Bill Rubin column: Packerland embraces ancient Viking game

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In the St. Croix Valley, neighbor may be pitted against neighbor when the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings play football twice a year. Of course there's always the odd family who cheers for the Chicago Bears, further adding to the rivalries in the valley.

Green Bay fans may be unaware, but an ancient Viking game, now adapted as a lawn game, is growing in popularity right here in Packerland. In fact, nearby Eau Claire, Wisconsin lays claim as the game's North American Capital.

The game? It's kubb (rhymes with tube); also called Viking chess. Others describe it as a cross between bowling and horseshoes. Players on opposite sides of a small rectangular field toss wooden batons at their opponents' blocks, or kubbs, and then try to knock over a single king piece in the center. Modern batons and blocks replaced the original game pieces a few centuries ago, said to be the skulls and femur bones of Viking enemies. Rather than shed blood, the marauding Vikings perhaps found civility and settled their differences by using skeletal remains instead of swords and clubs. Blessed are the so-called peacemakers.

Modern kubb is considered a social activity combining mental skill and physical strategy. Rivals soon turn into friends, leading to a cold beer or two during and after the contests. This can also be traced to the ancient Vikings. The mental image of a gritty Viking with a mug of grog in one hand a thigh bone in the other has been replaced by today's players opting for micro-brews and sun visors. Yes, society has come a long way.

Back to Eau Claire. Mr. Eric Anderson is credited with bringing kubb to Wisconsin's Chippewa Valley. He picked it up during a visit to Sweden followed by a grad school stint in the same country a few years later. Anderson came to Eau Claire in 2007 as a planner with a quasi-governmental organization. The Andersons played the obscure game of kubb as a way to meet people and then started the first tournament in the U.S., attracting 15 teams and 35 players in August 2007. Eau Claire now regularly hosts the U.S. National Kubb Championship. In mid-July, the 12th annual national championship was contested, drawing 128 teams and over 450 players from 12 states and four countries. It is one of the largest tournaments outside of Europe. Anderson called it "world class kubb." The economic impact of the national tournament in Eau Claire is estimated at around $160,000.

The U.S. National Kubb Championship is governed by an IRS 501(c)(3) non-profit entity. Tournament revenue is divided up among several charities. Anderson continues to serve as a tournament director for the U.S. Championship. Kubb is now taught in schools and Eau Claire is home to the largest weekly kubb league in the world. In conjunction with the U.S. Championship, Kid Kubb, the U.S. Junior Kubb Championship, open to players 12 and younger, was also contested. Kid Kubb is the largest kubb tournament for kids in the world. Anderson also launched WisconsinKubb.com; USAKubb.org and Kubbnation Magazine as media outlets for the lawn game.

Packers, Vikings, or occasional Bears—there are differences aplenty. Perhaps kubb can supplement bag toss games or serve as a social break at halftime. If St. Croix Valley residents see an odd looking lawn game in a front yard or neighborhood park, it's just kubb. And it rhymes with tube. Maybe there's a St. Croix Valley championship in someone's future. The economic impact is secondary. Meeting new residents and visitors come first. Followed by Skol, of course.