AIKEN - For the novice polo spectator, true enlightenment doesn't come from just watching the players jockeying their horses for a chance to take a whack at the small, white ball.
To gain true insight, veterans of the ancient sport say the fan should draw an imaginary line through the path of the bouncing ball.
It all flows from there, said Thomas Biddle, a Realtor and an avid player and member of the Aiken Polo Club - the thundering back and forth, the goal scoring, the fouls and the penalty shots.
Mr. Biddle's club has put together the competition for today's Aiken Round Robin Polo Tournament. After 16 years of harness racing, polo debuts as the third and final leg of the Aiken Triple Crown at the Powderhouse Polo Field in Aiken's Horse District.
That imaginary streak, dubbed "the line of the ball," is semisacrosanct and is one of the twin pillars propping up the rules for polo. The line defines another pillar - the "right of way," a proprietary passage possessed by the last player to strike the ball to give chase along that imaginary stripe.
Opposing players can't yank their horses across a player possessing the right of way. They can't slam into that player at an angle steeper than 45 degrees.
These rules are designed to keep horse and rider relatively safe while maintaining the fast pace of the game, Mr. Biddle said.
"You cannot cross that line at a dangerous angle of attack," said Mr. Biddle, who won't be playing in today's tournament because of a chronic hip injury.
Subtler forms of galloping roughness are allowed. Players can sideswipe an opponent pursuing the line. A player can be unhorsed, rudely - as long as the right-of-way rule is obeyed. If not, a foul is called and the aggrieved team can be awarded a penalty shot from 30, 40 or 60 yards away from the goal.
Modern polo rules are descended from the guidelines British cavalrymen drew up in the 1850s, several decades after they were introduced to polo in India.
There are several quirky rules that might confuse the generic sports fan. Players can swing their mallets only with the right hand, an intended bit of uniformity that penalizes the left-handed player. The four-player teams switch goals after every score so the sun isn't in one team's eyes for an extended period.
The risk and the rush have kept Mr. Biddle in the game for 40 years, he said. There also is the draw of top-flight horsemanship applied to a coordinated team sport.
"If you cannot appreciate the ability of the horse, you will not enjoy polo," he said.
Rules of the Game
TEAMS: Four players a side two forwards, wearing Numbers One and Two; a center half, wearing Number Three; and, a defender, wearing Number Four.
FIELD: The largest in organized sport, 300 yards in length, 160 yards in width. Two, 24-foot-wide goals on each end with goal posts at least 10 feet high.
MATCH: Divided into six "chukkers" of seven minutes each with a three-minute break between each chukker. Players can ride the same pony for only two consecutive chukkers and must switch mounts.
SHOTS: Players use mallets to strike a ball through the defending teams goal. A "pony goal" occurs when a horse kicks the ball through the goal.
QUIRKY RULES: Teams switch goals after every score. Players can swing their mallets only right-handed.
KEY RULES: The line of the ball, an imaginary mark drawn through the path of a struck ball. The last player to strike the ball has "the right of way," to pursue the ball. Opposing players cannot block the right of way, but can bump a player off the line at a shallow angle and can unhorse the player.
Reach Jim Nesbitt at (803) 648-1395 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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