Gradually, killing birds purely for public amusement fell out of favor and was banned outright by the British government in the early 1920’s.

Competitive shooting was popular in Victorian England. The events remain today, but the use of live birds has been banned.

In place of live birds, shooters eventually switched to clay discs.  Those discs, still called pigeons, were thrown from mechanical launchers at high rates of speed to simulate the flight of the actual birds.  Various games involving clay pigeon shooting caught on and quickly gained in popularity.  Trap shooting for example, one the of the oldest and well known clay pigeon games, first became an Olympic sport at the 1900 Summer Games and is still on the slate to be played this year in London.

Today shooting sports are experiencing a bit of a resurgence, and not just among the WASP set.  Many people across all walks of life are discovering the challenge and fun competitive shooting has to offer. Interestingly the trend is even expanding into the business world as well.  Where golf was always the undisputed king of games to conduct business over, more and more businessmen are trading in the 9-iron for a 12 gauge.  Aside from being a unique alternative to golf, clay shooting provides more face-time between participants, is more accessible to novice participants, and usually much more economical for sponsors.  For the same reasons, shooting events are becoming a popular option for political and even charity fundraisers as well.

Getting Started:

Fortunately due to the increased popularity of shooting sports, getting started is easier than ever and the absolute best first step is to sign up for an introductory course.

Learn to shoot classes are offered at most outdoor shooting centers where, for modest fee (typically between $20-$40), they’ll provide you with everything you need for a day on the range including a rental gun, ammunition, ear, and eye protection.  During the actual course you’ll (hopefully) be taught the basics of gun safety, etiquette, and technique.  And of course, you’ll also get to spend time out on the range, breaking clay targets under the guidance of an experienced teacher.

A good instructor will teach you the fundamentals of shooting and give you the confidence to develop your talents in the future.

I took one of these classes a few years back, and again last year as a refresher, and found it to be both enjoyable and educational each time.  As an introductory student, it’s assumed that you’re coming in as a blank slate and as such there’s no pressure or worrying about doing something wrong.  If you have a question, just ask.  That’s what the instructor is there for and you can generally assume you’re getting the right answer.

Clay shooting is a fairly easy sport to pick up (mastering it is another story) and accessible to almost anyone.  In the last class I took, the students ranged from teenage girls to retired men.  By the end of the day, everyone was successfully hitting targets.  Try it for yourself and I guarantee that now matter who you are, you’ll experience a sort of primal satisfaction the first time you shatter a clay disc moving at 60  mph in mid-air.

Gearing Up:

Assuming that you’ve taken the introductory course and enjoyed it enough try shooting on your own, you’ll want to invest in a couple basic items:

  • A good choice. Note the padded shoulder and the large front pockets.

    Shooting Jacket or Vest – There are a variety of style to chose from, but your main concern is getting something with a nicely padded shoulder and large side pockets.  Your shoulder takes the brunt of the gun’s recoil when shooting and depending on the gun, it can leave you pretty miserable by the end of the day.  Getting something with good shoulder padding helps alleviate that problem.  The pockets you’ll use to hold ammunition or shells.  Most games require you to fire 25 shots, so you’ll want something that has pocket space for at least… 25 shells.

  • Eye Protection – Basically you’ll just need something to shield your eyes while shooting.  If you wear eyeglasses, then you’re already covered.  You could also just wear your sunglasses if conditions allow for it.  For more specialized applications, you could get a pair of dedicated shooting glasses which are made with sturdy polycarbonate lenses that are less prone to breaking.  It’s up to you.
  • Ear Protection – There are two choices here.  You can go with the ear muff style protection, or disposable ear plugs.  The ear muffs will provide better protection, but can be cumbersome when shooting a shotgun.  I prefer the ear plugs which are much less obtrusive and provide more than adequate protection in an outdoor setting.  Note: You can often purchase these at the range, but typically at an added premium.
  • Ammunition – Shotgun ammunition comes in a wide variety of choices. Most of the options will depend on the type of gun you’re using, but in general you’ll want to get “target load” shells loaded with 1 oz of bird shot.  Bird shot comes in many sizes, but most ranges will limit you to #7 – #9.  The higher the number, the smaller the individual pellets, the more pellets you can fit in each shell.  A 1 oz shell of #9 bird shot for example has well over 500 individual pellets!  The advantage is obvious, the more pellets you put in the air, the higher the probability of a hit (it only takes 4 to break a clay pigeon).  The disadvantage is that the smaller mass of each pellet means that they won’t fly as well or as far as their larger counterparts.  #8 seems to be a good compromise.  If you’re unsure what to get, you can always buy ammunition at the range, but be aware that it will be more expensive and usually poor quality.
  • The pinnacle of WASP armament: The English side-by-side shotgun. This matched pair made by Purdy costs more than the average house in the US.

