It’s how Maine accountants, kids, Harley riders and student sailors are finding their game. 

FARMINGTON — For Amy Bell, cornhole has always been a family game. The kind where 5-year-olds play alongside parents and grandparents. The kind where relatives cheer each other on from the comfort of their lawn chairs.

The kind with tournaments?

“When we started creating brackets, then it really upped the game,” Bell said.

This year, the winner will take home a miniature wooden cornhole trophy handmade by Bell’s dad. It will probably be spray painted gold. 

“I’m sure it’s going to be really competitive,” Bell said. “The hope is that we will continue (the award) year after year and the trophy will be passed from grand champion to grand champion.”

Cornhole is, essentially, beanbag toss. It’s the kind of game your pre-school teacher might have dreamed up to improve hand-eye coordination for a classroom full of little kids. Land the bag on the board and get a point; get it through a hole in the board and score three points.

But as simple as the game is, cornhole has a passionate — and increasing, and increasingly passionate — following. People like it partly for the camaraderie it inspires. Partly for the alcohol that so often accompanies it. Partly because absolutely anyone can play and have a reasonable chance of success.

It’s so popular that ESPN2 last year carried the American Cornhole League’s Open Singles Championship, where the grand prize was $20,000.

Yes, there is such a thing as the American Cornhole League.

Maine hasn’t gotten quite that fancy yet, but Sunday River Resort will host its fifth annual New England Cornhole Championship next Sunday in Newry. The event will feature a play-by-play cornhole commentator and a $300 purse for the winning team. 

Then there’s the three-week tournament being held this month in South Portland by the Maine Society of Public Accountants.

And L-A Harley-Davidson’s second annual cornhole tournament on Oct. 20 in Lewiston.

And the two fund-raising cornhole tournaments held recently by St. Dominic Academy in Auburn.

And the Maine Maritime Academy students who play on board their training ship.

And the many backyard champions.

All of whom — apparently regardless of age, profession or interest — bring their game when it comes to cornhole.

“We have some seriously coordinated, competitive people that can nail it,” Bell said. “It’s like shooting hoops. You want all air, right in.”

CORN WHATSIT?

It’s unclear when, precisely, cornhole was invented. The website Cornhole Worldwide shares a legend that a 14th century cabinet maker created the game after seeing children throw rocks into a groundhog hole. Others point out a patent for a cornhole-like beanbag game was issued in the late 1800s.

But cornhole scholars trace the game’s most recent surge in popularity to the Kentucky region. 

“The hottest spot for years was, like, Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania,” said Trent Henkaline, head of the American Cornhole Association. “But then it really spread with tailgating with football games. So when people would come to Ohio State games or UC (University of Cincinnati) games, they would see it as visitors and that, in my opinion, is what really spread the sport.”

The American Cornhole Association bills itself as the oldest cornhole organization in the country. It was founded in 2003. That’s how new cornhole’s popularity is.

Tailgating led to barbecues, which led to pub nights, which led to fundraisers. Beer and cornhole went together like hot dogs at a baseball game — which is to say the pairing wasn’t absolutely necessary, but it made both a lot more fun. 

It’s hard to say when Mainers really started to play the game. Bell, 37, remembers enjoying it with her parents and her father’s family when she was growing up. It was a great barbecue game, good for family get-togethers because it was easy enough for young kids to play but competitive enough to entertain adults.

Though they never called it cornhole.

“We called it potty,” she said. “Now everyone calls it cornhole and they think we’re weird that we call it potty.”

She’s mystified by the family name.

“Because it looks like a toilet? Because of the hole? I don’t know,” Bell said.

The family has since adopted the better-known “cornhole.” (So called because the bags are traditionally filled with corn.)

“We’re trying to evolve and change with the times,” she said.

Cornhole must have been heating up in Maine by 2014. That’s when Sunday River held its first New England Cornhole Championship, choosing it as something fun and a little nontraditional to complement its North American Wife Carrying Championship held during its weekend fall festival.

“We had noticed people were really loving cornhole. People were bringing boards to different events that we were hosting throughout the season and during summers,” said Karolyn Castaldo, Sunday River’s communications director. “We always had boards out for summer activities.”

Thirty-two teams showed up that first year. Photos from the games show a crowd four people deep in spots watching the action.

This year, Sunday River capped participation at 48 teams.

St. Dom’s started its first cornhole tournament last year. Dennis Russell, father of three, proposed the idea.

“We just saw a lot of people start to play,” he said. “There were some friends of ours that had some custom-made boards and we started to play with them. There were some custom-made boards that the school auctioned that we ended up buying, got into playing a little bit more and thought it was a cool way to get everybody together and have some fun.”

Sixty-four teams showed up for that first tournament. This year, the school held two tournaments and increased participation by more than 50 percent, with 40 adult teams one day and about 60 kids teams the other day. 

“It usually goes well with food and drinks and music and stuff like that. It just seemed like a nice way to build a community event for the school,” Russell said.

Last year, cornhole captured the interest of motorcycle riders at L-A Harley.

This year, it’s grabbing the attention of accountants.

Trish Brigham, executive director of the Maine Society of Certified Public Accountants, came up with the idea for a three-week fall tournament after her adult daughter raved about the cornhole events she’d joined while living in large cities. 

“In Washington D.C., that was how she met a lot of her friends. She relocated to New York City and that was the first thing she looked for, cornhole,” Brigham said.

It didn’t hurt that the games were usually held at a bar.

“In a bar setting — they tend to be in those types of settings — it’s an easy way to communicate in person without having to approach someone and start a conversation,” she said. “This is a low-pressure way to do it and to generate a conversation when both of your attentions are focused on where the beanbag is going.”

