Wingardium Nerdiosa: In Which I Participate In A Quidditch Match, And Learn A Great Many Things

  • Rick Chandler

It it wasn’t for the mawkish terminology, social stigma and of course the chafing, quidditch would be a major sport already. As it is, it’s probably the fastest-growing sport in the U.S., at least among college students and young tech professionals. And, quite surprisingly to me, it’s a lot of fun.

Yes, now it can be told: I have played an organized game of quidditch. I use the term “organized” loosely, because the rules are somewhat scatterbrained and open to interpretation, at least at the informal practice level. And that’s the only level at which I’m qualified to participate.

Here are the rules highlights, as I understand them:

* You can tackle girls, and girls can attempt to tackle you. I cannot emphasize this more.

* There’s a “quaffle” and two “bludgers”, otherwise known as a volleyball and two dodgeballs. If you ignore the Harry Potter terminology and just call them the latter, it preserves your sanity.

* The broom is actually a plastic PVC pipe which must be kept between your legs at all times. This makes it very hard (for me) to run, move laterally, or look the least dignified. But others seem to have no problem with it.

* The three hoops (goals) are of different heights, which signifies nothing at all. The object is to get the volleyball into one of the hoops.

* It’s basically a mixture of lacrosse, dodgeball, water polo and capture the flag. With a broom added, because without that important feature, J.K. Rowling would find every player and vigorously sue them. She would not allow her sport to veer too wildly from her series of juvenile-friendly novels.

REASON QUIDDITCH WELL NEVER CATCH ON AS A MAJOR SPORT: No child will have a poster of a quidditch player on his/her bedroom wall. The broom-between-the-legs thing ruins the drama. Can you imagine Kobe Bryant or Peyton Manning depicted that way? I rest my case.

But like, I said: it’s actually fun to play. After writing a couple of posts about quidditch earlier this month, I received severe rebukes from the quidditch-minded portion of our readership (who knew?). Most centered on my perceived lack of knowledge of their sport, and virtually none picked up on the fact that I was satirizing the activity, teasing the players, and generally dancing about the Internet with a lampshade on my head.

Because quidditch is serious business.

One man who took a different approach to my writing was Kevin Peterson, who owns and is a quidditch bigwig. He put me in touch with The Silicon Valley Skrewts, which is the San Francisco Bay Area’s biggest community team.

The Skrewts practice each Thursday and Saturday, and they invited me to come out and play in a scrimmage.

The Skrewts were the first real organized community quidditch team in the western U.S. Not even all of the Harry Potter movies had been released when this merry band of techies — led by Sam Fischgrund and a bunch of his co-workers at Disney Playdom in Palo Alto in 2010.

That’s a deep pedigree in quidditch years: the sport was only invented in 2006 in Vermont, and didn’t really catch on elsewhere back east for two or three years after that.

Here’s how the Skrewts describe themselves on their web page:

“We’re a unique blend of people: athletes and people who never played sports before, Harry Potter fans and people who have not read or seen any HP, nerds and – ok, we’re all nerds. More importantly, our team is like family, and when not playing quidditch, we hang out, grab In-N-Out, play board games, watch Doctor Who, suit up for laser tag, and party together.

“We regularly face off against our local competitors including SJSU, Stanford, and Berkley, and we’ve competed as far away as World Cup V in New York City. Eventually, everybody becomes a Skrewt, so you might as well join our Facebook group now.”

There is no escape, and I’m living proof.

I’ve played rugby, football, baseball and basketball at various competitive levels in my life, but really nothing else. Like you, I mocked quidditch, as the version in the HP movies is confusing, counter-intuitive and contains gratuitous amounts of Ron Weasley.

As for movie quidditch, any sport in which you are allowed to fly underneath the bleachers and still be in play cannot be taken seriously. Plus: you’ve got people in the stands chanting various spells which interfere with play; stick-gouging and other blatant fouls by Slytherin House which are never called; and of course there’s the capes. Name me one other sport in which capes are worn.

Thankfully, in the earth-bound, muggle version of quidditch, no one wears those. Also, no knee socks or Harry Potter number font.

Teams are comprised of seven players each, two of which have to be girls. If four girls aren’t available, there are what I call “Mrs. Doubtfire” options. I doubt that anyone is checking.

Yes, there are positions. Keeper is what you’d expect, but he can roam from the keeper zone and get into the mix at the opponent’s goal. Only certain players can shoot the quaffle (volleyball … see photo above), and there are only two beaters (those who wield the dodgeballs, or bludgers –the red balls in the photo above). The beaters roam the field and throw the bludgers at those they deem a threat — and if you’re hit, you have to retreat to your own goal and touch it before returning to play.

In my case, that took considerable time, as I was hit by bludgers about 20 times. A record, I think.

I scored no goals, but did have one tackle (yes, you can tackle the person with the quaffle), which all involved agreed was well executed. “Did you play football?” asked Sam. Yes, I had.

But mostly I was ineffective, as the other players were faster and understood the rules a lot better. There’s a strategy to quidditch that takes months and years to master, and it’s evolving all the time.

“Every year at the World Cup you’ll see a different formation or tactic that no one’s ever used before,” said Fischgrund, a slight, friendly guy who served as my quidditch mentor. “The sport is so new that it kind of evolves before your eyes. That’s part of what makes it so intriguing.”

We didn’t start the game with a golden snitch — oh, yes, they have those too. About 20 minutes in, one showed up. In civilian quidditch, the snitch is a guy dressed in yellow, with a flag attached to a tennis ball stuck into the back of his pants. The snitch is a neutral participant, affiliated with neither team, but not a ref. And what other sport has that? A seeker can grab the flag and the game is over — that’s catching the snitch, and its worth 30 points. The snitch-guy runs around the field and fends off advances from the seeker, like an athletic version of a first date. At times their struggle is completely separate from the other action on the field. They’re in their own little world. Very strange.

The Skrewts finished in the Sweet 16 at the recent Quidditch World Cup VI, out of more than 80 teams entered. They never have the biggest or fastest athletes, instead relying on their knowledge of the game and smarts to get them by. Teams from the University of Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State are perennial powerhouses … they take it very seriously and play a brand of quidditch that can only be called cutthroat. It can be a bruising sport, in the mode of rugby. Speed is also important. The Longhorns won the championship this season.

After our game I asked the group what the sport would be like without the brooms. There was an uncomfortable silence, before a guy named Greg offered: “Not really much difference. But the lack of mobility can be an equalizer, and that’s what draws some people in.”

Left unsaid was the unspoken truth that all quidditch players understand: this is an ode to J.K. Rowling, Hermoine, Snape and all who launched this game into the national consciousness. To remove the brooms would be to deny what quidditch really is. It’s for nerds.

And I mean that in a good way. We all have our inner nerd, and to deny that would be wrong. We also all have our brooms to bear.

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