The opening is the battle between the two sides to be the first to gain the upper hand. Generally when we talk about openings in croquet, we are referring to the first 4 turns. At the very top level it is where games are won and lost, but at all levels it provides a fascinating array of options for bluffing and double-bluffing your opponent.
The stronger player who is playing a dangerous but less experienced / weaker player will generally approach the opening with the intent of not giving away an easy break, and hence a more defensive mindset. Openings where there is a lot of grey area, balls on boundaries and in corners are best for this. The stronger player will generally rely on their better all-round game in order to win, and is more comfortable with digging balls out slowly into a break.
The weaker player should approach a game against a much stronger opponent with an attacking mindset - they will not be afraid to take on relatively short shots that give laid breaks, even if it means conceding a laid break if they miss. The weaker player should favour openings that have balls in-lawn and should be looking to put pressure on the stronger player to have to hit in.
It is quite common to see very aggressive, black and white, openings when two very strong players play against each other. The same is true for openings between evenly-matched players at lower levels, but generally to a lesser extent. A lot of the opening strategy depends on the individual mindset of the player, with some players naturally playing a more attacking game than others.
Below are articles on various well-known (and some not-so-well-known) openings, which discuss options for placement of balls, and responses to them. For the purposes of simplicity, in the examples below, the balls will always be played in the following order:
Note: there is no ball order or sequence in which the balls need to be added to the game in croquet - the above order is simply to keep things consistent for the diagrams and explanations.
As you can probably imagine, the options in the opening are endless. This article attempts to talk through some of the most common options, and some of the most common responses to them, with the idea of clarifying some of the thought processes behind them.
Many of the openings below will reference something known as the Dream Leave - this is a scenario where the third turn ball (black) has hit and arranged the court as follows:
Black has retrieved red from wherever it was on the court and placed it slightly in-lawn from the west boundary, north of peg-high, and left blue a rush to it from the east boundary. This leave gives no short shot for yellow, and any miss by yellow will give blue a good break opportunity.
The most common option selected by the first ball player. A ball to the east boundary, somewhere between level with H4 and H5, is chosen due to its relative distance from both baulk lines and from H1. It is a completely non-threatening ball and allows the second ball player to dictate the nature of the game, be it defensive or aggressive.
A variation on the standard east boundary ball, the in-lawn east boundary ball is struck out in the same area as the standard east boundary ball, but purposefully left about 1 yard in from the yardline area. The idea behind that is so that black can play its third turn shot out behind blue and leave itself a rush in-court. This play discourages responses like a west boundary tice from red.
A supershot ball is a first-turn ball placed near the middle of the court, normally between H5 and peg and a couple of yards west of the centre line. This is the most aggressive sensible option for the first ball, and signals your intent to your opponent that you want no grey area. Given its proximity to H1, a supershot ball generally gives a good chance for a break for either player, depending on whether the third-turn, fourth-turn or fifth-turn shots are hit.
There are variations on the length of the supershot, with a supershot played to near the peg being a poorer pioneer for H1 but having the advantage of lengthening any fourth-turn shot by yellow at it.
This opening is an attempt to try and pre-empt the second-turn response and discourage a "duffer tice" by red. To lay an anti-duffer, you hit blue to a spot somewhere between H6 and the peg, and 1-2 yards west of the east boundary. The idea of placing a ball here is that if the opponent were to lay a duffer tice with red, then it gives black a good chance to hit red and take off behind blue for a rush to H1 on turn 3. It is a leave that is generally only used by strong players who have a realistic chance of a third-turn break in the first place.
The croquet court is a big place and so there really are endless options for where to place balls in the opening. Often an unusual option first-turn will yield good results by confusing the opponent!
Not often seen these days due to a preference for an east boundary ball 10 yards further north. A weakness of this opening is that shooting at partner on turn 3 and missing is liable to leave a double target for yellow. It also generally encourages yellow to take an aggressive shot on turn 4; however on a difficult lawn this opening can have some advantages, with any hit by yellow on turn 4 at balls in C4 leaving little room to promote balls into the court due to the close proximity to the corner.
