A Cornhole Bags to Riches Story
Expert Advice

Many Americans, in dire need of a “sports fix” during the pandemic, found themselves tuning in to watch coverage of the American Cornhole League  (ACL) on ESPN.  For those that had never thrown cornhole bags, these telecasts became the brunt of a lot of jokes and memes. However, many of us who had participated in the backyard version of this game, found the professional version to be intriguing. The players weren’t just throwing the bags in the vicinity of the hole in between slugs of beer. They were carefully aligning each shot and using strategy in their game play.

For those of us who spent hours watching these folks play, the more we watched, the more we were convinced ‘hey, I can do that’.

The first thing that was immediately evident was that the professional players were not throwing the bags end-over-end, flipping through the air, as was typically the case in the backyard version of the game. They were putting rotational spin on the bags and keeping them level all the way to the target similar to a well-thrown frisbee.

For the cornhole novice, the four basic shots are: the slide shot (hits near center of board and slides into the hole); the block shot (just like it sounds, it lands just short of the hole blocking your opponent’s ability for a slide shot); the push shot (where you use your bag to push another of your bags into the hole, ideally following it in with the thrown bag); and the crowd favorite: airmail shot (when the bag flies directly into the hole without touching the board).  The players mixed up the shots based on the bags already in play, the current score, and strategy to create future scoring chances.

Some of us took this newfound knowledge to the backyard with our $99 boards and $20 corn-filled bags and began to throw. It did not take long to realize that there really is an art to the sport. At this point, many folks resigned themselves to the fact that it would remain the game reserved for tailgating and backyard BBQ parties. For some of us, it became a little bit more.

We began to emulate the professionals with bag grip and release. We looked up YouTube videos for helpful hints and tips. We bought decent boards and bags. We practiced. And practiced. Some of us threw a LOT. In the cold until it was too dark to see the boards, or if we were lucky enough to have an illuminated court, until our spouses reminded us that the neighbors might not appreciate the “thunk-thunk-thunk” late into the evening. We practiced more. Got a little bit better.

Then the curve flattened out. We went back to watch the pros again, consult the internet again, and back to throwing more and more bags.  For many of us, right about this time something clicks. By a combination of tweaking our throw and building muscle memory over thousands (tens of thousands) of repetitions, it happens. Instead of making one out of every four bags in the hole, we are now making two with another on the board. Then three. We start tracking our points per round (PPR). We see slow but steady improvement in our stats and start to feel confident that we are ready to compete on a larger scale.

Then comes the quest for competition. By using our internet search engines yet again (something we got very good at during the lockdown) we found a random group of people who gathered regularly for local leagues and tournaments. A couple of emails or texts later and now we’re signed up and ready to show our expertise to the poor guys who are probably still throwing the end-over-end backyard shots. We almost feel guilty that we’ve sharpened our skills just to go make these poor recreational baggers feel bad about their games.

Next in line on the journey is the awakening.  For most of us, it’s a very rude and humbling revelation. We get our eggs scrambled. Our lunch handed to us. Beaten like a red-headed stepchild. You get it- we get owned. About halfway through the first game, we have some kind of epiphany – well, this sucks, maybe I’ll take up darts. We are mentally calculating how quickly and quietly we can leave when this debacle finally reaches the end.

Then something rather incredible happens. Someone, usually one of the very good players, will offer some friendly advice. Emphasis on friendly. They let you know it’s ok to suck and that everyone starts exactly right there. They will usually regale with a story about their first time playing. They will use terms that, while common in the cornhole world but nowhere else, describe their performance in a funny, self-deprecating manner. My favorite such term is ‘shit the bed’. Used in a sentence: “All I had to do is board it for one to win the game, and I shit the bed and threw it a foot off the board”. Sometimes another good-natured player will one-up that story and now you find yourself not feeling so bad. Maybe borderline even having fun with these cornholers.

