The King of Games
“Let other people play at other things. The king of games is still the game of kings.”
There is debate about where polo was first played, with some scholars saying it originated among the Iranian tribes sometime before Darius I and his cavalry forged the first great Persian Empire in the 6th Century BC. Persian literature and art are full of rich accounts of polo in antiquity.
Dinvari, a 9th Century historian gives instructions to players including: ‘polo requires a great deal of exercise’, ‘if a polo stick breaks during a game it is a sign of inefficiency’ and ‘a player should strictly avoid using strong language and should be patient and temperate’. During the 10th century the Persian King Qabus also set down some general rules of polo including the risks and dangers of the game.
Polo was a popular royal pastime for many centuries in China, it is thought they would have been taught to play by Indian tribes, who in turn would have learned it from the Persians.
The polo stick appears on royal coats of arms in China and the game was part of the court life in the golden age of Chinese classical culture under Ming-Hung. In 910 AD Emperor Tai Tsu ordered all the other players beheaded after a favouite was killed in a match.
The Japanese learnt polo from the Chinese, while the game spread as far West as Egypt, with the Arab conquests of Asia Minor beginning in the 8th Century. The game reached Constantinople under the Byzantine Emperors. It is recorded that Emperor Hohannes Chinnasus, played until his leg and arm were crushed in a bad fall during a match.
The Muslim conquerors also took the game to the Indian subcontinent where it was played by the Muslim rulers and adopted by local Kings and Princes near Anarkali Bazaar in Lahore there is a monument to Sultan Qutabuddin Aibak, a 13th century King who died when his pony fell during a polo match.
Legend has it that Timurlane, a descendant of the great Khans, once ordered his cavalry to play polo with the heads of their captives.
Isfahan is a spectacular tribute to polo designed by Shah Abbas the Great. He planned his city around a vast central square, the Maidan-i-Shah. This was the royal polo ground, which was about 50 yards long and 150 yards wide and at each end were stone goal posts eight yards apart, which is still the regulation width of a polo goal.
For more than 20 centuries polo remained a favourite of the rulers of Asia – it was the nearest equivalent to a national sport in those times from Japan across Asia and the middle east to Egypt. As these once great Eastern Empires collapsed, however, the game of polo was preserved only in remote villages.
Evolution of Modern Polo
British officers started playing polo in North-East India. Their first polo club was formed at Cachar in 1859 and the Calcutta Cup started in 1862. The game rapidly spread among regiments all over India, with the oldest important tournament being the Inter-Regimental in 1877.
In 1891, the Indian Polo Association ws formed. By 1902, there were 175 clubs playing under IPA rules. The Calcutta Polo Club is regarded as the oldest polo club in the world. The British took the game to England and from there it spread to the rest of the world.
Today the top polo playing countries are Argentina, USA, Chile, Brazil, Mexico, England, Australia and New Zealand.
Language of Polo
If you are new to watching or even playing polo it can be a little daunting when you hear unfamiliar terminology. Please find below examples of the most frequently used terms in the sport.
A player is permitted to ride into another player so as to spoil his shot. The angle of the collision must be slight causing no more than a jar. The faster the horse travels, the smaller the angle may be.
The sideboards will not exceed 28cm high; the boards are positioned along the sidelines only.
Also called a period. There are normally six chukkas in a polo game each lasting 7 minutes plus up to 30 seconds in overtime. If, during the 30 seconds, the ball hits the sideboards or goes out of bounds, or if the umpire blows his whistle, the chukka is over. There is no overtime at the end of the 6th or last chukka unless the score is tied. If it is stil even after the extra 30 seconds an extra chukka will be played until the first goal is scored. A player returns to each chukka on a different horse. Although he may rest one for a chukka or two and play it again.
Length- max 275 metres; min 230 metres
Width – max 180 metres unboarded & 150 metres boarded
The goal posts which are collapsible on severe impact are 7.30 metres apart and 3 metres high.
Any time a ball crosses the line between the goal posts, it is considered a goal regardless of whether a horse or a mallet caused the ball to go through. In order to equalise turf and wind conditions, the teams change ends after every goal scored.
All registered players are rated on a scale of -2 to 10 (10 being the best)
Although the word “goal” is often used after the digit, it bears no relation to the number of goals a player might score – only to his ability. The handicap of the team is the sum total rating of its four players and in handicap matches the team with the higher handicap gives the difference in ratings to the other team. For example over 6 chukkas a 6 goal team will give a 4 goal team a two goal start.
A player spoils another’s shot by putting his mallet in the way of a striking player. A cross hook occurs where the player reaches over his opponent’s mount in an attempt to hook; this is considered a foul.
Should a team, in an offensive drive, hit the ball across the opponent’s backline, the defending team resumes the game with a free hit from their backline. No time is allowed for knock ins.
Also known as a “stick”. The shaft is made from a bamboo shoot and the head from either the bamboo root or a hardwood such as maple. These vary in length from 48 to 54 inches and are very flexible in comparison to a golf club or a hockey stick.
The left hand side of the horse.
A ball that is hit under the horse’s neck from either side.
The right hand side of the horse.
Out of bounds
When a ball crosses the sidelines or goes over the sideboards, it is considered out of bounds and the umpire throws in another ball between the two teams at that point. No time out is allowed for an out of bounds ball.
The best polo ponies are often of thoroughbred blood whose main qualities are heart, speed, wind, stamina and the ability to accelerate, stop and turn quickly, and whose temperament is amenable to the rigours of the game. There is no height limit for the horses, although most are between 15 and 15.3 hands. The age of a pony is generally between 5 and 15 years. Players concede that the pony accounts for 80% of their game.
Each of the four team members plays a distinctly different position. Since polo is such a fluid game, the players may momentarily change positions, but will try to return to their initial assignment.
No 1 is the most forward offensive player
No 2 is just as offensive, but plays deeper and works harder
No 3 is the pivot player between offence and defence and tries to turn all plays to offence
No 4 or the Back is a defensive player whose role is principally to protect the goal
This occurs when two riders make contact and attempt to push each other off the line of the ball so as to prevent the other from striking. The horses are the ones intended to do the pushing, although a player may use his body, but not his elbows.