When the brothers of Beta Theta Pi talk about the game Lo-lai, it is as if they are discussing a coded philosophy.
"You can find all the lessons of life in Lo-lai," says Noah Bierman '95. "(a) The court never lies; (b) wooglin' intervenes in our lives in ways we can't understand; (c) sometimes scum gets in your way." (More on these terms later.)
To the average bystander, these lessons sound like gobbledygook, but they make perfect sense to the fifty Beta Theta Pi alumni who gathered at Wannamaker Dormitory in late summer for a reunion tournament of the game invented by the fraternity. The impetus for the Saturday tournament was a sad one: The fraternity recently lost its housing rights because of low membership. These could be the last days of Beta Theta Pi—but not, the alumni hope, for Lo-lai.
"It was much more of a concern that this game survive," says Neill Goslin '92. "We built it up over fifty years, and we don't want it to disappear." Noting the number of people in attendance, he observes that "this is more than we would get at a wedding."
Goslin and his teammate, Wil Weldon '96, both of whom live in Durham, organized the tournament. Lo-lai (pronounced low-lie) enthusiasts from classes as far back as 1992 came from as far away as San Francisco for the event, toting their A-games and their egos. The team of Dave Lampp '97 and Sam Ledgerwood '96 made bright red shirts with their name, Los Pantalones Calientes—Hot Pants—emblazoned in yellow on the front.
"Half of the game is just the smack talk that comes with it," says Goslin. "Especially if you don't have the skill, you can add a certain flare to your game."
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of what was once a "renegade" game. It is played against the wall of Wannamaker that faces Tower Drive. There, a makeshift court is created by Wannamaker and two sloping cement walls. In the old days (way back in the 1990s), the fourth boundary was created by a dumpster now inexplicably missing, victim perhaps of an insensitive bureaucratic decision by someone in the Allen Building. So the alumni had a dumpster hauled in especially for the occasion.
The premise of the game is simple. There are two or more teams of two players (though in tournament play, only two teams compete in each game). There is one tennis ball, which a player serves by throwing against the wall of Wannamaker. A member of the other team must catch the ball and bounce it back off the wall—without re-gripping or bobbling the ball. You can score only when your team serves, and play is stopped if the ball hits anything "unnatural," such as window grates or the dorm door.
"Scum" occurs when a player places his body between the ball and the opposition. "Wooglin'" refers to the spirit of the magnolia tree to the left of the court. Participants defer to the tree's decisions for the game—if the ball hits the tree and falls back in play, it's live. If the ball gets swallowed by tree branches, it's out.
Above all else, the players live by the rule "the court never lies": If there is a question about a point, it is replayed.
The night before the event—"this is where it gets kind of nerdy," says Weldon—the players hold an auction, bidding on the team they think will win (not necessarily their own). Each team's worth determines its seed in the tournament; at the reunion tournament, Weldon and Goslin are first seed at $230. The pool total amounts to $1,600, to be split among the owners of the winning team.
At the end of the day, it's hot and it's down to the last two teams: Weldon and Goslin's "Team Forest Hills" versus "Team Old Skool," comprising Jason Freeman '92 and Stuart Vickery '92. The members of the other teams eat fried chicken on the sidelines and talk about jobs and politics as the final is played out—best of five games wins.
While there have been upsets (the number-two seed, brothers James Stowell '93 and Carter Stowell '94, went down in the quarterfinals), there are no real surprises here. The number-one seed takes home the title.
Although he ultimately placed second, Vickery, who was part owner of "Team Forest Hills," still emerges victorious with his share of the winning pool. And it's a good thing, he says. "I need the money to justify this to my wife."