PICTURED: John Karayan, owner of Spencer Makenzie’s Fish Company and founder of the Throw Down Cornhole Tournament and Music Festival. Photo by Luis Chavez

by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

The world’s largest cornhole tournament returns to Ventura this weekend, and it’s bigger and better than ever!

More than 2,000 players from across California, the United States  and Canada, plus some teams from England as well, have signed up to compete in the Throw Down, which takes place Aug. 27-29 at Surfer’s Point Live at the Ventura County Fairgrounds. And it’s not all about size: This year, there’s more than $200,000 dollars on the line, making the Throw Down one of the most lucrative cornhole competitions as well. Live music on Friday and Saturday, food, craft beer, vendors and more will add to the festive atmosphere. 

If you build it, they will come

It’s a far cry from the tournament’s humble origins as a simple activity at the Annual Summer Block Party put on by Spencer Makenzie’s Fish Company. The casual seafood joint, located at the corner of Ash Street and Thompson Boulevard in downtown Ventura, has been a local’s favorite for years, particularly for its award-winning fish tacos. Every summer, owner John Karayan would take over a section of the neighborhood to host a community-wide event with live bands, food and more.

“The first year we had music and we blocked the whole street off,” explained Karayan. He found, however, that often people would come listen to a band or two and leave afterward. “I felt we needed more activity to engage people.”

Karayan recalled the days of his youth in the 1990s, when he and his friends would hang out at Lake Nacimiento in San Luis Obispo County.

“We’d drink beer and play cornhole all day,” he remembered fondly. Tossing bean bags into holes cut into raised boards struck him as the perfect, low-key activity that could appeal to people of all ages and abilities, and keep attendees at the party.

When Karayan first introduced cornhole, in 2010, the initial “tournament” consisted of 32 two-person teams competing for a grand prize of $100. It was a smash hit, so Karayan continued to offer it, with more teams and bigger prizes every year. 

David Garcia, senior graphic designer of Dodos Design in Santa Paula, handled marketing and advertising for Spencer Makenzie’s, and began helping out with the tournament in 2012.

“It was just a marketing thing,” Garcia recalled. “We set a couple of courts up. Not a lot of teams. It was fairly easy and fun . . . not really so competitive.”

Cornhole became a beloved feature of the block party, and then really took off in 2013. That year, in an effort to attract more and better players, Karayan upped the ante with $3,000 in prize money, including a $1,000 grand prize. Suddenly, professional cornhole teams — particularly from Nevada and Arizona — took an interest.

“A team from Arizona came out and won the money,” Karayan said. “The word spread in the tournament community.”

Entering the big leagues

At the time, cornhole wasn’t particularly popular on the West Coast — it was more of an East Coast and Midwest thing. But a few things attracted professionals to what would become known as the Throw Down.

“Our event was unique,” Karayan said. “It wasn’t just cornhole; it was a party. People came with their families as a vacation . . . Who wouldn’t want to come to a California beach town?”

Whereas other professional tournaments usually offer cornhole and nothing else, often with boards set up in a nondescript location (“There’s no energy,” Karayan clarified), the Throw Down was, and is, a full weekend of entertainment for the whole family. Food, music, vendors, an appreciative audience, amateurs of all ages having the opportunity to toss a bag — tons of fun for everyone.

In addition, Garcia explained that, “We are the only tournament that gives a 100% payout. We are definitely a tournament for the players.”

By 2014, the Ventura competition was on the map. The Throw Down offered substantial prizes with full payout, and lots of energy and activity to go with them. Professional players from across the United States began signing up — the event would usually sell out in less than an hour — and attendance grew.

“We were way over our heads on it,” Garcia said, noting that game rules, logistics and other details for running a professional-level tournament were a bit of a mystery to them. So, Karayan called on the California Cornhole Association (CCA) for assistance.

“They jumped on board to help us run the tournament,” Garcia said.

Today, the Throw Down is considered the biggest cornhole tournament in the world, and there’s no other event like it that combines the sport with so much festivity and flair. Even in 2020, when the pandemic canceled in-person events, Karayan and his team still found a way to keep the tradition going.

“We held a Tournament of Champions,” Garcia explained. “We invited the first and second place winners — just the players — from the past 10 years to play.”

There were no spectators, of course, but a grand time was had by all, with the first-place team taking home $10,000.

“It’s for everybody”

Karayan and Garcia are making up for last year’s scaled-back event with their biggest Throw Down yet, themed “Go Big or Go Home.”

