Wood will be flying again this weekend when the U.S. National Kubb Championship returns to Eau Claire.
The 2019 tournament, held at the Eau Claire Soccer Park, will feature 128 teams with about 460 players from 18 states, Washington, D.C., and Sweden.
All of the competitors are coming to Eau Claire to play kubb, a Nordic yard game that involves throwing wooden batons in an attempt to knock down blocks of wood. Kubb is nicknamed “Viking chess” because of the strategy involved and its purported origin with the Vikings in Sweden.
The 13th annual Eau Claire event, which has grown steadily from 15 teams and 35 participants in the first edition, is the largest kubb tournament outside of Europe.
A new addition to this year’s festivities will be the World 1 v. 1 Championship beginning at 2 p.m. today at the Soccer Park. That event, hosted by Chaska Kubb from Minnesota, will include 64 players competing individually for the world title.
The U.S. National Kubb Championship, which requires all teams to have at least three players, will get underway at 9 a.m. Saturday, with the top 16 teams vying for the title beginning at 8 a.m. Sunday.
While the tournament has steadily expanded its geographic draw, tournament director Eric Anderson of Eau Claire said he takes great pride in the game’s strong connection to the city — something he said attracts many participants.
“As more and more people around the country start playing kubb and falling in love with it, they hear about the tournament and think, ‘We’ve got to play in that,’ “ Anderson said. “It’s kind of the mecca, if you will.”
Roughly half the 128 teams have at least one player from Eau Claire, so the community’s bond with the game is on full display at the U.S. National Kubb Championship.
“Those people who travel here see it before, during and after their time in Eau Claire,” Anderson said. “They think, ‘That community really is the Kubb Capital of North America’ “ — a moniker officially bestowed upon Eau Claire by its City Council in 2011.
The tourism marketing agency Visit Eau Claire has been promoting the city’s kubb culture on social media and through regional events with the help of a $39,900 grant from the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.
Visit Eau Claire estimates the national championship will generate an estimated $156,000 of visitor spending today through Sunday.
“The influx of visitor spending is great for this weekend, but kubb has also helped put a brand stamp on the community,” said Linda John, executive director of Visit Eau Claire. “It really fits in well with Eau Claire’s image as a community with a playful and independent spirit where people don’t mind being a little different.”
The growth of kubb in league, tournament, school and recreational play in the Chippewa Valley has generated significant interest from visitors and journalists, John said.
Anderson, who brought kubb (pronounced koob) to Eau Claire in 2007 after being introduced to it in Sweden, seeks to continue to grow the game by providing outreach at schools and community events.
The tournament attracts and welcomes participants with a variety of skill levels, ranging from beginners to competitors who take it extremely seriously and compete year-round.
“That’s always been our vision of the U.S. Championship and something that to me makes the event really beautiful and family friendly and welcoming,” Anderson said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re one of the least experienced teams or one of the best teams in the world. We’re all here together to have fun and meet people. Kubb really does bring people together.”
One of his favorite stories, Anderson said, involves a team from Arkansas that traveled to Eau Claire last year for the tournament and even made a video about the experience. They didn’t win a game the entire tournament but are returning this year with a second team.
“They had that much fun,” he said. “It’s great.”
Still, Anderson said an increasing number of teams are training and treating kubb as a competitive sport.
Scott Forster, an Eau Claire player who was part of the last two national championship teams, agreed, saying, “It’s getting tougher every year. Teams are getting stronger and more strategic.”
Forster, who has competed in all but one national tournament since 2010, will rejoin teammates Gregg Jochimsen of Eau Claire and Grant Scott of Des Moines, Iowa, in an attempt to defend their 2018 title.
It won’t be easy, as this will be the first year that all of the top 16 teams from 2018 are returning.
The tournament, a fundraiser for Girls on the Run of the Chippewa Valley and We Help War Victims, typically attracts 400 to 500 spectators per day. Admission is free.
Anderson said he would advise spectators to attend at 9 a.m. or 1 p.m. Saturday when all of the teams are playing at the same time or around noon Sunday for the semifinals.
“Every team that makes it to Sunday is just world class,” he said. “It’s a chance to watch literally some of the best kubb players in the world.”