Playing blue into C2 first turn can often catch the opponent off guard. This opening attempts to flip the tables on red and yellow by trying to ensure a defensive opening for blue and black. This can be a good option where blue and black are the stronger players and want to prevent aggressive second-turn options by red and yellow. Of course, there are options available to red and yellow which negate blue and black's defensive preferences.
As unusual options go, this is right up there. This option would not be recommended when playing a strong player, but nevertheless is very interesting. The micro tice is a ball played from the end of A baulk towards the east boundary, but only 2-3 yards towards it, leaving a 2-3 yard roquet for the opponent on the second turn. This length of shot cannot really be refused, but leaving red a croquet stroke from south-west of hoop 4 on the second turn of the game gives no real break prospects. Often the second turn player will attempt an approach to H1 and fail it, leaving a 6-yard roquet with two balls near H1 for black. This opening relies more on a tactical mistake from red than anything else
Occasionally seen. Not a good opening against any experienced opponent, but occasionally yields results. This first-turn option is not to be recommended. A first-turn ball in C1 followed by a second-turn response to C3 (or vice versa) is a killer blow to black's turn.Back to top
This is where things start to get a little interesting. For the most part, the opening is dictated by the second ball response, and there are many more options available.
The standard tice is one of the most popular responses to an east boundary ball at club-level croquet. Although in recent years it has fallen out of favour with top players (likely due to an increase in the standard of shooting), it is still a great opening that gives good chances to both sides.
The standard tice is where red is played to the west boundary, and the distance it is placed north of C1 needs to be carefully considered by the striker or red. The name "tice" indicates that the distance should be enticing for the player of black to shoot at and so a distance of between about 8 and 13 yards is common. As a general rule, if possible the distance chosen should either be about 1 yard longer than the opponent's critical distance (the distance at which someone hits 50% of their shots) or 1 yard shorter (or equal to) your own critical distance. Obviously this cannot be achieved if your opponent has a longer critical distance than you do, so it is better to err slightly on the longer side.
If blue is an in-lawn east boundary ball, laying a standard tice is risky, as black can quite easily lay a rush directly to it on the third turn.
Probably the most common response to the east boundary ball today is the second-turn ball to 6" south of C2. The reason for playing just south of C2 is that if in the unlikely event of black shooting at red on turn 3, a miss will likely leave yellow a double target. The idea of red near C2 means that red is buried in a defensive position, and signals yellow's intent to shoot at blue and black on turn 4.
If blue is slightly in-lawn, then C2 is the safest and most defensive response with red.
One of the more aggressive responses for red is the duffer tice. This is a ball that is placed usually about 2-feet north and a few inches east of penultimate. This is similarly enticing for the opponent to shoot (just as with a standard tice) but in this case a miss is usually more critical - any third turn shot at the duffer is in the direction of A baulk so black usually takes the shot gently - and by doing so is more likely to miss. Black missing leaves two balls in the centre of the court, giving yellow a great chance on turn 4. The duffer tice is a great option for weaker players playing against stronger players, and also for anyone confident in hitting 10 yarders.
Between two very strong players a duffer tice is still a popular opening. There are variations on the placement of the ball near penult, based on the strength of the opponent. It is common to see a duffer tice placed level with, or south of, H6, particularly if the striker of red and yellow is a very good shot and is confident to hit an 11-yarder on turn 4. In a game between experts, the placement of red is sometimes moved to the west of H6 to discourage a third-turn break after a hit from black at blue.
This option is very popular in New Zealand and although a mirror image of the C2 ball, is a lot more aggressive. Placing red 6" north of C4 not only gives negligible break prospects to black on turn 3 but also signals your intent to hit fourth-turn with yellow and have a break. A miss at partner by black on turn 3 gives you a 13-yard shot for a 4-ball break, and a miss by black at red on turn 3 usually gives a double target.
A slightly counter-intuitive option but nonetheless an interesting one. Shooting red at blue on turn 2 and hitting gives no break prospects, but a miss also leaves very slim break prospects for black on turn 3 if it hits, unless black is a very strong player. With this opening it is quite common to see misses on both turns 2 and 3, and often a triple target for yellow at the other 3 balls on turn 4 from B baulk.
