A Polo Player’s impression of Anantara King’s Cup Elephant Polo in Thailand
From 5-11 September 2011, the Anantara King’s Cup Elephant Polo took place for the 10th time in Thailand.
A diverse selection of interesting individuals from all over the world gathered in Hua Hin, Thailand for a fun event with a serious purpose. The tournament brings together players ranging from hoteliers, serving British Army officers, investors, an ex-fighter pilot, German nobility, an FBI Agent and SWAT team member, former New Zealand national rugby players, a Singapore police officer, property developers, a fitness guru, fashion designers, professional polo players and a number of ‘international men and women of mystery’ for the sole purpose to raise funds for the conservation and treatment of elephants in Thailand.
To support the raising of funds for elephants, Thailand’s Tourism Board fully endorses the event as does the local community. The event is held on a Thai Army base with infantry soldiers performing goal judging and side-line duties.
The Anantara Resort & Spa organizes this event with months of preparation in bringing together enough properly trained elephants from the north of Thailand. An Elephant Director is appointed to select the appropriate elephants and subsequently train both the elephants and their ‘drivers’ or mahouts in the rules of elephant polo. Contrary to their size, elephants are actually very gentle and sensitive creatures, much less aggressive in their herds than horses. As such, they don’t do ride-offs and make their discomfort known by trumpeting if another elephant is annoying them. The elephants do seem to enjoy the game of polo, so much so that initially when the game was played with small leather balls, the elephants used to stomp them because they loved hearing the popping sound.
The elephant polo game is played 3 a side on a field that is 100 metres by 60 metres and divided into separate parts. The goal area can hold only one elephant of each team at the same time, more than one constitutes a foul. Only two elephants of each team are allowed on the same half at any time. This means that the ‘center player’ will usually be on the fastest elephant as he will cover both the attacking and defensive half, but not likely go into the goal area (to either defend or attack). The other two elephants will have clear roles as either goalkeeper (polo’s no 4) or striker (polo’s no 1).
What makes the game fair is that in each 2 chukka match, the elephants are switched at the end of the first chukka. With each elephant string having a number 1,2,3 in decreasing order of speed (and usually increasing size of the elephant) the teams are usually fairly evenly matched on elephant power. Elephant polo mallets therefore range anywhere from 70 inches to as much as 100 inches.
The game of elephant polo is decidedly more tactical and strategic than horse polo. Whereas horse polo has been likened to playing golf during an earthquake, elephant polo is more like trying to catch a shark with an ocean steam liner. The ball moves as quick as with horse polo, but positioning is everything. You can play decent horse polo while thinking only one or two steps ahead, but with elephant polo it helps to be a master chess player that can think 4 or 5 steps ahead.
Avoiding mistakes in elephant polo is paramount in order not to give away the game. One positioning error or a mishit of the ball can easily result in a lost goal. Decide to make a play and you are fully committed. There is no quick stop and turn to correct bad timing or an incorrect direction. Thus the game of elephant polo is more about the goals you miss than the goals you make.
It seems that the better elephant polo players are very adapt in outplaying the opponent in a one on one situation. Using stir-ups and a strap across the thighs, elephant polo players lean out far and deep to reach the ball and juggle it across and around opponents. A hit through the legs of the opponent’s elephant is usually futile as the space to get the ball through is very small compared to the space the legs of the elephant take up.
The interesting thing about elephant polo is that contrary to horse polo, women in elephant polo are given an advantage. In elephant polo, women are allowed to use two hands on the mallet. Using a long size mallet with two hands makes the juggling for the ball easier and giving proper direction to a hit much more accurate. With the decreased speed of play, this makes the ladies a force to be reckoned with and this benefit is probably the reason why in this year there were 3 full ladies teams participating with one of the ladies teams reaching the semi-final round.
The ground and grass is very much like a polo field. Using a standard size polo ball makes the ball run fast indeed. The movement of the elephants does little damage to a well-laid field ensuring a great pitch during the whole tournament. The only damage done was when some elephants decided to snack on the polo field’s grass. Using their legs, they kicked loose the earth in big patches and used their trunks to pull out the grass. Funny if it wasn’t so destructive !
Contrary to my belief that this international selection of eclectic individuals would be more interested in partying, the matches are taken very seriously and results hard-fought. There is definitely method to the madness, highlighted by the fact that the highest handicapped teams ended up in the final. Ultimately, the Audemars Piguet team with polo professionals Uday and Angard Kalaan beat the local King Power team.
Written by Stijn Welkers, 14 September 2011