Kubb, the Viking sport that unites

a set of kubb pins

Photo: Peter Voeth/Wikimedia Commons
A full kubb set includes a king (center), 10 kubbs (surrounding the king), six batons (in front of the king and kubbs), and four field marking pins (outside).

KELL KNUTSEN
Luther College

It was a classic summer day, the sun was shining, and I had just gotten home from a shift at work. As I parked the car in my family’s garage and made my way toward the door I noticed it—a kubb set, one that has been in my family for years. 

Even though we had a set, my family did not play kubb much. My mother and older sister played the sport in Sweden when they visited, but their stories were the extent of my knowledge of it. It was not until I went to Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, where I am currently attending school, that I gained more experience with the game. 

While I have still yet to play kubb, I have been learning more about its roots and why it is so important to everyone who plays it. With all the exposure I have been getting to the sport over recent years, all the stories seem to start the same way—with one set of wooden blocks. 

Eric Anderson, director of the Kubb National Championship in the United States in Eau Claire, Wis., and his wife were introduced to the game by some of their friends in Sweden during a trip in 2002. They found kubb to be a great way for them to relax and connect on this trip. These wooden blocks showed an ability to bring people together, and they inspired Eric to spark a great expansion of kubb in the United States.

Viking origins

Where did kubb get started? This is something I wanted to learn more about as I talked with Eric. I knew it was known as a Viking sport, but where were its specific origins? Eric informed me that the sport, known to some as Viking chess, is believed to have originated on the small island of Gotland in Sweden.

This island located in the Baltic Sea produced a sport that would survive generations. And how has kubb sustained itself for so long? The secret lies within its ability to connect people.

Photo: Emilie Asplund/Image Bank Sweden
The island of Gotland in Sweden is believed to be the birthplace of the Viking game of kubb.

The wonders of kubb are achievable by all. The mental and physical aspects of the game are not extremely demanding, allowing most people to participate in the sport. 

But, if one wants to advance in the sport, there are plenty of ways to do so. Game strategy can be as basic, or as advanced, as the participants want it to be. The glory of kubb lies in its flexibility; it is a sport that can be played in most places by almost anybody.

A championship for all

The ability for all to play kubb is something that Eric and the U.S. Championship take seriously. When I asked Eric about his target audience he said, “Kubb is a game for all, and the U.S. Championship is a tournament for all,” a response that I was happily taken aback by. When I think of a national championship, I do not picture something so inclusive to all levels of ability, but this is what Eric loves to do—bring people together.

When the tournament was founded in 2007, there were 15 teams. Now, the tournament is the largest event for the sport outside of Europe, maxing out at 128 teams. Maxing out the roster for the tournament has not been a problem for Eric either, with each of the last four years having a full team sheet by the day of the event. 

Photo: Blind Photography/U.S. National Kubb Championship
The Kubbsicles took home some silverware after the U.S. National Championship in Eau Claire, Wis.

The tournament draws people from all across the country. This year, 18 states will be represented. In recent years, the event has also drawn international attention from Europe, with teams from places such as Germany and Sweden participating.

Even with this rapid growth of the tournament, the U.S. Championship has not left its purpose in the dust. It is still an event for everyone. In 2021, in the twilight of a pandemic that has affected so many, bringing people together is very important. The 2020 tournament was unfortunately canceled due to COVID-19, but it is coming back strong in the same location for 2021: Eau Claire, Wis. This year’s tournament will again have upward of 120 teams, and hopefully bring a sense of normalcy that we all can happily welcome.

Helping and uniting

With the tournament’s mission to unite people, Eric has worked to expand its grasp. Each year, the tournament is used as a fundraiser to help people around the world. 

In 2007, when it was founded, Eric used the event as a way to help aid the crisis in Darfur, Sudan. Such causes are things he feels passionately about; helping people is a big part of Eric’s life. 

This year, the tournament will fund two organizations: We Help War Victims and Girls On The Run. Both strive to uplift people around the globe but in different ways.

Along with fundraising for organizations globally, Eric emphasized the tournament’s local outreach. The U.S. National Kubb Tournament has worked with local schools to introduce kids to the game and is also part of the Block Party Program. So, if people want, they can have Eric and his team come to a block party and introduce people to the sport that helps them connect.

Photo: Blind Photography/U.S. National Kubb Championship
The game of kubb is full of action—and fun!

When thinking about some of the great kubb teams that Eric has seen at the tournament there was one that stuck out to him: a team comprised of a grandpa, his son, and his grandson. This multigenerational team won the tournament in 2010 and has been in the final four four times since—a perfect embodiment of the great connector that this sport can be.

Eau Claire officially became the kubb capital of North America in 2011, thanks to the local city council and Eric’s efforts. The sport has continued to bring people in from the community and around the world to help bridge the gaps between us, something that is much needed in the times we find ourselves in.

This article originally appeared in the July 9, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Kell Knutsen

Born and raised in Minneapolis, Kell Knutsen is a student at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. Currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in psychology and Nordic studies, Kell has a deep connection to his Norwegian and Swedish heritage through his family and schooling.

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