The supershot ball is the most aggressive opening that the first-turn player can use. There are several responses to this which need to be considered, based on your assessment of your opponent's ability and whether the opponent has realistic prospects of a break to 4-back if they do manage to hit 3rd turn.
The C2 response is a ball played about 6" south of C2. This is a strong response to a supershot against almost all players. If the player of black wants to attempt a third-turn break, they will have to hit a 13-yarder and play a very difficult croquet stroke out of C2 to get a rush to H1, and this is by no means guaranteed. On the other hand, a miss by black at red on turn 3 will leave yellow a double target and a 4-ball break if hit.
There are only a handful of players in the world where the C2 ball is not a great response - players who would expect to hit the 13 yarder most of the time and also be good enough at croquet strokes to expect to get a rush to H1 on the supershot ball. Against these players the strategy of lengthing the 3rd turn shot would be preferred.
Mirror image to the C2 response, this ball is played 6" north of C4. Consider this if blue (the supershot ball) is placed further north than normal (somewhere near peg-high), or is in a particular spot which may have H4 obscuring any croquet stroke from C4 towards it. It otherwise gives all the same advantages as the C2 response
As a counter to the very top players hitting the ball in C2 most of the time, the max distance response became popular - this is where red is played to the east boundary about level with the peg on the east boundary, leaving the longest shot possible for black. This response grants black a shot from C3 through red and into C4, reducing yellow's fourth-turn prospects - it relies more on black missing red than trying to make any break pick-up by black more difficult. Generally a good option against the very best players, but against most players is unnecessary.
The reason why max distance on the east boundary is chosen instead of the equivalent max distance spot on the west boundary is that it is slightly further from the supershot ball (blue), which is slightly south-west of the peg. Assuming that the shots on turns 3 and 4 are missed, blue's shot at red & yellow on the east boundary will be a couple of yards longer than the equivalent shot to the west boundary.
The response for red to lag to a spot 3-4 yards east and 1-2 yards north of the supershot ball is a very strong and very under-used response to the supershot. This is a good tactic when playing someone who is a very good shot, and in particular if the supershot ball itself is quite deep (nearer the peg than H5). Placing red beside blue nullifies the strength of black's shooting by encouraging black to take its third turn shot gently (which is generally less accurate), or risk shooting hard and missing into B baulk, conceding a 4-ball break. In this case, black may choose not to shoot at all, and instead also lag to a position wide of the other two balls, meaning that red and yellow have successfully turned the tables of the supershot opening and enabled yellow to have the first attempted roquet.
The ultimate way to nullify the supershot ball - roquet it on the second turn. After roqueting blue with red, there are several options available. You can croquet blue towards C2 and then fire red off 6" north of C4. A more aggressive option would be to croquet blue north-west of H2 and fire red off the south boundary, south of H4 - this leaves black a choice of 7-8 yarders but minimal break prospects and difficult strokes with their third turn in order to distance the balls from baulk. A more novel option would be to crosswire blue and red at the peg, which leaves only a 17-yard shot for black with a baulk line in the background. An even more interesting option might be to roll blue close to the peg, either east or west, and then play red a yard or two away from it, wiring blue's backswing at red. This means that black probably has no lag option towards blue that doesn't leave a double-target for yellow.
A first-turn C2 ball is an attempt by blue to make red conform to a defensive opening. Red could of course do this if it wants, by playing 6" north of C4, or even by just having a "standard" east boundary ball; however a better option to negate blue's attempt at dictating the opening might be to set a duffer tice - this is the ultimate aggressive response to the C2 ball, and means that black is suddenly faced with having to hit a 10-13 yarder on turn 3 or risk leaving the same for yellow next turn, and a laid break.Back to top
For the vast majority of players, if they manage to hit in on the third turn of the game, they will and should be looking to make a dream leave (see top of page) or similar, possibly with red near the peg and blue & black with a rush towards it. There are exceptions to this line of play, mainly with supershot openings, but unless otherwise stated, the standard play would be to try and set a dream leave.
Realistically, black will not be attempting to make any break on turn 3 if it manages to hit in. The player of black has to make a judgement call on their likelihood of hitting the standard tice vs their opponent's likelihood of missing it.
