Pétanque (a.k.a. boules) is the French cousin to lawn bowling or bocce, once removed from horseshoes, twice removed from darts. Depending on your perspective, it’s a game of rigor and strategy, or else of standing around and drinking Ricard (a.k.a. pastis, an anise-flavored spirit) or rosé. So we’re somewhere on the midpoint here between chess and beer pong.
Those who play it nevertheless take it quite seriously, and if you spend any time at all in France, and especially in the Southwest, you may be invited to take part. Just as with our Fluent in 20 Minutes series, we believe in preparation for such cultural interaction, albeit minimal. Here’s a quick guide to get you up to speed on pétanque.
The game is played with multiple steel balls and a single smaller ball. The large balls, the size of oranges, are called boules. The small ball is a coche (short for cochonette, meaning “piglet.”) The objective is simple: land your balls closest to the piglet.
The players are divided into two teams, each consisting of one to three players. Each player tosses three balls per round. (Except in the case of a three-man teams, wherein each player only tosses two balls.)
One team (to be determined arbitrarily) opens play by giving the piglet a firm toss—officially six to 10 meters, but “not-in-the-street” is fine. The same team then makes the first attempt to land a ball as close to the piglet as possible.
A player from the opposing team then attempts to deliver his ball closer to the piglet. If he fails to do so, his team continues to throw until they are successful.
Play continues like this, from team to team. The round ends when all players have thrown all balls.
After each round, points are awarded to the team with the ball closest to the piglet. If the same team has two balls closer to the piglet than the opposing team’s closest ball, two points are awarded. (And three points for three balls, and so on.)
The team that wins the round is responsible for launching the piglet the next round. The first team to score 13 points wins the match.
Throw the ball with your palm down and your thumb wrapped around the side, rather than underneath. Give the ball backspin to keep it from rolling too far.
If the ground is rough, lob the ball at a high arc and give it greater backspin. Enthusiasts call this “going in high.” On smooth terrain, “roll in.” That is, toss the ball halfway and allow it to roll the rest of the way.
Put your first shot in front of the piglet so as to block your opponent from a direct line to it.
If your opponent has the piglet surrounded, attempt to knock it to a new position. This is legal as long as the piglet stays in play.
- While playing pétanque, you should drink pastis or cheap white wine. Drinking on the streets is now, unfathomably, illegal in Paris; if you’re too drunk, young, noisy, or Arab-looking the police may hassle you.
- In Paris, you may find the courts littered with dog excrement. Leave it. Stipulate that the losers of the first round must remove it. Suddenly the stakes are that much higher.
- Efforts have been made to include pétanque in the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee has repeatedly rejected these requests.
- To buy equipment in France: Décathlon, a chain of large sporting goods stores with 230 locations.
- To buy equipment in the States: Pétanque America.
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