The Pilot paces a desert rooftop. An old world coliseum rises out of the sand behind him. The man in purple throws haymakers.
Scoreless, down a dozen, Danny Blanks needs something to get back into the biggest match final of his life. He puts all four bags through the hole.
“That’s some good cornhole,” color commentator Trey Ryder tells the ESPN3 online audience. “Big boy cornhole.”
Because his opponent did the same, Blanks didn’t earn a point that round. But he’d score two in the next. He’d eventually trail 19-2 before a run that brought him within striking distance of rival Ohio thrower Cody Henderson. Henderson won 22-14 but, coming through the loser’s bracket, had to beat Blanks one more time.
The Fort Mill pro wasn’t letting it happen.
“It just took me a game to warm up,” Blanks said. “I got him in the second game, thankfully. I guess you could say it is probably my best singles win.”
Blanks raced out to a 13-0 lead and held on to win 23-13, earning his first singles title at a national cornhole major. Winning at the LINQ Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas will, soon, skyrocket Blanks in the national rankings. Once he competes in his sixth American Cornhole League regional in Gastonia, N.C. Blanks will have enough events to vault up from 48th in the country.
“He is threat to win any tournament,” said Stacey Moore with ACL. “If he wins his next regional tournament, he will climb into the top five in our season-long standings.”
Blanks has been a mainstay at the top of rankings boards for several years now. There are two main national bodies, the ACL and American Cornhole Organization. The Las Vegas win was the first national singles title for Blanks, though he finished third in a world championship event last July. He has doubles wins, and he finished runner up in Vegas along with partner and Clover pitcher Eric Ryder.
Blanks already has his eye toward the $50,000 world championship event this July at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort. He’ll play it either way. But if he finishes top two in the season rankings, he’ll head there to play an additional single match against the other top ranked player for $1,000.
There are two more regional and national events each before the world final.
“I can tell from the way Danny played in Vegas that he is peaking at the right time this season and is a real threat to win the singles title in Cherokee this year,” Moore said.
Known as “Pilot” for his airmailing acumen — he’s good at dropping bags through the hole without hitting the board — Blanks doesn’t sneak up on anyone. To the more than 200 people competing in Vegas, the fact he can play is old news. What is different now is the expanding interest not just in recreational, but also high stakes cornhole.
“I played casinos and all around,” Blanks said, recalling views of Parisian and Roman architecture from his competition above the Vegas strip. “I've played all kinds of setups, but it was pretty amazing.”
Part of the growth is two competing organizations. Part is partnerships, like the ESPN3 broadcasts where anyone with a computer or the ESPN app could watch hours of matches from Vegas including the final.
“I got home and I was like, I've got to check it out,” Blanks said.
The Vegas event also was the first to have a fantasy cornhole game attached to it. People can go online and select Blanks along with other favorite players and score points based on a wealth of shot statistics.
“It's going to be big for our area,” Blanks said. “That league that we're in now, it's really growing. They're competing, and the interest is going up on everybody.”
Some parts of the game haven’t changed much. Fans can see online how serious Blanks took the final, largely keeping his thoughts to himself and his bags in blocking position.
“I was pretty zoned out,” he said. “I don't really get nervous. I get excited more, over excited.”
Other parts have changed. Like that someone could mention how he appeared to be playing or picking out pivotal tosses days after the event without ever venturing within a thousand miles of Vegas, watching the match online as they spoke.
“That's what's going to make the game grow even more,” Blanks said.