    Shotgun – You probably won’t want to run out and buy a shotgun right away.  The better option for the beginner is to simply rent one from the range each time you go.  The advantage of renting, besides cost, is that it allows you to try out a variety of guns to determine what you’re most comfortable with.  The most likely options you’ll have to choose from are different gauges (12 vs 20) and firing actions (double barrel vs. auto-loader).  The double barrel 12 gauge is the WASP standard, but the recoil can be uncomfortable for smaller individuals.  At the other end of the spectrum is the auto-loading 20 gauge, which is nearly as effective, but with much less felt recoil.  When you get to the point where you’re ready to make a shotgun purchase for yourself, the how to WASP will be here to help!

Let the Games Begin:

When I took my introductory course, it was a great learning experience, but they neglected one major aspect:  What to do next.  I had learned all the basics  for breaking clay targets, but I still had no idea what the process was for showing up at the range on my own and going shooting.

And frankly, that can be an intimidating experience.  Visit any shooting center and you’ll see a lot of serious looking guys with guns, all whom appear to know what they’re doing and are deeply intent on doing it.  Walking into a situation like that and trying to learn on the fly is usually a recipe for some serious humble pie.  Fortunately for you, I’ve already embarrassed myself, so now you don’t have to!

With that being said, here’s a quick cheat sheet for two of the most popular games for beginners:  Single Trap and Wobble Trap.  They won’t help you break any more targets, but they teach you the basic procedures and hopefully give you the confidence to get out and give it a go for yourself.

The basic layout of a Trap range.

Single Trap:  There many versions on this game out there, but the most common is simply called Single Trap.  Each round consists of shooting 5 targets from 5 different stations for a total of 25 total targets.  The stations are laid out in a semi-circle and the targets are thrown from a hidden bunker (or “trap”) in front of the stations.  The thrower oscillates back and forth so you never known which direction the clay pigeon will fly. You get one shot per target.  The procedure for a round goes like this:

  • You either pick or will be assigned to one of the 5 stations.  Set up there and get ready, but make sure your gun’s breech is open, unloaded, and not ready to fire.
  • Once everyone is set up (1 person per station) firing commences from left to right.
  • If you’re on the first station, load your gun with a single shell, bring it to your shoulder, and prepare to fire.  Once you’re ready call “PULL” and the target will be released.
  • Take your shot.  If any visible piece of the target breaks off, even if it’s just a sliver, it counts as a hit.  If the clay pigeon remains intact, it’s a miss.
  • Open the breech and wait patiently for the other shooters.
  • If you’re not on the first station, wait until the person to your left completes their shot and then take your turn as described above.
  • That process continues until each person has taken 5 shots from their station.
  • When the last shooter has fired their 5th shot, everyone moves clockwise to the next station down the line and the process repeats until all 25 shots have been taken.

That’s all there is to it.  Your score is the total number of clays hit out of the 25.  One key thing to remember is that your gun should never be loaded or ready to fire until it is your turn to do so!

Typical set up for Wobble Trap. Note the launcher in the middle of the stand.

Wobble Trap:  This game is actually better for beginners since the clays are released closer to shooters.  You’ll also see a wider variety of targets (the thrower moves up and down as well as left and right), which can make it more fun.

Wobble trap is similar to Trap in that it consists of 25 shots taken from 5 different stations, but there are some obvious differences.  Foremost is that the stations are set up on a pyramid shaped stand instead of a semicircle.  Second is that instead of getting one throw and one shot per turn, you’ll sometimes be shooting at two targets.  The procedure is as follows:

  • As in Single Trap, you’ll pick a station to begin at.  Let’s assume that it’s the second station.
  • Once the shooter at station 1 completes their shot, load you gun with a single shell, get ready and call “PULL”.  The target will be released and you’ll take your shot.  Open the gun and wait for your next turn.
  • For your second turn, you’ll load two shells, get ready, and call “PULL”.  The first target will be release and you’ll take your shot.  Whether or not you hit the target, the next target will be released moments after your first shot.  Take the second shot, open your gun, and wait.
  • Your third turn is identical to your second.  Load two shells, call “PULL”, and take your shots.
  • Once everyone has fired at their fifth target (i.e. completed their third turn), move to the station to your right.  If you’re at the end station, return to the first, leftmost station.
  • The process repeats in the same order (1-2-2) at each station until all 25 shots have been fired.

