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How to Dominate Cornhole, According to a World Champion

Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
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It's been said that cornhole is the thinking man's beer pong. Well, it's only been said once... in that last sentence you just read. But still, you can't legally prove that statement isn't true -- can you?

Cornhole's apparent simplicity betrays the level of skill, practice, and commitment it takes to truly master the game. Anyone can toss a bag and hope for the best. The best players in the world plan three throws ahead. It's like chess, with way more drinking and cursing. 

As an ex-cornhole world champion (yes, they do exist), Stacia "Queen" Pugh knows exactly what run-of-the-grill, amateur beanbag tossers -- like you, presumably -- are doing wrong. And she can make you a better player in five minutes.

Sure, some hard work with trial and error will get you there, too... but who has time for hard work this summer?

We consulted The Queen herself for some tips on how to become a better cornhole player. And, in turn, become a better human being, too. 

how to play cornhole
JASON HOFFMAN/Thrillist

Don't pull a Roger Clemens

"One of the biggest mistakes beginners will make is throwing a line drive at the board," Pugh says. "You want to give the bag a little bit of arc: Make sure it lands flat on the board and doesn't have a ton of force behind it."

Not only is this fastball-style of throwing less accurate (for amateurs, at least), it can often lead to your bag sliding or bouncing off the board. So don't pretend to be a backyard Roger Clemens throwing a bat at Mike Piazza. And also, don't use steroids. It's bad for your skin. (Though the American Cornhole Association does not drug test. I asked.)

Be judicious with your drinking

We've covered this topic extensively, but the benefits of drinking while playing varies on a person-by-person basis. A few nips can work for some players. But the biggest key here is to not over-imbibe... no matter who you are.

"I definitely know some professional players who will not drink at all during competition, but also a lot who do. It's about 50/50," Pugh says. "The key is pacing yourself. For a lot of people, especially people just playing for fun, it can calm your nerves and let you loosen up a little bit."

For what it's worth, Pugh usually downs a few glasses of wine while she's playing (over the course of a few hours). Kind of like Popeye, but with red teeth.

To step, or not to step?

As in dancing, playing quarterback, and working as a mime, footwork is crucially important in cornhole. While you can't always choose which side of the board you stand on, you can choose how you want to place your feet to line up your throw.

"There's a lot of debate in the professional cornhole world about whether stepping or not stepping is better [when you throw]... but really it's just a matter of preference," Pugh says. "I used to take a small step, but I stopped. In my opinion, it increases your margin of error a little bit, just because it's one extra motion that needs to be perfect."

But bottom line: If you are a right-handed player, you should put your left foot forward so you can lean into the throw, whether you step or not.

How you hold the bag is hugely important

"I remember my first tournament, I was kind of grabbing the bag by the corners and just throwing it. Then I noticed everyone around me was doing it differently, and having a lot more success," Pugh says.

While The Queen acknowledges there's no "right" way to toss a bag (aside from adding some spin and keeping it flat), she goes full Frisbee mode and flicks the bag with her wrist. And that's how she advises you throw, too.

"I grip it with my ring, middle, and index finger, with my thumb on the top," Pugh says. "My index finger is wrapped around the side of the bag, my middle and ring finger are used to actually grip the bag in the center. To spin it properly you need control over the center of the bag… and that's how most people do it at the top level."

You can adjust it slightly, but this is how the pros do it. And you are not a pro. Otherwise you wouldn't be reading an article for tips.

how to play cornhole
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

Flatter is always better...

Another classic rookie mistake is having your bag spin end-over-end, so it's rotating on a horizontal axis when it hits the board.

"The bag should be landing flat on its bottom side when it hits the board. To really get it down, you need a lot of practice. But the bag should move flat through the air and float like a Frisbee. It will definitely make your throws better and more accurate. Again, if it's going end over end, it's likely to bounce off the board, or just result in an inaccurate shot," she says.

... but don't enter a total no-spin zone.

Also like a Frisbee, your bag needs some spin -- and adding a little bit of English can go a long way.

"The amount of spin doesn't matter so much. Some pro players have a ton of spin, others have kind of a slow rotation. As long as it's enough to get the bag to rotate flat through the air. When it hits the board, there's less chance of it kicking out unpredictably," she says. "When you get this down, you can pretty much know exactly where your bag is going to go when it lands on the board. That's how you can get it to slide right in the hole, almost every single time. It all has to do with predictability."

Basically, it's like having a reliable spin in bowling. It may move, but you know exactly how it will move, every time, so you can plan accordingly.

"And having it slide in the hole is much easier than getting it right in the hole," she adds.

After mastering the basics, you can get a little fancy

"Once you get down a consistent, predictable shot down, then you can start to develop some specialty shots. This is what you need to do to beat really good players," Pugh says. "One common advanced tactic a good opponent might use against you is blocking the hole so you can't just slide your bag in every time. That's when you need to have your 'airmail' ready."

An airmail shot is when you aim it straight for the hole without touching the board -- like a swish. It's harder (duh), and normally has a lower chance of success, but this will let you get it in the hole, even if your rivals have barricaded the entrance. Unfortunately, this is a skill that has to be painfully learned, and the only way to get it down is to practice your normal throw until you can predict exactly where it will land on the board.

"Everyone on the pro level has an airmail shot," Pugh said, "and the best air-mailers tend to score the most points."

In addition to the standard airmail, Pugh has some other hidden swerve within her game.

"What I like about using the wrist throw, is that you have the option to change the rotation speed of the bag, if you want," she says. "I love throwing this trick shot, I call it 'the Super Spin,' that can just plow other bags off the board. Or if it's spinning quickly it can even bounce off bags and ricochet in. I pretty much just spin the bag really fast and throw it very hard."

Nice.

Practice as much as you can

"Really, it's all about repetition and muscle memory for sure," Pugh says. "I even was practicing with my eyes closed for a while, and it shocked me how accurate I was able to remain. It's like any other sport. You need to get into a groove -- you should be able to throw, even while blindfolded."

Though Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000 Hour" concept of mastering a skill may have been debunked, playing cornhole for 10,000 hours (which Pugh has easily surpassed, in her estimation) will definitely make you a better tosser.

Get in your opponent's head

"I'm not sure how ethical this might be, but you can definitely try to play mind games on your opponent... get in their heads. Chatting with someone, throwing their focus off, making them laugh," she says. Basically, the Baseketball method.

"You don't want to do that right when they are throwing, but I remember people doing that to me, and it really affecting my game. I would think after the match, 'Wow, that really threw off my focus, threw off my game... they were talking to me the whole time!'" Pugh says.

In league play, you are "absolutely allowed" to talk trash, according to Pugh. And there's not a whole lot you can really do about it, unless it crosses an extreme line (then you can complain to the tournament director).

"Yeah, if you don't want to actually learn how to get better, the best way to beat a superior player is to get them to lose their focus," she says.

So, if you finally want to defeat Jerry -- that guy who comes over to your house, eats 12 hot dogs, then destroys you in cornhole for the 100th time -- you can either take your time, utilize all this advice, and commit to hours of backbreaking practice... or, you can just be super annoying to him 'til he just can't concentrate. The choice is yours. Either way, Jerry is the worst.

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Wil Fulton is a staff writer for Thrillist. He actually prefers a soothing game of backyard strip mahjong. Follow him: @wilfulton.