Washers gaining popularity as ‘poor-man’s horseshoes’

There’s more than one way to tell a serious washers player.

If, for example, a stranger asks for a game of “washers,” you might respectfully decline and hold out for better competition. Those in the know refer to it as “war-shers.”

Another good clue is the wear and tear on the washers paraphernalia. Dents and paint chips are the calling card of the washers junkie, battle prizes to be flaunted like the Uruk-Hai army catapulting severed heads into Minas Tirith.

And then there’s the throwing technique.

“I do a controlled Frisbee,” said Mark Wilson, a Lawrence-based attorney and washers enthusiast. “I try to reduce the amount of lateral movement in the arm.”

If none of this makes sense to you, welcome to the world of washers. The lazy-day lawn game — often derided as a “poor-man’s horseshoes” — owns the unique distinction of crossing cultural and economic divides. Hippies, rednecks, yuppies, soccer moms — all are players of this “great American game.”

“It’s sort of like an underground activity; about as many people know about it as don’t,” Wilson said. “It’s such a game of style. Since it hasn’t been on television and people didn’t grow up watching others play it, everyone comes up with their own twist.”

Dead ringers

Though variations in scoring and setup abound, the basic premise of the game is consistent: Get some washers and make some holes and try to throw the washers in the holes. Like horseshoes, washers is a game of proximity. In the hole is best; closet to the hole is the next best.

“You can build it however you want,” Wilson said. “That’s part of the fun of it. You can build your own set and take pride in having something a little different.”

Wilson’s setup — two square boxes with polyvinyl chloride pipes in the middle — is probably the most common, but another popular design features a hole cut out of an inclined board. Other versions sport two or more holes of varying sizes, and some use carpet or sand to cushion the bounce.

Geoff Cox pitches a washer at the Walnut Valley Festival last fall. Cox has played washers since a classmate at KU's architecture school introduced him to the game.

Chris Reed, who plays washers with Wilson, said he’s played on all types of sets, from “low-rent” coffee-can sets to custom plastic-molded jobs.

“(Some of them) just totally screw up your game but that’s what they have at that house and you kind of have to respect that,” Reed said. “I would almost have to refuse to play with a three-piper, though, because to me that’s just not how washers are.”

Lawrence housemates Chris Williams and Steve Hammond play a backyard version that features two inclined boards about 15 feet apart with a three-inch hole in the middle. The boards — separated by a dirt pit and adjacent to an overgrown garden — are scarred by nearly a year’s worth of pitching marks.

“There’s some (trash)-talking, but it’s friendly competitive,” said Hammond, who sings and plays guitar for local thrash rockers Filthy Jim. “I can shoot one round completely (crappy) and the next one hit a bunch of ringers … it improves the more I drink.”

Williams found the game to be a popular attraction last September at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, where he helped organize an all-day tournament.

“If you’ve ever heard any of the stage seven recordings there’s a lot of clinking,” he said. “We’re thinking of revising next year for the loud factor.”

In the beginning

Rumors abound on the origin of washers. One theory says the game dates back to the days of the pioneers, when cowboys would take the wheels off their covered wagons and pitch washers (or whatever was handy) into the hub of the wheel for entertainment.

A more popular and generally accepted theory, however, is that the game was developed by hard-working rural folks with few resources available for recreation — a theory supported by lifetime player John Flora.

“We were poor people, and washers was one of the cheapest games we could play,” said the 56-year-old Flora, who uses the Internet from his home in Illinois to organize tournaments for players from a five-state area. “We’d find four washers laying around that were kind of the same size and then dig two holes and pitch ’em back and forth.”

Flora’s front yard contains to this day what could be considered the archetypal washers setup: two holes dug about 20 feet apart.

“I keep about a two-foot circle around ’em weed-eated,” he said. “When I get too old to stoop down I’ve got a magnet on the end of a pen-like thing and it stretches out about three feet … I got it at an auction for a dollar.”

While Flora enjoys the competitive aspect of tournaments, most players are simply backyard hobbyists. Lawrence couple Dylan and Kay Bassett decided to build a set after playing at a friend’s barbecue.

“It’s hard to find something that appeals to all age groups,” said Kay, who plays frequently with her sons Miles, 10, and Kade, 5. “I’m not real athletic so finding something like that that we could do together was a lot of fun.”

Barbecue seems to be a reoccurring theme among washers players, as KU senior Rory Flynn can attest.

“Barbecue and washers go pretty much hand-in-hand, and definitely some beers,” Flynn said. “We’ve adapted a few new rules after a couple.”

D.I.Y. or else

While most serious washers players build their own sets, a number of mom-and-pop manufacturers sell these online (neither Wal-Mart nor Target carry prefab sets, nor any local sporting goods retailers).

Basic washer-and-cup sets start at around $10, while more extravagant sets can fetch up to $100. Some companies even offer specialty washers with sports logos, painted designs and phrases like “determination” and “achieve.”

Washers organizations or leagues are rare since the game is most commonly played informally in backyards and at friendly gatherings. Though tournaments are frequently organized in the St. Louis area, Lawrence presently has no visible organization or tournament.

If there ever was one, it’s a good bet Mark Wilson would be there.

“I’d be all over that,” he said. “You wanna go and compete.”