Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Boules to that

With all the current grumbling about an over-sponsored Olympics (we're not sure we're allowed to use that word?) Let's try: 'International Sporting Event held in London'. Hmmm, OK, apparently 'London' is also a banned word (as is 'Summer' – but until the last few days, we're not sure we needed to use that one).

You know what we mean anyway – so, perhaps it's time to start up the 'Alternative Olympics'*.

With that in mind, we decided to enter our team into Better Bankside’s annual Boules competition (if ever a sport was deserving of Olympic status surely the venerable game of Pétanque would be first in line?).

The competition was fierce this year, but yes, you guessed it, the TTP team fought hard and finally brought home the gold! (oops, yet another forbidden word). After a rousing motivational speech from our self-appointed team manager/player/coach/mascot: Glenn Wood, we held our nerve in the pouring rain, aided by several (we’re not quite sure how many) Desperados to triumph in the final by one point, winning 13-12.

So, with this gutsy (and of course, skillful) win in mind, this month’s top tips is a guide to playing Boules – or Pétanque to give it its proper French name. Enjoy and if anyone fancies taking on the TTP champions let us know!

*Oh and talking of the 'Alternative Olympics' – here's some 'Alternative Olympic Merchandising' – Ok, it's a bit on the cynical side, but I'd rather have one of these than a terrifying 'Wenlock' doll!


Pétanque is a form of boules where the aim is to throw hollow metal balls as close as possible to a small wooden ball called a cochonnet (‘piglet’) or coche for short.

Normally played on hard dirt or gravel, pétanque can also be played on grass, sand (we discovered that very wet sand – due to our miserable British summer – laid on top of a manhole cover can alter the gameplay somewhat) or other surfaces. 

The aim of the game is simple: players throw their boules as close as possible to the coche whilst trying to knock your opponents' boules away from the coche (smashing into your opponents' boule and watching smugly as they roll away from the coche is really rather fun and extremely satisfying).

  • The teams toss to play and the winning team draws a small circle (traditionally with a baguette), stands inside it and throw the coche 6-10m away – trickier than you think after a few drinks, especially in the rain as you’re juggling your boule, an umbrella and a beer bottle)
  • The same player lobs the first boule (always underarm) as close to the coche as possible 
  • Now it’s team B’s turn to throw; this team keeps throwing until they land a boule closer to the coche than team A, or run out of boules. Then it’s Team A’s turn again.
  • Points are scored when everyone is out of boules; one point for each boule closer to the coche than your opponents’ best placed boule (usually a highly debated decision – make sure you employ some French flamboyance here). The first team to 13 wins. Et Voila! 



During the other team’s throws it is quite acceptable to heckle and gesture etc to put off your opponents. If you’re playing a French team, this is the ideal opportunity to improve those Anglo-French relations, with bon mot banter directed at both Les rosbifs and the Frogs.

The grip

No overarm lobbing in this civilized game: the boule is always thrown underarm with the hand and boule facing downwards. It’s essential that you master the grip otherwise the boule master will shout at you as we found out. Depending on your temperament, this will either make you shout back or dissolve into a fit of giggles. Either way, this can have a potentially disastrous effect on your concentration and therefore, your game.

The throw

There are three main ways of throwing your boule: the high lob, the half lob and the rolling throw. Each require a different skill and technique that can take years to master.

Alternatively, there is always the pool equivalent of ‘hit and hope’. Something the TTP team grasped immediately.


In most cases a tape measure is the best option, although we found a beer bottle was more than an adequate alternative. However, for those of you who prefer digital solutions, there is now a Petanque BoulOmeter available from the app store. Genius!

Top tips
  • You need a good cop and a bad cop in your team. The good cop aims to get his ball in pole position just in front of the coche whilst the bad cop blasts opponents’ balls out of the way. You may find that you intend to be the good cop but inadvertently become the bad cop (especially after one too many Desperados)
  • Discretion is often the better part of valour – if your team has the nearest boule to the coche and one left to throw, don’t be greedy. However, easier said than done if you want to go for glory…
  • As with most hand to eye co-ordination sports, you’ll play better after a couple of cheeky drinks. No more, no less. Now, everyone knows this, however, if you manage to stick to just two drinks you’re far more disciplined than us.
  • Pétanque is a psychological game. Exploit your opponents’ weakness to win, plus it’s fun.
  • Be a gracious winner and don’t lord it up over your beaten opponents…who are we kidding? That’s half the fun of winning. 

So, now you know the basics, grab a set of boules and have a go. The game needs no previous experience (we can attest to that) and can be played by young and old, male and female, drunk or sober (we can also attest to this, although it’s far more fun when drunk).

And if you’re still not persuaded, here’re a few more reasons why you should become au fait with pétanque:

It’s not just for old French farts

Now, pétanque probably conjures up images of elderly men in flat caps and string vests, gitane in one hand, shot of pastis in the other. And yet, pétanque is now considered cool, and even de rigeur in fashionable circles.

Karl Lagerfeld hosted a pétanque tournament for Vanessa Paradis, Diane Kruger and other beautiful people after the Chanel Cruise show in St Tropez. Chanel even created boules sets engraved with its insignia for the occasion. It’s just a pity Better Bankside couldn’t stretch to giving us one as our prize.

It’s good for you

Shots of pastis (or god forbid, bottles of Desperado) aside, pétanque is good for you. Maitre Kaise, a Buddhist monk has published a book, L'esprit de la pétanque, advocating the game as an aid to meditation. According to him, petanque is a “fabulous opportunity to develop exceptional human qualities and to allow the player to communicate better with the world and, above all, with himself."

And let’s not forget that in Thailand pétanque is a mandatory part of military training. Apparently, it helps to improve coordination, team spirit, tactical thinking, and keeps the soldiers alert and aware. Well if it’s good enough for the Thai military…

And finally… you get the chance to kiss a bare bottomed Fanny!

Losing 0-13 is known as ‘il a fait fanny’ (‘he made fanny’) and the traditional, and incredibly French, rule dictates that a team who loses 0-13 must kiss the bottom of a girl called Fanny. Now, in the 21st century you’d be hard pushed to find said Fanny, so as an alternative solution, the losers kiss the bare behind of the women on the winning team. Alternatively, you can buy everyone an apertif, it’s your call.


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