The next thing that happens in this natural progression of firsts is even more amazing. You release a shot (usually by accident) where your bag makes some kind of janky-ass bounce that defies physics and drops in the hole. You truly have absolutely no idea how this happened. You stand there with your mouth slightly agape. Wait for it: here comes the “magical moment.”  Your opponent, the guy that has been kicking your ass all game, enthusiastically smiles and yells “nice bag!” and gives you a fist bump. Not a fake compliment. Not condescending. Genuine.  This is the exact moment where you say, “damn, I cannot wait to come back and play again.” The hook has been officially set.

Although this may seem exaggerated, it is exactly what happened to me. I remember the moment very clearly. For me, I am fortunate to still play regularly with this same group and I am blessed when I say that my first opponent who welcomed me to the game has become a good friend (thank you Clay Rice; aka the Budster). This is not an isolated incident. I’ve seen it happen dozens of times and has helped grow the game and our close-knit community.

For many folks that make it this far into the game, they are content and continue to play competitively but do not become obsessed. They can throw one night a week, or maybe two on a good week. Many have other commitments that don’t allow them to participate more than this. They have fun and many of them play very well and become respected fixtures on league night. You’ll see them on the podium (podium is cornhole speak for getting your photo taken posing with the board and your prize money, extending the number of fingers indicated which place you finished in the event).  The recognition feels good, especially when you know how much effort it took to earn that spot.

This is all well and good, but for some of us, it’s just not enough. The game becomes an internal constant challenge. We want to do better. To move from intermediate to competitive to advanced status. We’re easy to recognize.  We throw every day. When we’re not playing cornhole, we’re talking about cornhole. When we’re not talking about cornhole, we’re thinking about cornhole.  We buy different types of bags to see what feels best. Some of us buy a shit-ton of them. I’m talking 30, 40 or more sets of bags.

We buy jerseys. Multiple jerseys. Half a closet full of jerseys.  Maybe we feel that the jerseys help to legitimize our obsession, because if you have a uniform, it must be a real sport, right? Maybe we just think that they look cool (they do). We are the players who come home from an afternoon tournament and get the bags out to practice more in the backyard to ‘work out a few things’ in our game. We are the guys who constantly text other players like us with messages like “I’ll be home from work at 5:00. Side gate is open, boards will be up by 5:15. Bring aiming fluids”( cornhole speak for beer).

We are the same ones who don’t care what the weather is like, we committed to play tonight so dammit, we’re going to play tonight. It’s only sprinkling after all. We drive 100 miles (or more) to play in a one-day event. We finally make it to that next tier- the level of play that allows us to crush souls at the company picnic if a set of boards happens to be set out.

Then we have the next-level players. The best of the best of the best.  Talking elite here. It is well known that the San Francisco/Oakland  Bay Area is loaded with excellent players. Out of this pool of thousands, we have a handful that are fortunate to be at the ACL Pro level. Considering that there are only 256 players who can say that have earned this honor in the entire country. I’m proud to say that the club that I call home, Pacific Coast Cornhole (PCC) is also home to one of these elite individuals.

Which leads me to introduce one of the newest professional players for the 2021-2022 ACL season Joshua (the Beast) Thielen. He has played with the PCC since shortly after its inception in 2017.  I met him about a year ago and have played both with him and across the board from him. I can say without hesitation that being on his team is a much-preferred position. Thielen is a great mentor and does not hesitate to help with advice on tricky situations and when you do put up a nice shot, he is quick with an encouraging word.

For a little background on the PCC, the group started with eight players and a vision just four years ago. The goal was to create a club that could have regular league and tournament play, grow the game in our community, and most importantly provide a fun and inclusive atmosphere for everyone. The PCC motto was born “Party While You Play, the PCC Way”.  Today we have well over 200 members, and some of the toughest competitors in the cornhole world. We also have a lot of fun. I speak for our entire group when I say that we are all proud of Thielen’s accomplishment.  Thielen took some time to sit down and chat with me about his journey. I’d like to share this conversation with you.

