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Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Fit in my 40s: pétanque, a game of enjoyable malice | Zoe Williams

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Boules sports fall into many categories, all of which look pretty much the same until you get to know them, like spaniels. Obviously my preference was for crown green bowls, because it sounds so fancy. Instead, I did a full week of pétanque, because I was with a bunch of French people. We played for two hours a day, and it was only on day three that I had a clue what the rules were. This was only partly because of the language barrier.

There is a beautiful simplicity to the field of play: you’ve got a sandy strip marked out by the town council, and the first player toes a little line in the sand, to indicate where to stand. Then she (there were men in the team, but a woman named Eva always seemed to go first) tosses a small wooden ball – the jack. Right. Now you just need to get your boules as close as possible to the jack.

The order – this is what foxed me for hours – goes like this: whoever has their boule closest to the jack cedes to the other team. So the person who threw first automatically gives way, as her boule is by definition the closest. This means the worse you are at it, the longer it’ll be your turn. And that might give you the strong impression that you’re winning, but you’re not; because as soon as your six boules are thrown, the other team will have five left, and they can rack up a lot of points.

If one of your boules is closest to the jack when all have been thrown, but the second closest is your opponent’s, the score is one nil (or nul, if you prefer). If all three closest boules are yours, you have three points and the opponent still has none. There may be a way for the losing team to score more than zero points, but I don’t know it, and nor does Wikipedia.

A classic underarm throw works fine, but the real Marseillaise pros use a kind of over-hand toss, with the ball under their fingers. That looks quite cool but makes it much harder to control where it lands.

I’m not saying it’s a low energy game, but put it this way: whenever the distance between two boules and the jack was close enough to need measuring, we used Pierre’s crutch to do it (he’d broken his foot). It is, however, extremely meditative, unfolding like a game of chess; in the first two moves, every round looks the same, and then develops into a completely different, utterly novel puzzle. There is huge potential for petty and enjoyable malice, because if you hit the other team’s boule, yours is likely to end up closer to the jack, so long as you didn’t do it by accident. I almost always did it by accident and ended up farther away.

The bit that takes the longest is learning how softly to throw. Any kind of zeal is unlikely to pay off; subtlety is all, and I did best when I imagined myself creeping up on the jack rather than aiming at it. It wasn’t an improvement anyone would write home about, but by the end of the week, my capacity for Zen-like calm was absolutely epic.

What I learned

When the jack is knocked out of play, it is then considered “dead” and the round ends.

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