When the USPA announced the polo handicap changes, including the most exciting one being Pablo Pieres Jr. “Polito” going up to 10 goals in outdoor polo. Polito was born in Connecticut and is therefore the first American player to receive a 10-goal handicap since Adam Snow in 2003 and is currently the only American 10-goaler. In my eyes he is more Argentinian than American, but his passport has the eagle on it so I guess that is what counts in this matter. Regardless of his nationality he is an amazing polo player, I have watched him play a few times and recently at the US Open Final in Palm Beach.
I was, like any other polo fan, excited about the news and I have talked about it quite a lot. Some of my friends, who are not really familiar with polo asked about the polo handicap system, so I decided to read up on it again and try to simplify it a little for them and others who are interested in knowing how it works, but don’t really want to read the bylaws (nr. 6) in the USPA rules and regulations or more commonly known as the blue book. Check out my blogpost What is polo? for a general explanation of the game.
I will do this as simple as possible, starting out with myself and looking only at the USPA rules. I just started polo lessons a few weeks ago, I have had 3 lessons, so I am really what you would call a beginner and I would not apply for a handicap just yet as my skills are truly very limited and I still feel like a sack of potatoes on a horse. But in due time I will get a handicap in polo and for me to do so I will have to become an official member of a USPA polo club and apply for a handicap. The club delegate will sign my application (if he/she thinks I am eligible for one) and send it on to the Circuit Handicap Committee and the National Handicap Committee and once my application has been reviewed and hopefully is approved and I have paid the registration fee I will receive a handicap C (-2). My official handicap will be C until a Circuit Governor, a member of a Circuit Handicap Committee or a member of the National Handicap Committee requests for a review of my handicap because I have suddenly become super awesome at playing polo (I tend to dream big at times).
The handicap system ranges from C/-2 a true beginner and up to what is perceived as absolute polo perfection: 10 goals. Most polo players do not exceed a handicap of 2, which although it sounds low it is a good handicap for someone who plays polo as a hobby (not full-time) only professional polo players go over that and very few receive the top handicap of 10. So far since the creation of the handicap system in 1890 only 54 players have received a 10-goal handicap in the USA and currently with the addition of Polito there are only 7 players at the very top.
Handicaps are also referred to as goals, although it has nothing to do with how many goals the player is expected to score in a game. Also in tournaments the team goal (total handicap) is counted and teams must have the same total handicap/goals to compete against each other. If one team has a lower handicap they will by default receive a goal on the scoreboard at the beginning of the match.
The National Handicap Committee holds handicap meetings twice a year to review the players’ handicaps and they make changes either effective immediately, effective from June 1st or effective from January 1st of the following year. Each polo club has a Handicap Committee observing their players throughout the season, the Circuit Committee travels to different clubs and does the same, the National Committee, will review a few matches and take in to consideration the notes from the Circuit and Club Committees to reach the final decision which is mutual between the 3.
Players have in the past jumped several handicap numbers up, especially if they had played in another country under a different governing body and therefore had not had their handicap reviewed in the USA in a while, or started out with a lower handicap than in their home country. The other governing bodies of polo are the Federation of International Polo (FIP) the Hurlingham Polo Association (HPA) founded and based in the UK and of course the Associación Argentina de Polo (AAP) of the country where most polo legends come from.