Unlike most professional sports, especially those that are televised, the prize money available is not enough for most of the players to quit their day jobs.  There are maybe two dozen players who do nothing but play cornhole for a living.

For Thielen, his full-time job is that as a VP of Marketing for a medical device company.  It’s a tough job that requires travel and irregular hours, which he has found a way to use to his advantage in the pursuit of his cornhole passion.

With his travel for work and semi-flexible schedule, it allows him to play tournaments in various places across the country with the ability to adjust his work schedule to participate in the events that he chooses. It sounds like a great place to be for chasing this dream, but his work, and family, obligations still need to be met no matter what.

Ironically, as of this writing, none of Thielen’s coworkers or clients know that he is an ACL Pro. It will be very interesting to see their reaction when they are scrolling through the TV channels and happen upon an event with him playing. Being quite humble about the journey, he said that the topic of cornhole or his professional status in the game has not come up in conversations in his business world, but if his coworkers or clients showed interest, he would be happy to share information about the journey.

I asked the Beast how he got started on this wild ride, and he said that he first played the game when he lived back in his home state of Minnesota on homemade boards with corn-filled bags. It was mostly a tailgating activity which no one took it seriously, even him. It was just something fun to do while drinking beer with his friends.

Then he moved to California and became friends with his neighbor Jon Dillon (JD). The neighbors would get together semi-regularly for friendly competition, now using cheap aluminum boards instead of the homemade ones. Thielen recalls how JD ‘ruled the roost’ for these contests.  However, Thielen, became a quick study and JD helped him learn some of the basic nuances of the game.

About four years ago, the two neighbors decided to enter a local tournament together. They easily cut through the competition. One of their opponents that they squared off with in the championship game was none other than Jeff Chimenti, who also happened to be one of the founding members of the PCC. At first, the Beast didn’t reveal the outcome of that championship game, but with some persistent prodding he admits that he and JD did indeed win (by a lot). Nonetheless, Chimenti being a good guy and true ambassador of the game, invited the duo to come play with the PCC. The rest is history.

Like most cornhole players, Thielen is naturally competitive.  His wife has said that he is the most competitive person she knows. Growing up in Minnesota, he played baseball, basketball, football, golf, wrestling, and bowling. Although he did well in all the sports that he played, the one he loved playing the most was baseball. He opined that baseball and cornhole have many similarities. Notably the pace, the strategy, and the fact that you are never out of the game until that 21st point is scored.

Even if you are way behind or way ahead in either sport, a single play can completely swing the momentum.  We spoke for a while on this subject, and he was able to clearly explain the parallels.  Just like a pitcher in baseball can completely control the momentum of a game, a cornhole player can control the momentum on the boards. Placing bags on the board and moving them around with push shots to control the area around the hole will often determine who has the immediate upper hand. I’ve seen Thielen play many times and can say that without a doubt, he visualizes every single shot before he takes it.

When I asked about this deliberate method of play, Thielen said, “you can’t just step up there and start throwing. That’s when bad things happen.” Each throw requires forethought and strategy. You will see this on the televised professional matches, especially when one of the teams calls for a time out and the players carefully assess the board to determine the best course of action moving forward.

The Beast also admitted that there may be some competitiveness in his DNA makeup.  One of the people he most looks up to outside of the cornhole world is his cousin Adam Thielen, who happens to be a wide receiver for the Minnesota Vikings. Thielen is proud of his cousin and said that Adam has earned his accomplishments “through grit, 100% effort and total determination”.

He also said that his cousin’s success has helped him with his own personal confidence. He was witness to Adam making his college team as a walk-on in and despite being undrafted, making it to the NFL, where he recently completed his 8th season. Thielen admits that he has never said it out loud to his cousin, but that Adam has provided him with an enormous amount of inspiration and has definitely been a factor in his success in the cornhole world.

As we continue our discussion about the finer points of the game, Thielen brings another analogy to the conversation by comparing cornhole to two common board games. He has said on multiple occasions that cornhole is a lot more like chess than checkers. Although at first, cornhole seems like a simple game of seeing who can put the bag in the hole to get to 21 first. As you get to the higher levels of competition though, you find that almost everyone can slide their bags in at least three out of four times.

