Many generations of boys have played the game of marbles. While the game has basic rules, it can be tricky to master.
The game of marbles helps boys with fine motor coordination, sportsmanship and strategy, and even patience. It is remarkably inexpensive to obtain the “equipment” – basically one needs several “player” or “duck” marbles (typically 5/8 inch diameter) and one “shooter” marble (typically 3/4 inch diameter.)
Many purchased “sets” will come with both types of marbles and in a mesh bag. When I played marbles though, our bag was almost as important as the marbles. (I bet some creative moms could come up with a straightforward, easy way to sew marble pouch with a thick material and a drawstring. What a fun project that could be for a boy!)
The game was often played outside because that was where boys had to play. Once upon a time being inside for much of the time was not an option. So marbles were typically played on a patch of dirt, though it could be played on a hard surface as well.
Here are the basic rules for marbles, sometimes called “Classic Marbles” or “Ringer”:
1. Draw a circle. If in the dirt, smooth out the dirt and draw the circle by scraping the dirt with a stick. On a hard surface you can still use a stick, as it generally leaves a mark and a boy rarely has chalk around, or if you happen to have something like chalk, that can be used. Often the size of the circle will be related to the skill of the boys playing. Beginners may want to draw a small circle – one or at the most two feet across. The better the skill the large the circle. Once the circle is drawn, only while “knucking down” may a boy be in the circle. Wandering in the circle when not allowed, generally means the loss of a marble to your opponent.
2. Determine who gets to go first. While there are different ways to do this, one easy way is to have each boy step back a pre-determined number of steps. Each boy “lags” or tosses a marble and attempts to get it to land in the center of the circle. The boy whose marble is closest to the center gets to start. But before the game can begin the winner of the toss puts his marble “winning” player marble in the very center of the circle. Then each boy gets out 6 marbles and places them up in two lines to make a cross or an X in the middle of the circle. (Boys with higher skill can use more than 13 marbles, but there always has to be an odd amount to clearly determine a winner.)
a. Now the starting player takes his “shooter” and “knuckles down” which is placing the marble in the bend of the index finger knuckle. His thumb is behind the “shooter” ready to flick his thumb to shoot the shooter marble out of his hand. The index finger knuckle must touch the ground. (OK, the vocabulary does make some sense!) To start the player must knuckle down behind the circle.
Here are two pictures (Library of Congress) to show how a boy “knuckles down.” Notice, two of the actually knuckle down on their other hand. I never played that way, but it appears to have been a “thing” back then.
b. His shot will attempt to knock one of the player marbles out of the circle while keeping his shooter marble in the circle. Keeping the shooter marble in the circle is referred to as making a “stick.” If he does that successfully he keeps the marble which exited out of the circle and he plays again.
c. This time he knuckles down right on the “stuck spot.” In other words his index finger knuckle touches exactly on the spot where the shooter marble “stuck.” A boy can get in loads of trouble by attempting to move that spot!
d. If he does not knock out a player marble then his turn ends.
e. If he knocks out a player marble but his shooter marble also rolls out of the circle, also referred to as “he did not stick it,” he gets to keep the player marble but his turn ends. The shooter marble stays where it landed and next play will resume from that spot.
f. Once the starting player’s turn ends, the second player begins. He knuckles down behind the circle. He may shoot at a player marble or, if it is in the circle, he may go after the other player’s shooter marble. While it may be good strategy to knock another player’s shooter marble as far from the circle as possible, it can be difficult to “stick” your shooter marble in the circle while doing so. Therefore it is usually best to go after player marbles.
g. Play continues with players having to switch turns if: 1 – he does not hit a marble out of the circle, 2 – he does not “stick” his shooter in the circle.
h. The first player to get 7 marbles is the winner.
4. Boys may play for “keepsies” – that is they get to keep each marble they hit out, regardless of whose marble it was originally. Or they may play for fun, returning all marbles to the original owner.
5. Some variations:
a. When the shooter goes out of the circle instead of leaving it in its spot, sometimes a distant spot, the player picks it up. When he resumes his turn, he knuckles down just outside the circle. (Truth be known, those sissy events called tournaments pick up the shooter when it goes out of the circle.)
b. Some boys begin the game with the player marbles in a circle instead of a cross or X. This makes it more difficult to accomplish a “sticking,” that is, getting 7 straight marbles out, thereby winning while not allowing your opponent a turn. If one accomplishes a “sticking” it is typically talked about for some time.
d. Some boys play a slightly different version of “keepsies,” which is what I played as a child because our teachers mandated we could not play keepsies. In this version each boy ends up with the same number of marbles he began with, but the winner gets to choose which 7 (or 8 if he put in the center marble) he gets to keep. Not necessarily the ones he put in to start the game.
e. There are all types of variations with what happens to the shooters. Some say it has to stay where it landed, no matter what. Others say it gets picked up if it ends up outside the circle. Still others will even say that if it gets knocked out of the circle by another player they get to “keep” it.
The point is to have fun. When starting out, keep the rules simple and fun. Make sure everyone has a good time. As your skill improves, then consider some of the game variations.
Favorite shooter: taw
Favorite player: alley
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