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Playing Polo

Born 2,000 Years Ago on the High Plains of Asia, Polo Thrives Today at Exclusive Clubs Around the World
Donna Morris
From the Print Edition:
Matt Dillon, Spring 96

For some people, galloping is enough. The strength of the horse carries them through, sates their desire for speed and wind and the thrill of the ground rushing away beneath their feet. For others, chess is sufficient. Facing the board, they delve deeper and deeper into the realm of strategy, planning attack and counterattack, surveying their opponent, waiting for the fatal move to seal a victory.

Those who yearn for both, play polo.

At its most simplistic, polo is nothing more than two teams, a stopwatch and a ball. And yet this game, played on the high plains of Asia, on the royal fields of England, in Argentine stadiums and American polo clubs, has captured the imagination of horsemen and generals, kings and cowboys for more than 2,000 years.

Polo players are a surprisingly diverse lot, ranging from weekend warriors who stable a few horses at a local club to professional high-goal players who play in the world's most prestigious tournaments. What is it about polo that has entranced players from writer Hunter S. Thompson to the Prince of Wales?

"It's the most exciting game there is," says Craig E. Liebel, a member of the United States Polo Association's Board of Governors. "Regardless of what level you play, if you've watched any local polo, they're out there trying as hard, and it's as intense as it is in the high-goal. If you compare it to golf, the enthusiasm that just a hacker-type golfer has for the game is equal to what Greg Norman has. The proficiency isn't there at the same level, but the interest and the dedication is certainly there."

Tim Gannon, senior vice president of Outback Steakhouses and an enthusiastic polo player, puts it this way: "Here's what I like: I'm a businessman, building 100 restaurants a year. There is tremendous stress and tension. And it's hard for me to go and do something and get all of the issues of the day off my mind. By playing polo, it's like a giant eraser, and it erases every issue that I've got going on in my life so I can focus purely on [the game].

"Number one is the speed, the danger, the amount of concentration, how you have to ride and the level of skill you need just to be able to hit the ball," says Gannon. "For me, it's a real way to get out there and forget about all the issues, really get out of my own body and mind for a while and totally immerse myself."

Whether it is weekend polo at a small club in the United States or professional, high-goal tournament play in Argentina, there are a few absolutes at the end of a big match: oats for the horses, beer for the grooms and fine cigars all around. And why not? After all, cigars and polo have a long history together.

Polo is thought to be one of the world's oldest team sports. An early form of the game was played by nomadic barbarians on the plains of Asia. References to the game appear in the writings of Alexander the Great.

The word "polo" is derived from the Tibetan word pulu, a term that described the willow root from which Tibetan horsemen carved polo balls. Some historians believe that polo spread throughout Asia as a result of the military conquests by Alexander the Great and other conquerors of his time, who may have used polo as an exercise to perfect the equestrian skills of cavalrymen. By the Middle Ages, polo was played from Constantinople to Japan.

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