If you can roll a ball, you can play bocce.
But it takes years of practice to master the game brought to America by Italian immigrants.
“It’s the most easy game in the world,” says Salvatore Cascone, president of the Auburn Bocce Club. “You don’t run. You don’t jump.”
You just roll a big ball down a dirt court toward a smaller ball. Whoever gets closest to the small ball – variously called the pallino or pallina, depending on who’s doing the spelling – gets a point.
But there are strategies to bocce (pronounced BOH-chay in Italian, BAH-chee in English) that can only be gleaned from watching and learning from experienced players.
Start with this: Bocce is not bowling.
If you approach bocce as you would a bowling alley, your balls will vault past your target.
There’s nothing to knock over in this game. It’s all about a subtle approach to the pallino.
Cascone advises keeping your knees bent, and the ball low to the ground, almost touching, before release.
But there’s a power game that can be played as well. You can use one of your four throws to knock your opponent’s ball out of the way, or to nudge the pallino closer to your own previously thrown ball.
“There’s millions of strategies,” says Cascone. “It takes years to learn.”
Bocce is believed to have its roots in ancient Rome, although some sources claim that the Romans learned it from the Egyptians. Several members of the Auburn club grew up playing the game, either in Italy or in America.
Tony Riconosciuto of Tacoma remembers playing the game as a boy in the southern Italian region of Calabria.
“We didn’t have bocce balls like they have now,” he says. “We used rocks – anything we could play with. We used to go to the river for them.”
Peter Di Turi of Auburn, one of the club’s founders, grew up playing the game in Brooklyn with his grandfather. While bocce was traditionally played by men, today women and kids enjoy the game as well.
“It’s not just Italians, and it’s not just old folks,” says Di Turi. “We have a lot of players of different ages, different backgrounds. It’s a game that brings people together.”
LEARN TO PLAY
Helping to build bocce bonds is one goal of the Auburn Bocce Club, which is part of the United States Bocce Federation.
The 70-member club claims to be the largest nonprofit organization in the Pacific Northwest dedicated solely to the game of bocce.
In addition to hosting tournaments and practices at Les Gove Park in Auburn, the group also offers lessons for members of the public who want to learn the game.
In 2004, club members – with assistance from a city of Auburn grant – helped build the four bocce courts at the park. They now help maintain the courts, brushing, raking and rolling the court surface to keep it smooth.
“We wanted to build something that was functional, but professional at the same time,” says Di Turi.
The Les Gove courts are patterned after the clay courts often found in other, drier parts of the country.
To promote the drainage needed in the soggy Northwest, the Auburn courts are built on layers of gravel, specialized landscaping fabric and rock. The top layer is a mixture of crushed sandstone and oyster shells, says club secretary Ronnie Beyersdorf.
“It stays pretty well packed,” he says.
But unfortunately, the courts can be damaged by bicycles or skateboards. That’s one reason the club is seeking a new city grant to pay for fencing around the courts.
In exchange for being able to use the park courts, Auburn Bocce Club members continue to help maintain the courts. And they welcome new players to the game.
From mid-March through mid-October, club members are at the courts from 3 to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays (weather permitting). Anyone who wants to learn to play is welcome to stop by.
Bocce can be played on any surface, from grass to dirt. At the Tacoma Elks Club, Riconosciuto plays on courts lined with indoor-outdoor carpeting. There are two sets of courts at the Elks Club – one on a sunny outdoor deck, and another with a covered roof for play during rainy weather.
You need not be an Elks member to play. Anyone interested in learning the game can sign in as a guest. It costs $1; money raised from the bocce games goes into Elks funds that help kids and members of the military, Riconosciuto says.
Bocce games at the Elks Club take place starting at 5 p.m. Tuesdays and 1 p.m. Saturdays.
Riconosciuto also plays on courts at Whittier Park in Fircrest and helps host a bocce tournament annually at Fircrest Fun Days.
Tournaments are one of the ways bocce players keep competitive. Earlier this summer, the Auburn club hosted a statewide championship tournament.
On Sept. 19, members will host a tournament at Les Gove against bocce players from Seattle and on Sept. 26 and 27, they’ll be at Festa Italiana at Seattle Center.
What keeps bocce players coming back to the courts?
“The appeal is it’s a simple game,” says Di Turi.
Adds Beyersdorf: “It’s popular. It’s a good day at the park.”
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635