Skip to main content
Culture

Cornhole (yes, cornhole) is going pro

Born in Europe — or maybe China — this simple game took hold in the American Midwest. Now, it’s aiming for the Olympics.

By Glenn McDonald

It’s a beautiful spring evening in Selma, North Carolina, a small town about 20 minutes southeast of Raleigh. Inside the local Moose Lodge — technically, the Loyal Order of Moose Lodge #1796 — a crowd of locals has gathered for a longstanding, informal, twice-weekly cornhole tournament. Five-dollar entry fee. Double elimination format. Beer is encouraged.

My guide to this evening’s competition is 23-year-old Tyler Poythress, a FedEx employee from nearby Wilson, North Carolina. Poythress is a friendly and unfailingly polite young man with the lean build of a high school baseball pitcher, which he was. He’s also one of the few people in the country who can call himself a professional cornhole player.

“You gotta have the right bags — it’s just like bringing your own bowling ball or golf clubs,” he says of the sport, eyeing his first shot.

You have almost certainly seen cornhole, an increasingly ubiquitous summer activity in which people toss bean bags into an angled platform with a hole drilled into the far end. Most of the guys at the Selma tournament — and it’s all guys — have been playing cornhole at the Moose for years, in a more or less casual way. The vibe is loose and, just down the hall, the Moose bar is open for after-tournament activities.

But within the lodge and far beyond, this casual game is becoming more competitive, more organized, and more potentially lucrative. For about six years now, Poythress has been taking his game on the road, playing in regional and national tournaments. Just a few weeks back, he and his professional playing partner, Jay Corley, won $3,000 at a major cornhole tournament in St. Louis.

And that’s just the start, for Poythress and other ambitious players. In the past 16 years, cornhole has spread quickly out of the American Midwest, catching on across the United States and beyond. It has spawned no fewer than three official organizations competing to serve the growing U.S. market: The American Cornhole Association (ACA), the American Cornhole Organization (ACO) and the American Cornhole League (ACL).

In 2016, the sport took a giant leap forward in terms of visibility when ESPN3 televised the ACL Championship of Bags in Cherokee, North Carolina. In July 2017, the ACL moved up to ESPN2, in a July 4 event. This August, the sport will return to ESPN2 for a daylong broadcast of the faux channel “ESPN8 The Ocho,” in a lineup that also includes dodgeball, ping pong, and chessboxing.

The ACL is setting its sights outside of America, too, which introduces a whole new set of challenges. 

“We recently expanded into Germany and found out that the boards they’ve been using are a foot shorter than regulation boards in the U.S.,” says Trey Ryder, the organization’s media director. “We asked them, how did you get the specs on these boards? Well, it turns out a player had come to the U.S. and saw a tournament that was using plastic lawn game boards. He thought that was the official size, and he modeled his after those boards.

“So now we’re trying to get Germany back to the correct equipment size,” Ryder says with a sigh. Such are the headaches of recreational cultural hegemony.

“Our ultimate goal,” Ryder says, “is to make cornhole an Olympic sport.”


How does a game so casual become so official, so aspirational? With cornhole, the evolution has been gradual. No one knows for sure who invented the game or where it began, though in its essentials, cornhole is similar to older tossing games like horseshoes, washer toss, or the British lawn game quoits, which features pegs and metal rings.

The bean bag element appears to have come into play in the 1800s, when quoits evolved into a more indoor-friendly parlor game in Europe. An American version of that game, called Faba Baga, used a vertical slanting board and multiple holes worth different points. But the modern incarnation of the game, as it’s played today, is an enduring mystery.Amateur historian Peter Jensen Brown has put together a persuasive history of the game over at his delightful Early Sports blog.

“There are so many theories, so many rumors,” Ryder says. “Some people think it ultimately came from China in the 1700s. Some say it started in the Midwest, some say Kentucky, some say Cincinnati.”

Whatever its origins, modern proponents of the game agree that cornhole has a fundamental marketing problem: its name. As an American idiom, “cornhole” has several unfortunate connotations — check the crowdsourced word warehouse Urban Dictionary for a half-dozen evocative, not-safe-for-work definitions. It’s ironic, Ryder says, because the actual etymology of the word is quite boring.

“Back in the old days, the bag used to be filled with corn,” he says. “You can still go to tournaments that use corn, and people that make their own bags often use corn. The problem is that when corn gets wet, it puffs up, then breaks down. Now we use plastic resin.”  

“I think they like cornhole because it’s something they can play and still have a drink in their hand.”

Cornhole matches are generally played with two sets of bags, four bags to a frame. A bag that lands on the platform — and stays there until the end of the frame — is worth one point. A bag that goes through the hole is worth three points. Winners are determined using a system called cancellation scoring: If Team A scores nine points and Team B scores four, then Team A is awarded five points for that frame. The first team to 21 points wins.

The simplicity is surely part of the game’s broad appeal, says Trent Henkaline, president of the American Cornhole Association. “Older people can play it, kids can play it, men or women,” he says. “I’ve played against 80-year-olds who’ve beat me, I’ve played against 12-year-olds who’ve beat me.”

Cost of entry is low, too. Casual players can buy a backyard kit for $30 right now at Target. Many dedicated players make their boards and their bags themselves. Charity tournaments are increasingly popular because they’re inexpensive, easy to organize, and open to everyone who can toss a 16-ounce bag.