The Maine Society of Certified Public Accountants is holding its three-week tournament now at Fore River Brewing Company in South Portland. If all goes well, Brigham hopes to “take it on the road.” Maybe to Lewiston. 

“We originally started with accountants who need opportunities to de-stress sometimes — they tend to be the stereotypic very hard workers But we’re welcoming anyone across the board. You don’t have to be a member, you don’t have to be an accountant, we’d welcome anybody,” she said. “I firmly believe Maine’s a small town. We’ve got to work together. This is an opportunity to build community, particularly in our fractured society. Small things like this create connection.”

SO YOU WANT TO PLAY CORNHOLE

To play cornhole, you really only need two things: boards and bags.

To be authentic, the 6-inch-by-6-inch bags should be filled with dry corn kernels. However, cornhole is often an outdoor game and this is Maine.

“If you leave it out, like squirrels or mice or whatever will eat it,” said Henkaline, with the American Cornhole Association.

Bags filled with plastic pellets are an acceptable alternative. And less likely to get eaten.

For boards, wood is the only American Cornhole Association-approved material. Two feet wide and 4 feet long. The hole should be 6 inches in diameter and centered 9 inches from the top. 

Bell’s father, Jim Desjardins, hand makes his boards, including special ones for the upcoming Oct. 13 family tournament.

“I’ve heard there’s some (decorative) designs going into them. I’m not sure exactly what,” Bell said.

For players who aren’t handy with a saw, boards are available online. Closer to home, S&S Custom Cornhole Games in Kennebunk can make them for you: hand-painted sports logos, nautical themes,  business decals, “his and hers” boards, anything custom. 

“You can be competitive, too, for the style of your board,” said owner Sarah Seale, whose father started making boards as Christmas gifts for family.

Her boards cost $225 and up and come with handmade bags.    

Official games are played with two boards set 27 feet apart. Grownups toss their bag standing next to the opposite board, a 30-foot distance. Kids can pitch 21 feet from the hole.

The first team to get 21 points wins. If one team reaches seven points before the other team scores any points, the scoring team is named the winner and the match is declared a skunk.

If you don’t want to be on the bad end of a skunk — and, really, who does? — your toss will mean everything.

Techniques vary.

At the American Cornhole League’s Open Singles Championship that aired on ESPN2, champion Jordan Langworthy tended to toss flat and spin his bags, almost like a Frisbee. His opponent gripped his bags by their edges, throwing them with a tumble.

Bell prefers more of a glide.

“You want form. Work on your form, just like when you bowl,” she said. “That’s what you want with cornhole, nice and smooth.”

Experts also recommend players work on controlling the bag. Take time to line up the shot. Watch how other players toss the bag.

And, of course, enjoy.

“The most important thing is to just have fun,” Henkaline said.

In Farmington, at least 20 of Bell’s friends and family will do just that in a couple of weeks.

Bell’s mother battled breast cancer last summer. This fall she’s cancer free and celebrating with food and friends. And some cornhole.

“Everybody walked through her journey last year with her and my dad. This has just been a blessing that she’s here now and healthy,” Bell said. “We always talk about it that, hey, we’ll take today. Every day is a gift.”

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Elizabeth Lavalley reaches into the hole to retrieve a beanbag during the recent tournament at Saint Dominic Academy in Auburn. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Jim Desjardins, of Farmington, makes a cornhole board for his family’s upcoming tournament. (Submitted photo)

The gymnasium at Saint Dominic Academy in Auburn was filled with 72 teams during the second annual Kids Cornhole Tournament held Friday night Sept. 21. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

A cornhole board and pair of bags at the first New England Cornhole Championship at Sunday River Resort in Newry in 2014. Sunday River will host its fifth annual New England championship next weekend. (Photo courtesy Sunday River Resort)

Skylar Meserve shouts out that her partner scored four points at the end of a round during the recent tournament at Saint Dominic Academy in Auburn.. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Jack Porter follows through on a toss. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Sela Russell jumps for joy after scoring a cornhole. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Abigail Cushman watches her beanbag head toward the target. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Riley Daigle watches his teammate toss. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Skylar Meserve reacts as her opponents score to win the game. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Gabrielle Adams cheers on her teammate during the tournament. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

A beanbag heads toward the hole inside the gymnasium at Saint Dominic Academy in Auburn on Sept. 21 as 72 teams competed at the second annual Kids Cornhole Tournament. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Team “Peanut Butter Fluff” takes a turn at the first New England Cornhole Championship at Sunday River Resort in Newry in 2014. Sunday River will host its fifth annual New England championship next weekend. (Photo courtesy Sunday River Resort)

A crowd gathers to watch players at the first New England Cornhole Championship at Sunday River Resort in Newry in 2014. Thirty-two teams competed the first year. Participation will be capped at 48 teams this year. (Photo courtesy Sunday River Resort)

Norah Reeder follows through on a toss during the second annual Kids Cornhole Tournament at Saint Dominic Academy in Auburn Sept. 21. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Maine Maritime Academy students play cornhole while on a summer training cruise recently aboard the Training Ship State of Maine. (Courtesy Maine Maritime Academy)

Upcoming cornhole tournaments:

New England Cornhole Championship: 9:30 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 7 at Sunday River Resort in Newry. Entry fee is $30. Cash prizes. Deadline to sign up is Thursday, Oct. 4. For more information, visit SundayRiver.com or call 824-3000.

L-A Harley-Davidson’s Fall Cornhole Tournament: 11 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 20, at L-A Harley-Davidson in Lewiston. Entry fee is $20. Cash prizes. For more information, call 786-2822.


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