New drinking game Stump hits the Bay Area: watch for blood
Until recently, its existence has played out quietly in Alabama basements and Vermont backyards. If you've seen anyone engaging in it, chances are it was a group of raucous bros on YouTube or Elijah Wood and Jimmy Fallon on The Late Show. If you saw it up close, you may have fled the general area.
Though its origins are obscure, most agree that Stump, the rather insane game in question, comes from some densely wooded part of Maine. It's since been zigzagging its way across the country, through college campuses and rowdy backyards. Recently it made its way to the Bay Area.
"I first learned about it because I walked into my friend's basement and there were 20 people screaming drunk throwing hammers. It turned out they'd been having these Stump parties every week for a while," said Richmond resident Elon Ullman. "After a while, we got good at it and started adding our own variations."
"Beer pong and flipcup are pretty one-dimensional," adds Penn Chan, who attends Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., (where the game was introduced by a Wisconsin girl called "Sparky") with Ullman. "Stump evolves as people who've played in different areas come together and discuss how they've played."
The fundamentals are simple: a hammer, some nails, and a stump. You toss the hammer in the air so that it revolves completely, catch it, and bring it down on the nail without breaking its momentum. If you drive your opponent's nail all the way into the stump, you win. It's usually played as a drinking game — you drop your hammer, you drink. You catch it awkwardly, you drink. You drink if you miss the nail and hit the stump, or if you hit your own nail, or if somebody else hits your nail, etc.
Rowan McCallister demonstrates a double toss
Because Stump is usually played in large, chaotic groups, hitting anything at all is a matter of chance. But if you take it seriously as a game of skill, a whole series of choices opens up, starting with where to place your nail. A stump that's seen a few games has its own unique geography. Nail "cities," twisted lumps of jagged metal, spring up in heavily used areas of the stump. Danger can attend: it's possible to put your nail so close to an opponent's that, in trying to hit your nail, he risks shredding his knuckles.
"The first rule of Stump is, if you bleed you have to bleed on the stump. The second rule is, no coagulating," says David Liefert, who'll be a junior at San Francisco State University this fall. On a warm Saturday a couple weeks ago, he invited me over to watch a few games. He and his friend Rowan McCallister, also a student at SF State, started playing Stump with Elon last summer, and created their own variations. Longer, thicker nails make for a longer game. Gold nails sink faster. Players can flip the hammer more than once, and can choose whether to flip it forward or backward.
Blood on the stump
Then there's the question of the hammer itself. Metal hammers are evenly weighted, while the head of a wooden hammer is much heavier than the shaft. This tends to make the hammer spin fast and wild — it's harder to control, but it's also easier to make it flip over twice. Liefert and McCallister play a few rounds with a wooden hammer, then switch to the metal hammer for a two-flip game. The change throws them both off. On his first toss, McCallister miscalculates and wings the hammer over his shoulder. "Shit," they both call out automatically, following the arc of the flying hammer.
"It looks like we're doing something really wrong," Ullman says. "I've always wondered what would happen if I were to play in Golden Gate Park. Could we be charged with anything?"
San Francisco park rangers could not be reached for comment, but Article Four of the city's Park Code — under the heading "Disorderly Conduct" — contains at least three sections that might apply, including injunctions against "throw[ing] or propel[ling] objects of a potentially dangerous nature," damaging or removing existing wood, and, crucially, "consumption of alcoholic beverages in the Panhandle, Stanyan Meadow, and Sharon Meadow."
When I've watched people playing Stump, I've been struck by how often the word "respect" comes up. If a player flubs a throw and graciously declines to take his shot, it's traditional for his opponents to say "respect" and drink. Unlike other drinking games, though, correct technique is emphasized and style is rewarded. "It's chaotic but intellectual," says Ullman. "It's like physical chess."
If you're interested in playing Stump, e-mail David Liefert at firstname.lastname@example.org.