Captivating, heart-stopping, thrilling, enthralling - the list of superlatives used to describe the game of kings is almost endless. And yet there is nothing that completely captures the essence of it, the fascination that begins the moment you first glimpse the vast, imposing green of a prime polo field, and that builds as eight riders thunder in your direction, hooves drumming on the turf. Your connection is immediate, almost primal; the experience, unforgettable.
You don't have to play to love the game. If you admire excellence, if the pursuit of perfection gives you a special tingle, polo is right up your alley. You'll be a perfect fan.
The basics are elegantly simple. The game is played between two teams of four mounted men on a field that measures 300 by 160 yards (as big as nine football fields) with goalposts at either end. The object is to move a ball downfield and through the goal in four to six periods of play known as "chukkas." Each chukka is seven minutes long. There are no time-outs except for injuries, penalties, or unsafe situations. And no replacement of players is allowed except for injuries.
Each of the four players is given an area of responsibility designated by a jersey number that indicates that area. The forward is designated Number 1; the most defensive player is called Number 4, or the Back. (There is no goalkeeper, as in football.) The mid-action players are designated Number 2 and Number 3, with the latter controlling the attack and coordinating the defence. He's usually the highest-rated player on the team and the de facto captain. This alignment is designed to be fluid, however, and to change quickly under game situations.
The players have assignments on defence as well as a zone to play on offence. That is, they each have a man to cover when the action shifts, as it often does, countless times in a chukka. Strict limitations on what is and is not allowed in ball-handling and riding are meant to inject a degree of safety into what is inherently a dangerous game. Control of the game rests in the hands of the two mounted umpires and a third man, the referee, stationed at midfield.
The rules are based on something known as the "line of the ball." Each time the ball is moved, a line of travel is created that extends forward and backward from the ball. Players use that line to plan their approach to the ball, keeping it on their right (or off) side, where they have the right-of-way. Crossing the line close to an oncoming player who has the right-of-way may be dramatic, but it's often dangerous and thus is a foul. Cutting that line as close as possible is common in high-goal polo.
A swing at the ball can be blocked by a hook from another player's mallet or interfered with indirectly by a ride-off. Distantly related to a block in football, but with the added emphasis of a ton of horse and player, a ride-off is more like a body check in hockey - every bit as hard, fast, and effective.
A ball that goes over the backline as the result of a missed goal is knocked back in by the defending team without stopping the clock. But a ball hit over the back line by the defending team gives the attackers a safety 60. The clock is stopped and the ball is placed 60 yards out from the goal with a free hit awarded to the attackers.
If a foul is called, the fouled team is awarded a penalty shot - a free hit from a predetermined distance into a guarded or unguarded goal. Most high-goalers can convert penalty shots into goals with a regularity that exceeds free-throw percentages in basketball, which makes drawing the opposition into a foul a good tactic.
The penalty shot has much more in common with a free throw in basketball; the clock is stopped and the players wait for the hit from their positions around the goal. A dramatic pause in the action, it often provides some of the most suspenseful moments in the game. When the game starts, you will quickly learn there's no such thing as the right player to watch, and no one place to look. Take it all in. It's sort of a Zen theory of polo spectating, but it's a good place to start.