That’s it!  As in Single Trap, your total score is the number of clays hit out of the 25.  No need to keep  score yourself as the range employee controlling the thrower should keep track for you.

Next Steps:

  • First thing is to find an outdoor range that offers a learn to shoot class for shotguns.  The range must be outdoors since most, if not all, indoor ranges won’t allow the use of bird shot.  Most people will have a range within an hour of their home, even if you live in an urban area.  Google Maps is an invaluable resource here.
  • Sign up for a class.  It’s seriously the best thing you can do.  You’ll learn a lot and have fun at the same time.  Do it!
  • Check out YouTube for more instructional or demonstration videos.  If you’re a visual learner like me, they can help make things clearer.
  • If you really get into shooting, check out the USA Shooting Team.  You never know, you could find yourself in Rio for the 2016 Olympic Games!

Squash

When it comes to staying active, it’s an established fact that WASP’s prefer the great outdoors. Whether it’s on the course, the bay, or the courts, fresh air and sunshine are the name of the game.  But wait, you may be asking, don’t most WASP’y types live in areas where the weather is not always/rarely conducive to outdoor sports?  What about rainy days? Or February?  What am I supposed to do then???  All excellent questions.  Fortunately any WASP worth his salt will have the perfect answer: Squash.

Not the gourd, the game!  Squash is perhaps the definitive WASP indoor sporting activity.  As such, if you want to live like one, it’s a game you’ll need to learn how to play.  Unfortunately Squash isn’t very popular in America, where it’s been largely overshadowed by its redneck cousin, Racquetball.  Today the average American’s exposure to the sport is largely limited to movies where Michael Douglas plays an investment banker.  The good news however is that Squash is easy to learn, a lot of fun to play, and an excellent way to exercise.  With that being said, lets get started with some history.  

A Brief History of Squash:

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Playing Squash at the Harrow School in London

The modern version of Squash (like most things WASP’y) is a product of the English.  An early version of the game was actually developed at Fleet Prison, a notorious debtors prison located in London, where inmates created a tennis-like game called “Racqeuts”.  To better adapt to the realities of prison life, where space and materials are at a premium, the game replaced the net with walls and made use of a simple, non-squeezable ball.  Over the years Racquets, and similar games, gained in popularity, especially in schools across England.

Squash itself credited to the Harrow School in London, home to the world’s first purpose-built Squash courts.  Students at Harrow developed many aspects of the modern game, including the use of rubber balls and modified racquets with a short reach, ideal for playing in a confined space.  The game quickly gained in popularity and eventually found its way across the Atlantic in the late 19th century.  During this time various sporting associations sprang up in an attempt to standardize the rules and regulations of the game.  However, it was not until 1928 when the Squash Rackets Association formed  to set the official standards for the sport we know and play today.

How to Play:

Fortunately for you Squash shares a trait common with all great games: it’s easy to learn how to play (difficult to master being the other).  The first step is getting to know the basic equipment.

Racket:  A Squash racket is a bit like a down-sized tennis racket, but with an elongated neck and a smaller face.  The long neck is especially important as it allows you to generate greater swing speeds, a necessity due to the unique nature of Squash balls.

Ball:  Squash balls are similar in size to a golf ball, hollow, and made from several layers of thick rubber material.  Its most unique aspect is that unlike the balls used in most other sports, a Squash ball is not bouncy.  Drop one from shoulder height onto a hard surface and it will rebound a few inches at the most.

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Various types of Squash Balls

Squash balls are rated by speed, with slower balls being less “bouncy” than faster balls.  The speed of a ball is determined by color coded dots on the surface of the ball.  One interesting aspect of Squash balls is that they literally need to be warmed up.  This is accomplished by beating the ball against the wall several times prior to play.  The effect of these high speed inelastic collisions allows the ball to absorb a lot of the impact energy, which in turn raises its temperature

Safety Goggles:  I know, they make you look doofy and are awkward to wear, but these are definitely a must have.  Squash balls are routinely hit at 100mph+ speeds and as you just learned, when a Squash ball hits something the result is an inelastic collision, which means that a large amount of energy is transmitted to whatever that object may be.  If that object is your leg or chest, it’s going to sting and leave a mark.  If that object is your unprotected eye, you’re going to be blind… Wear the goggles!

