by Kimberly Rivers

The true origin of the game remains a mystery, from pig bladders filled with dried beans tossed on the ground by the indigenous Sauk Tribe from the area today called Illinois to Matthias Kueperman, a Bavarian man who in the 1880s saw two children enjoying tossing rocks into holes in a field. Seeking to replicate the ease of the game, and improve safety for the children, Kueperman built a board and filled small fabric bags with corn kernels or beans. Throughout the 1800s, newspapers across the country spread reports of people enjoying a game of tossing square fabric bags filled with corn at boards in Midwestern and southern states like Ohio and Kentucky.  

Whatever the real origin, the game has enjoyed a resurgence in the recent decade, and this coming weekend, Ventura will host the largest tournament in the world of cornhole. “The Throwdown” will draw over 330 teams from across the country and Canada, including some of the top professional players in the sport.

John Karayan started the cornhole tournament nine years ago as a way to fill up time at a parking lot party he held for his Downtown Ventura restaurant, Spencer Makenzie’s. But the cornhole tournament became so popular that he had to expand it to a block party, taking up the street. This year will be the first time the event is held at Plaza Park, a few blocks from his restaurant. Around 800 players are coming, and local hotels are filled.

“I started playing years and years ago,” said Karayan about learning to play when he was young during trips to the lake. He would play “back then on a homemade board, with bags made out of Levi’s.”

The tournament started small and has grown over the years, becoming a major draw for people involved with the sport. He said that the top East Coast players saw the amount of prize money and “knew they could win it,” so they came out and took the top prizes.

Teams tossing bags at last years cornhole tournament.

The word quickly spread and more teams made the trek to Ventura. Sponsors cover the production costs of the event. While the event is not a direct fundraiser, and there is no admission fee for the public, some proceeds from vendors will be donated to the local police community fund, the K-9 program.

“Cornhole was very unknown out here. I basically brought cornhole to the West Coast. I’m the first person to throw a tournament of substantial size on the West Coast. And now everyone who plays knows about Ventura, California,” said Karayan.

The simple game can be played as a single or with a team. Equipment is a slanted, wood board with one hole centered near the top of the “deck.” Each player has four small square fabric bags filled with corn kernels. For tournament play, regulation equipment is required.

A bag in the hole earns three points, a bag on the deck earns one. First player or team to score 21 wins. And games can last a while: The score is kept by cancelling out the opposing teams score. If player A has two bags on the deck (two points) and player B has three bags on the deck (three points), the official score for that inning is player B winning with one point.

Players this weekend will be competing for a total purse payout of $100,000, which draws over 330 teams from across the United States and Canada.

“The great part about cornhole is that everybody can play,” said Joe Schwartz, director of the California Cornhole Association (CCA), an organization he and his wife, Becky, founded in 2011 after he attended a tournament that he thought could have been run better. So they started to put on quality events, and build the prize payout amounts to help grow the sport. Today, the organization has chapters and directors throughout the state, all organizing sanctioned events, from weekend events at local breweries to larger tournaments.

Spectators at the tournament can keep an eye out for Ryan Windsor, Lester Price and Jaime Graham, some of the sports professional players. Some have even earned the coveted title “King of Cornhole.”

Events this weekend include the Premium Costa Blind Draw on Friday night with a $40 per person entry fee, purse payout of $4,600, with first place team (four players on a team) taking home $2,500. The weekend has “blind draw” tournaments, allowing anyone to play. Entry is free and the whole family is welcome. The most competitive events include cash payouts of $7,000 to $10,000.

Schwartz said the event is “a festival of cornhole. John [Karayan] has done a fantastic job of being a promoter. There is a lot of cornhole and it’s a fantastic party. Anyone can come enjoy the day and play.”

“Five- and 6-year-olds are pretty good at the game. Anybody can play,” said Karayan. No walking is involved, a person of any age or ability can play. “I think that is why it is so popular, it’s very accessible.”

Karayan encourages everyone to come out to the park this weekend: “It’s not just a tournament, it’s the ultimate cornhole experience.”

And for those who want to try a toss, Schwartz says, “It just takes stepping up and giving it a try . . . and being open to the opportunity to meet some good people, throwing one back and giving it a shot.”

“The Throwdown” cornhole tournament and music festival takes place Aug. 23-25 at Plaza Park, 651 E. Thompson Avenue, Ventura. www.thethrowdowncornholetouranment.com