What sets the excellent players apart from the good players is the strategy of effectively blocking the hole for their opponent while maintaining a way to get your own bags to continue to drop. For the Beast, when he is focusing on his shot, he’s not just thinking about the one shot. He’s anticipating what his opponent will do if he executes his shot. Then what shot his opponent will likely take and what his counter is to the following shot, trying to always stay two steps ahead of his opponent.

If you’ve watched the ACL, you will understand that each of the pros has a different style. They know how their opponents approach the game and put together a plan to capitalize on that knowledge. Very often, the way that these players look at the bags on the board and strategize their next shots is different than most of us would imagine. This is what sets them apart and earns them their spots under the lights.

We talked about other professionals in the sport, and I asked Thielen who he admired most in the cornhole world. He said that there are many super talented players, but the one who inspired him the most he met at the PCC. He recalled his first time playing with the club and watching Darryl Bollack (D’s Nuts) warming up and consistently making three of four bags in the hole when, at the time, Thielen would routinely make only two.

Then he watched as Nick Renevitz stepped up and was dropping four of four and Thielen thought ‘oh my God. This guy is GOOD’.   More importantly, Renevitz would always take time to help anyone improve their game, regardless of their skill level. Bollack is still very active as an advanced player in the PCC and Renevitz went on to become the first person in the club to attain ACL Pro status.

Another player that Thielen has an immense amount of respect for is ACL Pro Noah Wooten.  According to Thielen, Wooten is a salt-of-the-earth guy who is very much responsible for the explosive growth of cornhole in the state of California.

I asked Thielen how he got tagged with his nickname the Beast. As it turns out it was bestowed upon him by fellow PCC player JC Covalesky (Bionic Bagr).  Covalesky has been responsible for the write ups for the groups’ Facebook page after tournament and league play. The Bionic Bagr has proven to be not only a formidable opponent on the boards but also quite prolific with his prose. In keeping with the club’s ‘party while we play’ vibe, Covalesky’s writings not only keep the club members informed of the events results but makes reading about it fun.

For those who play, it’s well known that moving from advanced level status to professional level is a giant step that not only requires a tremendous amount of skill, but also an unwavering amount of dedication and perseverance.  I asked the Beast when it first crossed his mind that he might have what it takes to get there. He reminisced about the first time he attended Spencer Makenzie’s Throw Down in Ventura, CA.

This event is huge and known as the largest cornhole tournament in the world. In 2021, there were more than 2,000 participants. Thielen’s first experience with this event was in 2019. He said that two things struck home to him at the event. The first was that the folks playing at the pro level did not miss. Their level of consistency was phenomenal.  The second was that he felt that he could get to that level if he worked at it- really worked at it.  He had no doubt that if he put in the practice, he could go bag-for-bag with the best of them. Although he got knocked out early in the tournament, from that moment on, he set a goal and was prepared to do whatever it took to reach it.

Then, as luck would have it, COVID hit, effectively shutting down all face-to-face competition. Thielen did not let this deter his pursuit. Instead of sitting back and waiting until leagues and competitions reopened, he practiced at home. He threw tens of thousands of bags in the hallway of his house. In this solitude, he found his stride. He was making his slide shots more and more consistently. Eventually, he found some online tournaments where you could live stream your play against others doing the same thing.

He remembers one such event where each player throws a total of 20 rounds (80 bags) and whoever made the most points won (three points for every bag in the hole, one point for every bag on the board). His opponent was Jamie Graham. For those who do not know who Jamie Graham is, here are but a few of his many accolades: 2017 Singles World Champion, 2018 Singles World Champion, 2020 Singles World Champion, 2020 ACL Man of the Year, and 2020 ACL Player of the Year. Graham is one of the absolute best who has ever played the game.  In this virtual streaming match, Graham scored 208 out of a possible perfect 240 points. That’s an average of 10.4 points per round (PPR).