That’s about it in terms of dedicated equipment.  Beyond that it’s simply a matter of wearing appropriate athletic attire and a good pair of gym shoes.  Now, let’s get to know the court.

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Basic layout and dimensions of a Squash court

A Squash Court is generally an indoor, completely enclosed court.  The front and sides are solid and the back wall will usually be transparent, for the sake of spectators.  The most important aspect of the court are the lines running across the walls and floors, which define the playing space.  From top to bottom, the markings are as follows:

  • Out Line:  The topmost line on the front wall, sloping down along the sides, and running across the back wall.  Like the name suggests, this is the boundary for all legal or “in” shots.  Anything hitting on or over the line is out.
  •  Service Line: This is a line running roughly across the middle of the front wall and marks the lower boundary of the legal service shots (more on that later).  The line serves no purpose after the serve.
  • Tin Line:  The lowest line running across the front wall marks the lower boundary of all legal shots.  Below the line is a strip of tin that makes a loud, distinct noise when struck by the ball.  If you hear that noise, the shot is out.
  • Floor Lines: Mark service areas in the back half of the court.  Like the service line on the front wall, these markings become irrelevant after the serve.

OK, so you have the equipment and are familiar with the court. Now for the fun part, it’s time to play!

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Diagram of a legal serve

Each game begins with a serve, which can be determined by spinning a racket, flipping a coin, rock paper scissors, etc… To begin, the server must stand behind the line running across the floor with one foot completely within the smaller service box within his quarter of the court.  He then hits the ball so that it 1) hits the front wall somewhere above the service line and below the out line and then 2) lands within the opposite rear quarter of the court as marked by the floor lines.  If the serve is legal, the returner can hit the ball anytime after it has struck the front wall, at which point play begins.

From this point on, the rules of play are fairly simple.  Players take turns hitting the ball until someone fouls and the point is over.  For a shot to be legal it may hit the floor once and can then be played off any number of walls so long as it always hits the front wall last and remains within the line boundaries (below the outline and above the tin line on the front wall).  Once a shot hits the front wall it’s the next player’s turn. The ball can again bounce off any number of walls, but only once on the floor before the return is hit.  If a player fails to hit a legal return, then his opponent gets the point.  If the server wins the point, the players switch sides and he serves again.  If the returner wins the point, players remain on the same side while service transfers.

One of the fun aspects of Squash is being about the use the entire court to play shots and as such, situational awareness is key.  Knowing where to be, and where not to be, can make all the difference in a game.  In the case of the latter, know that if you get in the way on an opponents shot, it will cost you a point.  It will also probably leave you with a nasty mark.  However, that being said, it is not legal to deliberately aim shots at your opponent!  As a general rule, incidental interference usually results in a let (do over), more obvious interference in a point.

Games are played to 11 points, but must be one by 2.  Competitions are generally played out of a “best of” series consisting of 3, 5, 7, etc… games.   That’s pretty much it.  Simple right?  Well as I said earlier, like all great games, learning to play is easy.  Mastering it could take you a lifetime.

Next Steps:

That covers all the basics of what you need to get started playing Squash like the WASP you aspire to be.  Now all that remains is to get out there and give it a shot!  Here are some tips on what to do next:

  • Go out and buy a squash racket, balls, etc…  Most major sporting good stores will carry Squash equipment and the good news here is that since Squash is so unpopular in America, you can get great deals on the merchandise!  You can usually find a decent entry level racket for under $30 and the balls are only a few dollars a piece.
  • Find a Squash Court.  This can be a little more difficult for the same reason you can find deals on Squash equipment, the game is just not that popular in the US.  A lot of places have Racquetball courts, but very few have Squash courts.  While it may be tempting to use a Racquetball court instead, resist the urge as the two are just too different in terms of dimensions.  In a pinch you could use a Racquetball court for basic practice, but that’s about it.  If you look, most cities have at least one community center that offers Squash courts.  On the plus side, if you do find one, there’s generally less competition for court time.
  • Learn more about the sport at the World Squash Federation website.
  • Watch people play on YouTube.
  • Get a friend and play!