John Karayan considers himself “an average player . . . but I have a passion for it.” August 2021. Photo by Luis Chavez

They mean it: There are 1,024 two-person teams competing this year with, Karayan estimates, a few thousand more people coming out to enjoy the various activities. The event moved to the fairgrounds to accommodate the crowd safely.

“We spread things out a lot more this year,” Karayan confirmed. “I tried to really spread things out so people can feel safe and comfortable.”

All 160 sets of boards will be well spaced from each other, with shading provided by a tent. More restrooms and lots of hand washing stations will be available. At this time, masks are not required, and organizers will not be verifying vaccination status — unless Ventura County Public Health says otherwise.

“We’re following all the county guidelines,” Karayan said.

All told, there will $230,000 in cash prizes up for grabs, with the grand prize for the first-place winning team receiving $30,000. Several top players will be competing, including Jordan Camba and James Baldwin, world champions in the American Cornhole League; Matt Guy, a one-time “King of Cornhole” who is recognized as one of the originators of the sport; and the formidable team of Isidro Herrera and Ryan Windsor out of Chicago. Locally, Santa Paula’s Jesse Segovia (who won first place in the 2017 Throw Down) is teaming up with Camille Yanez of Ventura in the hopes of taking the top spot. (Read about some of this year’s featured players in “Anybody can play, anybody can win,” by Kimberly Rivers.)

Despite the presence of so many high-level competitors, the tournament is open to everyone. Throw Down players are not ranked, and teams will be matched up by blind draws. Losing teams are eliminated; winners go on to play the next round until only two teams are left.

“You might get to play against a world champion!” Karayan explained. “Who wouldn’t want to play basketball with Shaq?”

And, as Garcia noted, top teams might get matched up against each other early in the tournament and be eliminated, improving the chances for less proficient players. 

“Anybody can play anybody,” he said. “Backyard players can advance . . . Everybody has a chance to win money.”

“I’ve learned that even though it’s super competitive,” Garcia added, “professional players enjoy playing alongside amateur players. There are no egos. When we’ve talked to players afterwards about what they like about playing in Ventura, they always say, ‘We get to play everybody! It’s one big family.’ We have kids . . . we have men and women of all ages, the elderly. It’s for everybody.”

Even if you’re not playing in the tourney proper, there will still be opportunities to throw it down. A women’s doubles tournament takes place on Friday evening ($1,000 grand prize), and there will be free-of-charge Blind Draw Courts open to everyone all three days, with smaller cash payouts of $10 to $40 and prizes like professional-quality cornhole bags, paddleboards and sunglasses. Finally, if all you want to do is have some low-stakes fun, practice sessions and free game play to test the equipment will be available.

Admittance to the event is $10, $20 for a three-day pass. Children 12 and under are free.

“The Coachella of Cornhole”

The Throw Down is, of course, about much more than just the cornhole tournament. It began as a community celebration and while it has grown exponentially (and changed venues a few times to accommodate the increase in attendance), its heart and soul remain the same: to offer safe, fun, family-friendly entertainment, with music, vendors and food aplenty.

One of the highlights has always been live music. For several years in a row now, Mandex has been kicking off the festivities. That tradition continues, with the local hair metal tribute band performing on Friday, Aug. 27 (see Music this week), preceded by opening act Dave Rey and the Acoustic DNA Project. The music starts at 7 p.m.

On Saturday, Aug. 28, a trio of three cover bands will take the stage, starting at 5 p.m. Hear music from AC/DC, Journey and Guns N’ Roses courtesy of some of the best tribute bands around. These aren’t just local rockers playing a few covers — Garcia described these bands as top-notch musicians that travel the world to perform. 

Reflecting on the early days of the block party and the Throw Down, and what the tournament has become today, Karayan said, “It’s amazing to look back on 10-plus years and see that my name [has a prominent place] in the cornhole world. It’s amazing that we put Ventura on the map.”

Not bad for someone who considers himself “an average player.”

“But,” he continued, “I have a passion for it. I want to take this to another level. I want this to be the Coachella of cornhole tournaments.”

Judging by the size and prominence of the 2021 event, he’s well on his way to achieving that dream. At the very least, he has established something unique and special in the sport.

“It’s the world’s only cornhole festival!” Karayan exclaimed. “This is the only one of its kind.”


The Throw Down Cornhole Tournament takes place Aug. 27-29 at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, 10 W. Harbor Blvd., Ventura. For tickets, full schedule, details on the tournament and more information, visit www.thethrowdowncornholetournament.com.