A foreigner’s guide to pétanque

photo by Frédéric Bisson on Flickr

If you’ve spent any time exploring the less than glamorous quarters of some large French city, or maybe a sleepy little town in the countryside, if the weather was pleasant you’ve probably noticed that the locals sometimes engage in a strange pursuit. 17 million people in France regularly do this ritual of standing and intensely focusing on throwing metals balls. Well, you witnessed a game of pétanque, the most French game that ever existed, which is slowly creeping out of France and into the world as far as Laos or Cambodia. If you want to win the respect of French locals forever, teach yourself pétanque, and impress them with your skill, but first, here’s a foreigner’s guide to pétanque that will teach you the basics.


photo by MissTurner on Flickr

Pétanque might not have been invented in France, as there are records of similar Ancient Greek games played with small stones or coins. The Ancient Romans came up with their own twist on the game, replacing the stones with wooden balls and adding a target. The game came to be known as ‘boules’ and spread through Europe, and became so popular that King Henry III of England was forced to ban the playing of the game by his archers (who probably didn’t get much shooting done because of it). Until 1907, the game was known as boules even in France, but in that fateful year, in the small town of La Ciotat near Marseille, a local with rheumatism came up with new rules that would allow him to sit still instead of running around. This is how pétanque was born.


photo by David Davies on Flickr

Pétanque is can be played by two teams of two, four or six people, but mostly casually by people competing individually. The team who starts the game was to draw on the ground a circle of 35-50 centimetres in diameter, and this is where all players will stand (with both feet on the ground) when throwing the balls. The jack is thrown 6-10 meters from the circle, and the player who threw the jack can start by throwing his own boule. A member of the opposite team gets to throw a ball next, and the team whose balls are furthest from the jack will continue throwing until their ball lands closer to the jack than their opponent’s ball. When none of the teams have any balls left, or when the jack is knocked out of its place, the game ends.

Of course, there are plenty more rules to pétanque, and while you can memorize them anyway, the best way to learn them is by practicing. No foreigner’s guide to pétanque can teach you all you need to know. You can find small pétanque playing communities around the world, but when you feel that you’ve mastered this delicate art, the ultimate challenge awaits you: go to a village square in rural France, and measure your skill against the (mostly elderly and well experienced) experts.

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