There are two common options after a second-turn C2 ball - both consist of shooting at partner. If partner is hit, then usually the play will be to take off to the red in C2, roquet it and then croquet it either into the centre of the court, or along the west boundary, then lag back to partner and leave a rush in-court. However, consider a game where you are the stronger player playing a very capable weaker player, if you do hit partner third turn, you can elect to just set a rush to the C2 ball instead of trying to retrieve it from C2. As the stronger player you may prefer this line of play, instead of digging out the C2 ball only for your opponent to hit on turn 4 and have an easy break.
Usually the third-turn shot at partner with black will be from A baulk, joining up on the east boundary if missed. This leaves a long double target for yellow from the end of B baulk. A more defensive play would be to shoot at partner from C3 into C4. Doing this leaves almost no break prospects fourth-turn for yellow but, depending on the distance between blue and black, may give them the opportunity to join up.
Another option for black on turn 3 would be to shoot at red in C2 - however usually this is only a viable option if red is exactly in the corner, as it will mean that missing red on the right leaves no double target for yellow. Alternatively, another option would be for black to join up with red near C2, about 3-4 feet south of it. Doing so leaves no double target from B baulk and gives good break prospects to black if yellow misses the 13 yarder, although it must be remembered that yellow also has good prospects if it hits the 13 yarder. Black joining up with red also leaves a defensive shot for yellow at blue from C3 to C4 which, if missed, leaves black a very long and tricky takeoff from C2 to the east boundary.
The third-turn response to this option depends greatly on your ability and also the ability of your opponent. Before you lay the supershot, you need to ask yourself "am I realistically good enough to play a third-turn break to 4-back?". If the answer is no, then that does not mean that the supershot opening is a bad idea at all, but it just means that you may want to reassess your third-turn response. Additionally, if you are playing someone that you believe is much better than you are, then trying to give yourself a 4-ball break on turn 5 is exactly what you should be trying to achieve. Therefore, instead of trying to roquet the 13 yard shot of black at red just south of C2 (or just north of C4), you can instead look to join up with the ball 3-4 feet away, ensuring to leave no double target. This puts a great deal of pressure on your stronger opponent to then hit a 13 yarder or else concede a 4-ball break to you.
If you believe you are good enough to hit on turn 3 and play a break, then the answer is simple - hit red near C2 and go round.
In most cases, the third-turn response to a max distance ball is to try and hit it from C3, missing into C4. Again, however, you should evaluate your own likelihood of playing a break to 4-back with only 3 balls on the lawn if you hit, and so you may want to consider lagging to the ball, a couple of yards in-lawn from the east boundary.
If the ball on the east boundary is south of the peg, it is tempting to simply shoot at it from A baulk. Missing will of course leave a double from B baulk, but the odds of yellow then hitting a double target from 20+ yards is no certainty. Alternatively, if the second-turn ball is around peg-high, then shooting at it from B baulk from a few yards west of C3 and missing often results in a fairly even spread of the balls, with your black ball being approximately 8 yards south of red and 8 yards north of C4. This again is technically a double target from somewhere on B Baulk, but given the distance between red and black, is easily missed and will leave your black ball a shot of only 8 yards.
This opening creates one of the more interesting third-turn decisions. A second-turn ball 6" north of C4 is a very threatening position and therefore the options will as follows:
A personal preference of mine is to shoot third-turn at the ball near C4 from A baulk, because hitting gives me control of the court, and I miss often enough by more than several inches so as not to leave a double.
Be on the lookout for cannons around C4 as part of this opening - there is often a good opportunity to bombard a live ball across to H1 while playing a croquet stroke towards blue on the east boundary. This can make picking up the first break a great deal easier.
The duffer tice is one of my favourite openings. Because of the placement of red near H6, a miss by black from the end of B baulk will be headed towards A baulk and give an easy start for yellow. That is why we see the ~9 yard shot at red refused so often, even by very strong players!
If black does decide to shoot at the duffer and hits, then not a great deal of options are available other than to take off to partner ball (usually nudging red towards the peg in the process), and leave a rush towards red, and then hope for a fourth-turn miss by yellow.
