Marble Banner

Games Played With Marbles

How may of you think that you know how to play marbles. Of course you do. You draw a circle in the dirt, then you and other players drop in your antes and, in turn, shoot at them, winning those you are able to displace from the circle. Right? Wrong!

There is an infinite varieties of marbles games, and at least as many techniques to be used in playing the different games. Marbles games generally fall into the three categories -- the chase, the hole, and the circle or enclosure. Many refinements and ingenious adaptations have been created all over the world and all through history. Marbles players have asked these questions time and again:

  • When drawing the enclosure on the ground:
    • How big should the circle be?
    • Or should it be square?
  • When shooting at or into a hole dug into the ground:
    • Should one shoot knuckles down or simply bowl?
    • Should the hole be deep or shallow?
    • Should the hole be fashioned with the heel of a boot, shoe, or sneaker?
    • Why in one game are holes measured precise distances apart and in others placed willy nilly?

Some rules for tournament marbles are rigid, written down, and policed; yet other rules are amorphous and freewheeling. There is little written history of the game of Marbles, and literature is weak or lacking. What may work for one game is discarded in another, and game structures vary greatly. Marbles games have historical roots, and the similarities among the types of games.

According to tournament rules, the correct way of shooting a marble is to place all of the knuckles (except the thumb) on the ground, place the shooting marble inside the first finger between the tip and the first joint, and secure it there tightly with the tip and nail of the thumb. The object is to propel marble by forcibly ejecting it from its nesting place with the thumb. Other games don't require the knuckles to be grounded when shooting, and still others require the shooting to be done several feet above the ground. Placement of the knuckles and the height from which the marbles are propelled make them do different things. By slanting the hand forward and bearing down heavily on your first knuckle, you will generally cause a shooter to spin backward, or spin in place after striking a target marble. By shooting from above ground level, you will invariably force the shooting marble to bounce only a short distance from the spot of impact. Just as in pool billiards, "English" can be used, with the thumb acting as the cue tip. Place the thumb under the marble for backspin, toward the top for the reverse.

Body position varies according to the way the game is laid out. For a dead-on aim, he probaly will "get down in a prone position, dig his chin into the ground, close one eye and shoot." Other positions include shooting on bended knee, other hunkered down to one, or from a crouch or a squat.

"It's war in agate, and naturally one doesn't give an inch here, a relaxation of rules there." -- Fred Ferrettii

For most chase or hole games, the object is either for fun or simply to kill time. The common theme to all marbles games are to achieve the objective -- either to get into a hole or to hit another marble. Any player not achieving the goal has to yield his turn to the next player. Another thing that is understand: the shooting line is used only for the first shots. In most marbles games there are two general types of marbles -- targets and shooterrs. Targets can be anything from clay pedabs to glassies; shooters are tyically either pure agate marbles or steel ball bearings.

Geography and environment influences the marbles games and how they are played:

A city dweller who happens to be an expert shooter can forage off his block looking (like Minnesota Fats) for action, and almost invariably will play "for keeps" with some fellows he may never see again. On the other hand, in rural regions or suburban neighborhoods, marbles players -- like people in general -- are more scarce, more familiar and, given the underlying awareness that one most probably will have to play over and over again with the same players, their tendency is to be more relaxed, less competitive, to play more often "for fun" or "for fair."
Of course when you play with the same people repeatedly, and lose repeatedly, the sometimes humiliation of losing become pure shame. Who would not long for anonymity then? ...
But most players were not losers always. They won a little, lost a few, had winning streaks and days when every straight- on shot seemed, radarlike, to veer into off-course pebbles. It happens, and the best players are those who can accept both good days and bad with equanimity.

Song: "Maple Leaf Rag"