The games people play

The fascination with esoteric sports with quirky rules and limited spread

This article is taken from the November 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Any sport in which you can pour a drink after taking a shot, have a couple of mouthfuls and return to find that the ball is still moving is my sort of athletic activity. “This must be the slowest sport in the world,” says Phil Edgerley, an English expat, as he introduces me to Boule de Fort, a game played only in the Anjou region of France.

We are in the small village of Broc, standing on the boule court in carpet slippers. A sign instructs joueurs not to play in wellington boots on pain of a 50 centime fine, for this is farming country. The wooden court, 60ft long by 16ft wide, curves up at the sides, reflecting its origins in the seventeenth century as a game played on the gabarres, the ships that sail on the shallow Loire river.

The desire to create new games is what makes us human

These banks and the bias on the asymmetrical boules, a bit larger than what we call bowls, with a metal ring round the wood or resin core, are what gives the game its unique appeal.

You release the ball gently in the direction of the jack, or maître, and watch as it rolls up the bank and comes back down with gravity only for the bias to check its progress and send it up the bank again. Up and down, side to side, the ball forms a languid series of arcs while the players pour more wine and complain it’s going too fast. It takes a full 45 seconds to come to a rest.

Most of my efforts shoot off the end until I learn to do little more than place the ball, not bowl it. It is like putting at Augusta: fiendish, frustrating and yet, when you get one just right, quite addictive.

Boule de fort is basically limited to department 49 but 500 miles away a pal was representing Britain in a sport with an even tighter area of influence.

Artignosc-sur-Verdon has a population similar to Broc, about 300, and is the home of the World Cup of Paume Artignoscaise. Every summer around the Feast of the Assumption a team of British Fives players come to this village in Provence to take on the locals at hitting a ball with their bare hands against the west wall of the eleventh century St Peter’s church.

“Players aim for the carvings on the wooden door to engineer an unpredictable bounce, or seek a deflection off the metal drainpipe to fox their opponent,” explains Matthew Chinery, a church lawyer.

I am twice a semi-finalist in Savile Snooker, a version of the game played only at my club in Mayfair

I’ve long been fascinated by esoteric sports with quirky rules and limited spread. Real tennis, a long-term love with its sloping roofs to run the ball along and netted windows as targets, is almost mainstream with 50 courts worldwide. And I am twice a semi-finalist in Savile Snooker, a version of the game played only at my club in Mayfair and, so we tell guests, Samoa, where it was introduced in the 1890s by fellow Savilian, Robert Louis Stevenson.  It has no yellow or green ball, the brown is worth eight and you can take on colours without potting a red first, with a penalty if you miss.

Britain has been the cradle of so many sports. The last governor of South Yemen told Denis Healey, as the flag was about to be lowered over Aden, that if all else faded the British Empire would be remembered for giving the world two things: the game of football and the expression “fuck off”. Yet until a meeting in the Freemasons’ Tavern near Covent Garden in 1863 there were many versions of football, each with its own peculiar rules, generally governing the limits of violence.

At Eton, for instance, “knuckling”, or grinding your fist into someone’s face, was fine, though the game went soft in the end and a rule was added to say that causing pain could not be the “sole purpose”. At Tonbridge there was a rule that with five minutes to go the ball was thrown away and the boys could beat seven bells out of each other.

At Rugby School, boys were banned from wearing projecting nails on their boots but pretty much anything else went. One visitor in the 1850s, shocked by the roughness, asked the headmaster if he would ever stop a match for foul play. “Never,” Frederick Temple replied, “short of manslaughter.” He later became Archbishop of Canterbury.

Those days are sadly gone in football, destroyed by codification and bland uniformity. To find quirks and the odd bit of violence, you have to go to places like Ashbourne in Derbyshire, where the annual Shrovetide Mass Football Match is played, the score kept low by the goals being three miles apart and most of the pitch being a river. That’s my kind of beautiful game.

The desire to create new games is what makes us human. Last year they held the first Balloon World Cup, a version of what I play with my son at home, where you use every part of the body to stop a balloon hitting the floor. Peru won; Britain lost in the first round to Equatorial Guinea. Yet we have not lost our playful spirit. We are homo ludens as well as sapiens and need activities to distract us that are competitive, convivial and most importantly, from Anjou to the Savile, provide a way of passing the time between drinks.

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