Another option for shooting at the duffer is doing so from C3, shooting across the court and missing to around peg-high (or just south of peg-high) on the west boundary. This is the most defensive shot available in that a miss gives no break to yellow if yellow hits red, but it also does not put any pressure on yellow's shot at red. Often times, when black misses the shot from C3 at red, it will end up south of peg-high on the west boundary and be a tempting free shot for yellow from C1.
Shooting at partner ball on turn 3 is the most aggressive line of play - taking the shot from A baulk and hitting gives the opportunity to play a big croquet stroke loading partner to H2 and attempting to get a rush to H1 on the duffer ball - it is a big shot and the break chances are normally only reasonable for very strong players. Missing partner from A baulk on the other hand gives yellow a ~9 yard shot and very strong break prospects. It is therefore more usual to see black shoot at blue from C3 which, although longer, doesn't make all the balls available to yellow if black misses blue and yellow hits red. It also means that blue and black maintain a wide join and have realistic prospects of hitting back in if yellow misses red.
If red has shot at blue on turn 2 and missed, leaving both balls on the east boundary, you should carefully evaluate your response based on the strength of your opponent. If you and your opponent are evenly matched but not world class players, or especially if your opponent is a much stronger player than you, then the best thing to do here may be to simply ignore the two balls on the east boundary and lag black into the middle of the court and wait for yellow to miss. This potentially presents you with an immediate break with a ball in the middle of the court.
In a match between two very strong players it would be unusual to see no shot taken on turn 3, and if hit, some attempt at digging out a 3-ball break.
In a situation where you have laid a supershot with blue, and red has lagged a couple of yards north east of your supershot ball, if there is no double target to be had from anywhere on the baulk lines, you must again consider your expectations after hitting third turn vs your opponent's likelihood of hitting fourth turn. As with previous options, if you are playing an opponent who on paper is a much stronger player, the percentage play is usually to lag the black ball into the middle of the court beside the other two balls (being mindful not to leave a double target from anywhere), which will put pressure on your stronger opponent to hit in or else concede the first break opportunity to you.
If you do want to shoot with black at one of the balls in the middle, then consider either shooting at the easterly ball from C1 (you may even be able to shoot hard at this without missing to B baulk), or alternatively shooting at a medium pace at either blue or red from the closest point on A baulk. If you do shoot from the closest point, be sure to hit at a pace to finish slightly south of H6, both so that black is not a short shot from B baulk, and so that any double target that you leave has plenty of space between the front and back ball.
If you are facing a third turn shot with black after red has cross-wired blue and red at the peg, check first to see if there is a point which you can lag to where blue won't be wired from black, and which won't be giving a double target from either baulk line - if there is such a spot, then that is the best place to lag to.
The fourth-turn response is usually actually more simple than then third-turn response - although there are more possible scenarios, they almost always result in yellow trying to roquet something.
When black has ignored a standard west boundary tice and insetad shot at (and missed) partner on the east boundary, the obvious response is to then try and hit red yourself from C1. If the placement of red is good, you should have ~50% chance of hitting in. Your break prospects after hitting red are actually quite good, as you will play a take off from red to blue & black, which will automatically be sending red towards H2 as a pioneer. On the other hand, a miss with yellow through red into C2 only gives fairly mediocre break prospects to blue & black in the next turn.
If black did indeed shoot at red (and miss) from C1 in the previous turn, then the obvious response is to shoot at red yourself, but from a point east of C1 so that a miss will leave yellow joined with red. If you hit red, your best line of play would be to roll red & yellow towards C1 and lay a rush for your next turn. A miss from red at yellow will of course leave black a shot through red and yellow from C2 to C1 but is likely to be a very long shot at a single ball target. A miss from black on turn 5 here also gives you a good chance at establishing a break on turn 5.
Having played red into C2 on turn 2, if black ignores red and simply joins with blue (which is likely), then against most players your best line of play would be to shoot at blue and black with red. Whether you shoot from A baulk or B baulk depends on factors such as the distance between blue and black (whether it is easy to make a double target from B baulk or A baulk) and the flatness of the east boundary. If the black ball missed blue badly on the left on turn 3, blue and black may well be 2+ yards apart on the east boundary, so there is a defensive option available to yellow as well - shoot from C3 through to C4, where a miss would not give blue & black any easy opening.