“My nephew and his wife had a monogrammed cornhole game at their wedding,” says Kathy Thomas, chief strategy officer with the retail chain Half Price Books. “I thought it was crazy, but people actually were playing. I think they like it because it is something they can play and still have a drink in their hand.”

In massive stadium parking lots, kids’ birthday parties, and backyard barbecues, the rules can be loose. Kids might throw from the halfway point. Grownups might have to drink when they miss. But as the game moves toward officialdom, the standards are getting stricter.

The emerging rules for competitive play, generally agreed upon by the three major governing bodies, require each board to be two by four feet with a six-inch circular hole nine inches from the top. Regulation play so egregiously flouted in Germany sets the boards precisely 33 feet apart. Players must toss from behind a foul line in the “pitcher’s box,” the rectangular area directly to the left or right of the platform.

Ad hoc and casual contests merge those official rules with the chance to win nominal amounts of money. Poythress says a venue like the Moose Lodge can draw 17 or 18 teams, for an entry fee of $5 or $10 per player, with the first-place team winning half of the pot or more. If the tournament is held at a commercial establishment, the money goes up: a bar might match the pot.

As the potential payoffs of cornhole increase, it’s natural that professionalism will follow, says Eric Kurlander, a sports historian at Stetson University. Indeed, he says, cornhole appears to be moving along the traditional trajectory of sports in America.

“If you look at any of our professional sports, there’s always a tipping point,” Kurlander says. “What you’re seeing right now is this game that’s been around — at parties and state fairs or whatever — it’s becoming more of a spectator sport. There’s a little money involved and that provides incentive, so those with the skill set are getting better.”

Early professional baseball started much the same way, he says, with players making money in tournaments. “It’s the same with basketball, with football. It’s not a salaried job yet, it’s not full-time money, but you can bet these guys are hoping that the sport will get big enough that they can become true professionals.”


Given the potential stakes, the vibe at the Moose Lodge ranges from casual to rather serious. Poythress points around the room, which now has around 20 players standing in pairs at cornhole platforms set exactly 33 feet apart. “That guy there, he throws it lower and harder. This guy here, watch this guy. You see how fast that bag slides up there?”

As the first round proceeds, it’s clear that all these guys are good at this game. Virtually every bag tossed hits the platform. Most stay there. An astonishing percentage go straight through the hole on the fly. If you’ve ever played the game, you know it’s not supposed to look this easy.

Then it’s Poythress’ turn, and — swear to god — he throws his first bag directly into the hole. That’s called an “airmail.” He does the same with his second shot. And his third. And his fourth.

“That’s called a ‘four-bagger,’” I’m told by the guy sitting next to me, who seems strangely unfazed by this goddamn miracle that just occurred. “That last shot, some call it a ‘Drano.’”

Cornhole’s accelerating popularity in recent years has generated a whole vocabulary of evocative terminology for specific shots or game-state scenarios. You’ve got your hangers, your hookers, your dirty rollups. Your skunks, your sliders, your woodies.

Poythress hopes that mastering the subtleties of the sport will help him make the jump to full-time player sometime in the next two or three years. In fact, he and his playing partner just picked up corporate sponsorship, from an outfit called Tailgate Nation.

Ryder says the ACL now organizes hundreds of tournaments around the country. The bulk of these events are small gatherings, like the Moose Lodge tourney. If players are registered with the ACL, they can earn points toward qualifying for the larger regional and national competitions. An in-house tech platform keeps track of rankings and statistics. In March, around 750 players traveled to compete in the national tournament in St. Louis.

Ryder says the league has about 120 pro-level players. Is there enough money in the ecosystem yet for them to make a full-time living?

“We’re not there yet, but we’re close,” Ryder says. “Our top-level players right now, across an entire season, are taking in about $20,000 a year.”

Meanwhile, just a couple clicks down the cornhole ladder, old-timers like Dickie Adams — a regular at the Moose Lodge game — can pick up enough money to at least make the traveling worthwhile.

Tristan Long, Jr., left, gets a lesson in cornhole from Michael Cary during a street festival in Charleston, W.Va. Photo by Christian Tyler Randolph/Charleston Gazette-Mail

“I’ve played competitively six or seven years, 12 years if you count backyard barbecues,” Adams says. “I’ve played in Tuscaloosa, I’ve played in Cleveland, in California. This will be four years in a row in California. It depends on the tournament. If it’s a well-run tournament, you’ll go back to it.”

Poythress returns to try to help the poor Yankee reporter understand the fundamentals of the game. He notes that a disproportionate number of young cornhole pros are former baseball pitchers. That’s no coincidence.

“It’s muscle memory, it’s doing the same thing every time,” he says. “When you throw it you want it to spin, like a frisbee going through the air. You want to throw it flat and land flat and it’ll slide ride up the board. Now, see right here, this bag is actually a little bit faster….”

Poythress is an ideal ambassador for the sport. He’s patient. He’s friendly. And he understands that, like so many enduring games, cornhole is deceptively simple. It’s easy to learn but hard to master. If and when cornhole becomes America’s next big cultural sports export, Poythress hopes to be a paid pioneer.

“I’d like to go pro as soon as I can,” he says. “This really is a great game.”

Published on

Glenn McDonald is a writer based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Top photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Culture

This college athlete lost her leg, learned to run again, and is aiming for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics

Noelle Lambert just wanted to return to her team after a moped accident. Instead, she found a different athletic path as a track sprinter, with a new attitude about practice, glory, and teamwork.

By Lauren Daley

Stories in Culture