Thielen admits that he missed a couple of opportunities in the early frames to push bags left on the board, but during the middle rounds found his rhythm. At one point he sank 20 consecutive shots and thought that he genuinely had a chance to win this match. He did go on narrowly beat one of the best players in the history of the game. Gaining confidence, he then went on to and beat Trey Burchfield, yet another one of the world’s top players. While virtual cornhole was less than perfect, Thielen seized it as an opportunity to get more practice in and to push himself to the next level.

He admits that his practice routine was not always sunshine and rainbows for the entire family. Pushing on about this, I asked him if his wife had always been supportive of his pursuit, he quickly replied “No. 100% no.”  With two small children and his wife all at home on pandemic lockdown, he was limited with the amount of daytime practice he could do in his hallway and the later night practices were trying on everyone involved, which led to some ‘serious discussions.’

He jokingly said that at one point, his wife threatened to take his boards out and cut them up with a chainsaw if he didn’t show more courtesy and restraint in his seemingly never-ending practice sessions. Thielen said that they ultimately reached an amicable accord, and he took his practices outside during daylight hours and found a healthier balance of time with his family.

As previously mentioned, a lot of cornhole at the higher level revolves around game strategy. Thielen noted that the one thing he strives for most is board control. He feels that if he has the first shot, he controls the tempo and the game play in general. He emphasized that this is such an important aspect of the game that if he misses his first bag, he will spend the rest of that frame working to get control of the board back, even if it means giving up an opportunity to make more points.  In fact, he’ll settle for fewer points (or even a wash) to maintain control of the board.

When I asked Thielen what’s the most important piece of advice he could give to new players, he equated it to becoming an expert in wine, which is another one of his passions. While you can study the process of making wine, visit vineyards and wineries, and watch videos about wine, the only way you really learn about wine is to taste it. With cornhole, the best way to get better is to throw.

Either while practicing at home or by playing in local tournaments, you will gain much more proficiency than by just studying the game. He also recommends that players who are even a little bit serious about the game should invest in good boards and reasonably good bags.

There are some who believe that the more money you spend on bags, the better it will make you play. For Thielen, he thinks it’s more about getting the feel of a decent bag and spending more time working on technique than about forking over a boatload of cash.  I’ve heard many other good players voice the same sentiment, and as the saying goes “$200 bags will not fix a $2 throw”.

Going into the 2021-2022 ACL season, Thielen is teaming up with Corey Gilbert (Lightskin). The two first met at Spencer’s in 2019 where the Beast and his partner Rudy Ai squared off against Gilbert and his partner. It was a closely fought battle that ended up in a 21-20 win for Thielen and Ai. They would meet a few more times, as opponents, typically with close matches going either way for the next couple of years.  When I asked Thielen about Gilbert’s best attributes as a partner, Thielen said that he has “one of the biggest IQs in the game of cornhole that I’ve seen. He’s a very smart player”.

The team has signed on with Lucky Bags Cornhole as their key sponsor and Thielen now has his own custom ‘Beast’ bags produced by Lucky. Rounding out the sponsorship for this team will be Spark Apparel, On the Run Mini Donuts, and of course Pacific Coast Cornhole. The pair will be participating in the five major ACL events around the country, the proverbial ‘Super Bowls’ of cornhole.

Thielen is especially thankful to the Pacific Coast Cornhole community and its board of directors. The amount of time and effort that these folks put into organizing league and tournament play is incredible.

The last thing that we discussed was the possibility of cornhole becoming an Olympic sport in the future. Thielen thinks that it will be in 2028. My bet is that it will be one of the most watched events in Olympic history. I can guarantee that there will be a very large contingent of PCC folks gathering at the Neighborhood Sports Bar & Kitchen in Pleasanton, CA watching every minute of it on the big screen.  And for the first person who takes gold at this event – undoubtedly someone from Team USA – they will get to experience the ultimate podium.

Tailgater Magazine