If you are the weaker player against a very strong opponent, then there is a case for shooting yellow at red - at 13 yards, it is significantly shorter than any other available shot and is therefore your best chance at winning the opening. Red missing yellow gives blue a relatively easy start and a probable break, but against a very strong opponent it can still be worth the risk.
With blue on the east boundary, if black has for some reason shot at red in C2, then assuming a double target has been left, your best aggressive option is to shoot at this, preferably hitting the northern ball, from B baulk. A hit or a miss here will give fairly good break prospects to whomever plays the next shot, given C2's proximity to H2 - a semi-good pioneer can usually be sent to H2 while obtaining a rush to H1.
If black has instead joined up a yard south of red on turn 2, you have no double target (except from C1, but let's not consider that). Now you have fundamentally two options - either shoot yellow at red which will give a good break opportunity if hit (and concede a good break opportunity to black if missed), or take a more defensive line by shooting yellow at blue from C3 into C4. If yellow misses this shot, it does give black a 1-yard roquet at red for the innings, however it not only gives no break prospects, but also requires black to play several good strokes in order to have a good leave. Black's take off from C2 to blue on the east boundary is a difficult shot, and if black doesn't succeed in roqueting blue in its next shot (either taking off short and missing blue, or taking off too far and sending black out) then yellow will have a 9-10 yard shot at blue & black from near C4.
The response here depends a lot on both the length of the supershot ball and what option black chose on turn 3. Firstly let's assume the most common scenario, with blue halfway between H5 and peg, and 1-2 yards west of the centre line, and red approximately peg high on the EB, and black in or near C4. In this situation the best option is normally to shoot at red from A baulk, with a miss joining up around 1 yard north of it. This leaves blue a 15-yarder at red & yellow but difficult break prospects for both players, whomever plays the next shot.
As the weaker player against a stronger player, a very aggressive line of play would be to shoot yellow from A baulk at black in C4 - this is very black and white, as a hit will give you a good chance for a 4-ball break and a miss will give black the same chance. As the weaker player, you can strongly consider this option.
Consider for a moment that black's third-turn shot missed red from A baulk, or perhaps missed red from west of C3, finishing 5-10 yards south of red. In this case, yellow for look for possible double targets available from B baulk. Consider, too, the shortest shot available, which is yellow at blue from A baulk - this is likely a 11-13 yard shot which, if hit, gives good break prospects to yellow because red and black are close together.
The vast majority of the time the best response to black ignoring red's duffer tice, is for yellow to shoot hard at red from B baulk. Usually a duffer tice is only 9-10 yards and so it will be, by far, the shortest shot for yellow.
An expection to this would be if blue & black are joined on the east boundary leaving a good double target from A baulk, and so you may want to consider shooting at that instead. Another option to consider is if black shot and missed blue from C3 to C4. If you are playing against a much stronger opponent you may consider shooting yellow at black from A baulk into C4. This shot is 3 yards longer than yellow at red from B baulk, but hitting this shot gives you vastly stronger break prospects than if you hit red first.
If black misses the duffer tice (red) gently, the logical response is to shoot hard at either red from B baulk or black from A baulk (whichever is closer). If black misses the duffer tice from C3 across to the west boundary, you may consider shooting at black from C1 through to C2, particularly if black is south of peg-high.
With blue on the east boundary, red a few inches north of C4 and black 1 yard north of blue, yellow's default response should be to shoot at red from A baulk. Hitting this shot gives a great break opportunity, as it is a very natural stroke to croquet red to H2 while approaching blue & black up the east boundary.
In this instance, you simply need to hit one of the balls on the east boundary - from either A baulk or B baulk, depending on length and available targets.
A supershot opening with lags by red and black essentially forces yellow to shoot at the closest ball. A very black and white opening, good break prospects for both players on turn 4 or 5, depending on whether yellow hits or misses. Often times, black will have take a gentle lag while attempting a roquet at either blue or red on turn 3, so this may also give yellow some target to shoot at on turn 4.Back to top
If you have gotten to the bottom of this article, you have probably realised by now that the number of opening options are vast. This article could not hope to cover every eventuality, and nor does it present any new or unseen openings; rather it serves to talk through the options and thought processes for choosing a particular option, and I hope it has been useful.